Part of a concerted effort to revive Sheffield’s post-industrial spaces, the Cutlery Works offers diners the chance to pair sushi with craft beer in a disused factory on one of the city’s oldest manufacturing sites. The “hub for everyone’s inner foodie” claims to be the largest food hall in the north of England, with 14 stalls employing dozens of staff.
Deindustrialisation, in particular the destruction of the steel industry, has taken Sheffield from a city built on manufacturing to one dependent on a low-wage service economy. Stable and well-paid industrial work, with high trade union density, has been replaced by traditionally non-unionised work in retail, call centres, social care, and food.
Yet a recent victory secured by a group of young hospitality workers shows that in the steel city, workers never lost their mettle.
Thanks to a campaign supported by Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise (SNAP) and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU), workers at the food hall have secured a whopping 44% pay rise, an end to zero-hours contracts, and ready access to protective cleaning equipment.
Back in March, Jesse Palmer, a full-time SNAP organiser, was approached by a Cutlery Works employee. “She invited me to her house for a cup of tea. At first, when we sat down, she said ‘oh, work isn’t really that bad.’ But then as we started to dig into it, multiple issues emerged, and we realised the workplace was very toxic.
“We came up with a plan for her to talk to some of her co-workers and find out if they felt the same. And within a week, it quickly emerged that they did.”
Workers formed their own subcommittee, where they came together to hash out what the problems at work were, and how they wanted to approach them.
Oliver*, a Cutlery Works employee, said, “We decided that rotas and zero hours were the big things we wanted to negotiate on. We were getting the rotas maybe two days in advance, and sometimes only the night before.”
By April, the workers had formulated a letter of demands, which a group of 12 agreed to present to their boss mid-shift. When the time came, the workers downed their trays, stopped pulling pints, and left their posts. They found their manager at the reception desk. To prevent him from ignoring their demands, the group took turns reading out their grievances.
Although the manager promised to respond, after a few weeks, nobody had heard anything. So, they decided to confront him again. Not long after, they were granted a collective grievance hearing with management. At this point, relations soured dramatically.
The most prominent union organisers found that their hours had been set to zero. “They were just asking for very basic things. And when they did this, their manager cut their hours across the board, under the guise of ‘business had fallen’,” Palmer said.
“They said, ‘We don’t know who the union members are here.’ But it was only the union members who had their hours cut down to zero, or by 50 or 80%.”
In response, workers organised a ‘community speak out’, inviting trade union activists from across the city to talk to management. The president and secretary of the Sheffield Trades Union council, as well as members of the local University and College Union branch, entered the food hall and located the manager.
“They told him that they’d heard about the cuts to staff hours, and that it wouldn’t be tolerated,” Oliver explained. “They said, ‘if you don’t do something about it, we’re going to take action,’”
The workers had their hours reinstated for the following week, with extra hours allotted to make up for the shifts they’d missed.
At this point, bosses seem to have concluded the struggle was not going away. At a staff meeting in July, management announced that employees would no longer be receiving the national minimum wage according to age, which is £6.83 for workers aged 18-20 and £9.18 for 21 and 22-year-olds. Instead, the food hall would pay staff aged 18 and over the real living wage of £9.90, as set by the Living Wage Foundation. That means 18 to 20-year-old employees are getting a 44% pay rise.
Without SNAP, the workers might never have received the resources they needed to make this win possible.
SNAP was set up in 2017 by BFAWU and the TUC. That year, a report from the Resolution Foundation think tank named Sheffield the low-pay capital of the UK. With wages in the city 10% below the national average, the report found that Sheffield had the largest proportion of its workforce paid below the national living wage.
Against this backdrop, the BFAWU and the TUC asked: what could we do with a full-time funded organiser, working in the community? SNAP was formed to answer that question.
Palmer took over the role in January 2022, having cut his organising teeth in Brighton during the Spoons Strike a few years back.
He now spends his time approaching workers, whether on a cigarette break, at a bus stop, or on shift without a manager lurking, to ask a simple question: what’s going on in your workplace?
Oliver had heard of trade unions due to the area’s connection to the miners’ strikes, but he hadn’t realised it was possible to join one if you worked in hospitality. For Oliver, Palmer’s advice was invaluable in getting to grips with the skill of organising.
“We’re taught not to complain about work and just get on with it, in a ‘keep calm and carry on’ style,” says Oliver. “A lot of people at work were already going, ‘Oh, this is a bit shit, isn’t it?’ But having conversations about unions with co-workers is a little bit difficult.”
Through SNAP, Oliver was able to practise “how to actually have those conversations with people. You can invite them out to the pub, or somewhere like that, and have that conversation outside of the work environment, where it’s a lot less comfortable.”
In a short amount of time, SNAP has secured big wins, spreading to nearby Leeds and Rotherham. It has won back over £10,000 in stolen wages from Papa Johns, established committees of workers at McDonalds and KFC branches, and helped Mitchell and Butler pub workers formulate Covid demands.
Much of Palmer’s time is also spent with workers at independent venues or smaller local chains. “These places often fall through the cracks and go overlooked,” he says.
At the Cutlery Works, workers are now attempting to negotiate a union recognition agreement. But for Palmer, a struggle’s success isn’t determined by whether or not it secures formal recognition.
“My job is to listen to what the workers want, and then to help them every step of the way.
It’s not about going into the workplace to secure a recognition agreement every single time, although it’s great if they want to at the end.”
This flexibility is distinctive: trade unions are often unwilling to sink resources into a workplace that might not secure dues-paying members.
Conventional union wisdom is that high turnover rates in retail and hospitality are a source of weakness. Why try and unionise a workplace, when workers will quickly quit anyway? But for SNAP, it’s been a source of strength.
Rather than focus on a workplace, SNAP focuses on workers themselves. “We understand that people are going to come and go from workplaces,” Palmer said. “But anything that they can learn at one workplace, they’re going to take away that knowledge wherever they move on to the next.”
SNAP isn’t the only organisation trying to ensure the current uptick in worker militancy can spread from unionised workplaces to the non-union sector. Strike Map, BFAWU, and Notes From Below recently launched Organise Now, which matches a network of experienced organisers with workers who request support.
“It’s meant that we’ve reached out way further than just hospitality, fast food, pubs and cafes,” Palmer said. “We’ve gone across all sectors, so that when workers take action, they have the support of members across the city.
“It’s about more than just organising a single workplace. It’s about raising consciousness of trade unionism anywhere people go.”
Cutlery works have not responded to a request for comment.
*Names have been changed.