How To Win A Pub Strike: An Interview with Ivy House Workers

An interview with two workers at London's Ivy House pub on their strike for union recognition, fixed-hour contracts and the reinstatement of sacked workers.

The following interview was recorded with two Ivy House workers, Amardeep Dhillon and Conrad Moriarty-Cole, hours before their campaign’s demands - to reinstate four sacked workers, for fixed-hour contracts, and for their union BFAWU to be recognised - were fully accepted, with strike pay.

This was on the third day of the pub’s closure due to their all-out strike. Over only half an hour that morning, perhaps a dozen local residents pledged support; two people had driven from Sweden to offer solidarity on behalf of the Social Democratic Party.

The win vouchsafes the optimism the strike has generated over the last few days, though the longer history of the Ivy House campaign suggests again how difficult organising remains in the wider hospitality sector.

The campaign’s victory message is included below, after the interview.

JHYou said a few moments ago that organising began at the pub two years ago. How did it start?

CMThe staff started organising to unionise, based around the problem of zero-hours contracts at the pub. It was maybe the beginning of summer in 2016. Of those people, there’s only two left, or three, including myself.

JHWas there a particular political impetus - Corbyn? Did any of you come from a left-wing tradition?

CMI grew up in a socialist house, so that’s always been there. I’ve always been involved in politics in some way or another.

ADYeah, I was politically aware when I was young. There’s quite a strong tradition of socialism in my family. My grandad was a shop steward, and associated with the Indian Workers’ Association, and I’ve been in various campaigns, throughout the years.

JHYou were pushing against zero-hours just over two years ago. How did you come into contact with the Bakers’ union?

CMAnother member of staff had been around them, and they suggested it. “They’re a radical union”, they said. I mean, the very fact that the member of staff had contact with them personally, even with Ian Hodson, the President, was enough. It’s small enough to communicate with. And, it was also an appropriate union since we deal with food and drink.

JHI ask since, you know, everyone - most people I know - has worked at least part-time, for at least a period, in hospitality, and it’s extremely rare - I mean, you know yourselves - how rare it is to see something like this, everyone striking, making fairly substantial demands of the employer.

ADIt’s down to two things, I think. Firstly, as a workforce, we’re generally quite politically engaged. But I also think it’s because of what the Ivy House project represents - “London’s first community-owned pub”. It’s meant to re-imagine what a pub is meant to be, to an extent. It’s not just a business you’re running, it’s meant to be a social space, a community hub. That’s what attracted a lot of us to the pub in the first place. I’ve worked loads of shitty bar jobs, bar backing, and I’d never had thought to join something like this [the union] - that’s more because of what the Ivy represents.

CMIt’s the sort of place where, you’d think, if you just asked for zero-hours, or whatever, it’d be a no-brainer. But, no.

JHI used to drink here a bit, and when they said “co-operative”, I’d heard “worker-owned”, naively. Could you talk me through what a co-op means in this instance?

CMIt’s a Cameron’s Big Society thing, rather than communitarian. The pub’s been here a long time. It was being run into the ground, and was sold off for real estate around 2012. A developer bought it, then four current members of the committee got together, and got the development blocked by having the pub categorised as a Listed Building, I think. They got some funding from the Architectural Heritage Fund, I think, and the place became an Asset of Community Value.

JHSounds like a lot of work.

CMWell, they had the expertise. One of the four, the current committee Chair, is involved in property law. She’s the main person we’re dealing with. There’s someone that’s involved with English Heritage. They’re involved with other projects like this. Those same people have sat on the committee since then. Other people were involved in saving the pub, but aren’t on the committee. The pub put a share option out, to raise a bit of capital, to renovate the pub. It’s a not-for-profit.

JHThey got funding from those institutions, and then maybe put in some of their own money, and then shareholders - what’s the deal between shareholders and the committee?

CMA share is £100, minimum two shares for voting rights. I don’t know exactly how the shares are distributed, but from what I can gather, it’s the same few peoples’ names on all the loans. The committee is our employer, and represents the shareholders.

JHOver those two years, was the effort against zero-hours, and to unionise growing steadily, or more sporadically?

ADWhen I started working there this time last year, all that wasn’t taken especially seriously. It was when we started to have wider concerns about the work environment, as a result of the actions of a general manager, who’s now under investigation. That really catalysed the drive to unionise. That gathered momentum, and things began to happen very quickly.

CMThis is the second manager in a row that’s had complaints, that the same thing has happened. And, what the Committee said, in the course of investigating the manager, is that “certain things have come to light” that have led to them to making the decision to dismiss the four people. They’re refusing to discuss what those things are on the bases that, first, they’re on zero-hours contracts, and so the Committee aren’t under any obligation to explain why they’re not getting any more hours, and second, because it’s part of an investigation.

ADThe first thing that the Committee said on Sunday was really cleverly worded - they said those four “have a right of reply”, which means absolutely nothing, except that ‘they’re fired’.

CMOn Saturday the four sent a formal grievance claiming unfair dismissal, with the argument that the hours they’d come to expect, through rotaring, being reduced to zero counts as dismissal, for which there’s precedent for claiming compensation.

JHWhen did the union get more involved, as this sharper relationship between you and the Committee developed?

CMWell, because we’re not recognised, they’re not able to officially back this strike, but friends have always been there in an advisory capacity. BFAWU have supported us during the grievance procedure. This is a wildcat strike, and comes from a decision from workers. People are here in a personal capacity.

JHYou struck first on Sunday - was that because of an incident that morning, or had you agreed in the day previous to stop work then?

ADWe were going to strike on Thursday (October 4), in coordination with the #FFS410 strikes. But, what we saw happening was the Ivy House posting adverts for workers, meaning they’d have had the capacity to lawfully replace us, when we had planned to go on strike. Also, because of all the press attention that October 4 was getting last week, we worried that we’d be lost in the noise. So that’s why we made the decision to fast-track the strike to Sunday (September 30). The decision to strike on Sunday was made, I think, last Friday night.

CMThe place was falling apart. The people they fired were key members of staff. They were employing all these new people to try and staff the place, but, being new, they didn’t know what they were doing.

ADThe committee were being disingenuous with the people they’d hired - they didn’t tell them what had happened. They said that it was an “issue with the rota”.

JHYou’ve been socialists all your adult lives, found a particular type of union, had a particularly grotesque manager, work in a weird pub - if it takes this much, in some ways, do you think it’s bad news for the industry? How do you rate the pub and restaurant workers’ chances more generally?

ADWithout wanting to be too pessimistic, I think it’s nearly impossible. I was working as a bartender in a venue in Brixton, and the pay there was done so haphazardly. Some people waited months to be paid. We were on £8 per hour. On my first week there, I did sixty hours; on my last week, I had six hours’ work.

In the hospitality industry there’s such a culture of being pally with each other, managers mixing with workers, to the extent that it can feel there’s a degree of trust - which, legally, isn’t backed up. Work depends on the caprice of managers; a relationship goes sour, and as a result, someone loses their income. There’s so little understanding of what your rights as a worker are.

I was told by a well-dressed shareholder yesterday that “this is how it is everywhere: if you don’t like it, move on. If you don’t like it, don’t work in hospitality”. I think it would take massive amounts of support from unions like the BFAWU and, also, you’d have to have people there already, driven enough to mobilise large workforces.

CMBecause of the nature of precarity, people in the industry are already in fear of their jobs - joining a union, it doesn’t feel a safe way to go.

ADThere’s another thing about this campaign - honestly, none of us knew whether we’d actually keep this job.

CMRight. We were willing to lose our jobs. So many people don’t really understand what a union is, what it is to be in a union - hopefully, I mean, I feel like, there is a sea change happening. If you join a union, there is a way to change things.

The following message was posted on the Ivy House Union’s Facebook page at 5pm, on the day of the interview:

We are pleased to announce that the committee have written to us with an offer agreeing in full to all of our terms and we have voted to accept!

Victory for the workers!

If you strike you will win!

We are all going back to work with fixed hour contracts, full union recognition and the 4 sacked workers are reinstated with backdated pay!