‘It’s Not a History Lesson Anymore’: The Union Activists Taking on a London Pub Chain

by Joe Hayns

4 December 2018

Andre Ribeiro / Flickr

Since early October, activists have been canvassing Antic pubs across south London, asking colleagues to join a fast-growing campaign for improved wages and conditions across the city-wide chain’s 48 venues.

A mid-October meeting brought together workers and Unite officials, launching a campaign under the auspices of the Unite’s Restaurant, Catering and Bar Workers’ branch. In early November workers launched a collective grievance, demanding double pay over the Christmas period, union recognition, and a roadmap to the London living wage. As this interview went to press, workers reported that management have now refused any wage increase over the forthcoming holiday period.

At 2.9% density, ‘accomodation and food services’ is currently the least unionised industry in the UK, making recent strikes at TGI Fridays (organised by Unite), Wetherspoons (BFAWU) and the Ivy House (BFAWU) all the more remarkable – and promising.

Novara Media met Antic workers and Unite members Ruby Holder and Alex Etches in the Ivy House, where they explained the causes and trajectory of the campaign.

Novara: I’ve gotten a sense of people being ‘an Antic worker’ – something of a group identity. Does that explain how you came together so quickly?

Ruby: I didn’t find out until my third or fourth shift – I had no idea what ‘Antic’ was. I was just young and went to the local pub and gave them my CV.

Whilst I’ve been there, they’ve been taking old pubs or old spaces over and playing on that ‘shabby chic’ theme. They’re changing their aesthetic a bit; it seems like they’re putting more money into them, and they’re quite a lot trendier, a lot more chic. But we don’t get any perks, no discounts or anything.

Alex: It’s strange. Every pub I’ve been into has a really close team, and they’ve always been really lovely.

I think there’s a case for saying that Antic workers have a special kind of comradery, because the company is so bad, because we all experience it, at every level. Everyone has some gripe. General managers have a problem with wasteage being only 1%; assistant managers don’t get paid enough; we don’t get paid enough.

Ruby: The kitchen staff can do 12+ hour shifts, without a clear break period. There’s no protocol to anything. Bar staff do get a break, but only when we eat, and if you don’t want to eat, no break.

Where we are – this isn’t true for all the pubs – we’re a really small team, we look after each other, and our grievances are discussed a lot. And we’re involved with the everyday running of the pub, so we know a lot more about head office.

Alex: People all realise, they all share the same enemy – whether it’s wages, budgets or repairs, at every level, it’s clear that money’s being taken out of pubs and put into buying new pubs, rather than given to staff.

Novara: How did you get into trade unionism?

Alex: I was working in Costa and had a disciplinary. I joined Unite and they looked after me. It was the first time I saw a boss – a horrible bully – perturbed, a little frightened. I’ve been in trade unions ever since.

Ruby: I come from a strong socialist family; my dad is a big socialist, he comes from a long line of miners. It’s always been ever-present in the attitude of my family, how we’ve lived. It was never… there was no afterthought, it was quite normal.

Novara: Are they hyped that you’re….

Ruby: Oh my god, my Dad’s loving it. He’s always asking, “Do you want to read this book?” Or, “Here, look, I bought you this t-shirt.”

I mean, I knew that we needed more pay – higher pay – from when I started. The first time it became a real issue was when the first manager left for another site, and it was me and an assistant manager left to run the pub over Christmas, and I was still getting £8. I was meant to be getting £8.50, but was underpaid for 5 months. I had to argue, and put my foot down, and say that I was the acting assistant manager.

Novara: I’ve been told that managers have a lot of say about what happens at Antic pubs. Could you explain a little about the structure of the company?

Ruby: The owners skirt around things. They say, “Oh no, we don’t decide your pay; your general managers do” – but only within their budgets, which never change. If you make an extra £10k a week you can have better pay, or if your wasteage is good, you can afford to give a staff drink every night – but you can only have 1% wasteage. The day-to-day running of a pub means that’s not possible, but the owners can say, “If you work hard, you will get something.”

Alex: Their books are as opaque as you can make them. Every pub is its own small company; ‘Antic’ is loads and loads of micro-companies.

What we’re saying is that a pub company in trouble isn’t one that’s opening six new pubs. If it’s in trouble, it’s not due to staff costs, or wasteage, it’s the rapid expansion, it’s buying up new pubs. And with the expansion, they’re rolling the dice with people’s livelihoods. People live through their jobs at Antic. They pay rent, make plans, make their futures based on it.

Novara: Could you explain the collective grievance?

Alex: We’re demanding double-time for Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. People are being paid the minimum wage, which is fucking obscene – nothing else, even though the pubs make a bunch of money.

Ruby: And, there’s no ‘thank you’ for it, either. I did it last year, because we had no managers, so I did it all. I was expected to work Boxing Day, for six hours, by myself. And I closed by myself, on Boxing Day. My family came and helped me. I had my granddad cleaning tables.

Novara: Jesus…

Alex: It’s Victorian. If they don’t concede on this, they will very quickly realise the level of feeling not just within the workplaces, but with the punters.

Novara: The grievance is company-wide. As you get into the campaign, might there be a legal issues, since you all work for different companies, and so constitute separate bargaining units?

Alex: We’re not the taxman, but if it says Antic on our payslips, and we’re constantly getting directives from central office – if they can discipline us as Antic – then they can negotiate with us as Antic.

Novara: The collective grievance is about 40 names so far…

Alex: It’s now just over 100.

Novara: Oh, OK, it’s grown! That sounds like around one third, maybe one half of all Antic workers. Clearly, the issue’s important.

Ruby: I’ve made it clear to my manager that if I am put on shift over certain times over the Christmas period, and if I’m not getting paid extra, I’m not turning up, and the pub won’t open. I’m willing to be taken to a disciplinary – to be fired – because it’s just not fair.

Alex: And if that individual anger gets expression, becomes collective, it will make this company listen. I can’t believe that someone running a company would be able to hear 100-plus staff saying, “You need to give us this money, for these specific dates, and we know you can afford it because we’ve seen how much you pull in on these nights” and just saying, “No.”

Novara: Well, I can imagine them saying, “OK, we’ll give you all a bonus of £20.”

Alex: Fuck off.

Ruby: No [laughs].

Novara: £50? £100? They’ll know exactly how much it’ll cost them to double pay over those four days, and then offer one quarter of that. I’m not saying it’s the wrong tactic, just that they don’t necessarily need to say no to get you off their backs.

Alex: They’ve been doing this for years, making a bomb every single Christmas. It’s not like we’ve only just realised, this year, that we’re being fucked. Everyone knows it’s unfair. It’s just that now there’s an organisational form for that expression, and an organisational form they’re scared of.

Novara: Without a recognition agreement, there’s no legal obligation for them meet with you. That’s the fear, I suppose. How savvy do you think they are?

Alex: It’s all uncharted territory, for everyone. For a lot of people, it’s the first time they’ve ever thought a union could do something for them, and I imagine it’s the first time that the owners of Antic are saying, “We’ve got to think about what the workers are thinking” – the first time they’ve thought, “If we do this, will workers do something about it?”

Novara: And longer term?

Ruby: I’d like the London living wage, and de-escalation training in every pub, especially for women – to know how to handle yourself, to know that you’re safe, that you’ve got people behind you, and to feel protected by each other, and by a union.

There was one incident when a woman was behind a bar, and she was wearing a t-shirt with some sort of feminist slogan on it, and a load of men in the pub complained about her, and head office didn’t come down on her side; they said, I think, she wasn’t allowed to wear it. There was an email sent around.

Alex: It’s going to be guided by the people who have joined, and want to fight.

The London living wage is an issue that cuts through for everyone, because everyone knows that it’s not viable to live in London on the minimum wage, especially if you have to travel to work. Either you live with your parents to try and mitigate that, or you scrape by on payday loans, or you live to work, doing 60 hours.

People don’t want grand schemes. You can go into a pub and ask, “Do you want a living wage?” And the answer is always, “Yes, but how are we going to get that?” That’s what we need to answer. That’s what will make this campaign, and take it beyond Antic.

Novara: I think trade union density in the food and drink sector is around 3%, being the lowest of any sector. With strikes at Uber Eats, and McDonald’s and so on, is that set to change, do you think?

Ruby: It’s almost like there’s a buzz or an energy, with people asking, “Why is this happening?” People that have never been interested in unions or campaigning are now excited by it and asking, “How can I get a living wage?” and “Where are the boundaries of my job?”

It seems there’s more of a discussion than before. I’ve worked in hospitality for years, and this is a recent thing. Those campaigns, and the media, it really helps, because it’s names people know: it’s TGI Fridays, it’s Wetherspoons, it’s Uber Eats. Everyone thinks, “I know those places; my mate rides a bike for Deliveroo.” It’s more realistic. It’s not just a story.

Novara: A lot of the footage we see about trade unionism is either in monochrome, or from the 1980s – for people under 40 or 45, maybe there’s something more palpable about Wetherspoons or Uber Eats striking?

Ruby: I can see it on Instagram, see a mate on Snapchat at a rally, or striking. It’s more personal now. It’s not a history lesson anymore.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.