How Sheffield and the BFAWU are leading the fight to organise young workers

Never underestimate what resolve strength and character working-class people can muster when they are staring adversity in the face, writes RONNIE DRAPER 

UNITY IS STRENGTH: (Above) Jess Bower (centre) on strike from the McDonald’s restaurant in Crayford, SE London, with supportersI WANT to start by saying that although living down south, I’m proud that my trade union and Labour roots were founded in my birthplace, Liverpool, a city entrenched in working-class struggle and working-class values.It is also the birthplace of our shadow chancellor – next chancellor –John McDonnell.

It is the city that he refers to when he talks about the lads working down at the docks, who used to have to stand there in gale force winds and rasping rain whipping in from the Mersey, huddled round waiting to be selected for casual work from the so called PEN.

This ignominy of workers, huddling together, trying to keep warm while hoping the gaffer would offer you a break, and give you a shift, was replicated across hundreds of workplaces across the country, indeed the baking industry was one of the worst.

If your face fitted you got picked, if not you were told to try again tomorrow. Your future in the choice of a manager whose finger decided whether it would be your kids’ turn to have full bellies at school this week.

I thought we’d made some progress, that things had moved on for the better, but the reintroduction of zero-hours contracts from the 1970s put paid to those hopes.

It was an era where economic equality coincided with strong trade unions, unions like that of those dock workers ready to join together and take action for improved terms and conditions.

It was 1974 when McDonald’s branched out into the UK, welcomed with open arms by Margaret Thatcher as she opened their Finchley HQ in 1983 — coincidentally the year she was making plans to take on the mine workers’ union the NUM. She saw the McDonald’s blueprint as the future employment for the masses.

Since Finchley opened its doors in 1983 we have seen a decline in trade union membership running in line with a huge increase in low paid and insecure work.

So as general secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) I have been proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with our brave members on picket lines across the country outside McDonald’s and Wetherspoon, young angry trade unionists ready to stand up and fight against these global giants, just like those dockers in Liverpool did to rid themselves of casualisation and low pay.

These courageous, mostly young, low-paid members stood up and took strike action in McDonald’s for the first time in September 2017 and since then we have seen the strike spread like a pebble in a pond to more stores and more cities.

They were joined in October last year by workers from other unions, from Unite the Union, the TGI workers, from the IWGB and IWW workers from Ubereats and Deliveroo, who joined the shut down of a part of the fast food industry. Before these workers took this courageous action it was thought impossible to organise fast food workers into a coordinated group eager to fight back, but they proved the theory wrong.

Working-class people will always find a way. Never underestimate what resolve, strength and character working-class people can muster when they are staring adversity in the face.

Our members have made some very basic demands:

  1. A living wage of £10 an hour at least.
  2. Union recognition and the right to bargain with the employer.
  3. Equal pay regardless of age.
  4. An end to zero-hours contracts.

And they are winning.

  1. McDonald’s partly backed down on zero hours, offering fixed-hour contracts, although there is still work to do.
  2. McDonald’s offered a pay increase of 6.7 per cent.
  3. Wetherspoon abolished youth rates for under-21s.
  4. Increased pay significantly at all striking pubs (a lesson for others).
  5. They’ve sacked bullying bosses, increased notice for shifts, won their holiday entitlements, exposed sexual harassment and much more.

The lesson is simple – trade union organised workplaces are stronger and gain more improvements.

I couldn’t be prouder of our members, they are a shining example to everyone who feels oppressed in the workplace, but I’m also very proud of our movement, which has rallied behind them, a movement that made sure they were not starved into submission.

Support came rushing in from other unions like RMT, Unite, Aslef, NEU and many others, support came from Labour Party branches and constituency Labour parties, and I am particularly grateful to trades councils, who offered support and solidarity from the off.

A great example of this is Sheffield Trades Council who, I’m proud to say, have joined us in building a historic partnership and I applaud them for their vision.

Traditionally trades councils have been a place where union branches from across the spectrum of our movement send delegates to discuss how workers from different unions and different industries can work together for the common good.

They personify collectivity, the idea that whether you work in a call centre or a fast food joint, whether you’re a homecare worker or a steel worker, we have more in common than what divides us.

Our movement is stronger when we work together. It’s time to end the rivalry between unions and build a union movement that puts the needs of workers first, capable of challenging the most inscrutable employer or the most reactionary government.

Strong collective organising and stronger resolve can achieve astounding results.

So I’d like to say to union branches and trades councils – join us, in the TUC year of the young worker, do what Sheffield has done, hire an organiser. Let’s go and talk to young workers, let’s build a movement, a movement that can abolish the destructive practice of zero hours, that can deliver a wage of at least £10 an hour for all and install dignity and pride back into our workplaces and communities.

General Secretary of Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, Ronnie Draper