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Wetherspoon's and McDonald's staff to strike together

The Guardian logo The Guardian 20/09/2018 Ben Quinn
Staff at JD Wetherspoon are to strike next month for better pay and union recognition. © Bloomberg via Getty Images Staff at JD Wetherspoon are to strike next month for better pay and union recognition.

Staff at JD Wetherspoon, McDonald’s and TGI Fridays are to strike next month in an unprecedented action by employees in the hospitality sector, where a campaign to recruit new trade union members is gathering pace among workers who have traditionally not been organised.

The co-ordination and scale of the action – which takes place on 4 October and includes staff from a number of McDonald’s branches in London and two branches of the pub chain on the south coast – is the first of its kind and engages often young, newly unionised workers who will be striking for £10 an hour and union recognition.

Demonstrators participate in a protest over working conditions and the use of zero-hour contracts at British outlets of US burger chain McDonalds, in central London on September 4, 2017. © Getty Demonstrators participate in a protest over working conditions and the use of zero-hour contracts at British outlets of US burger chain McDonalds, in central London on September 4, 2017. Workers from The Bright Helm and The Post & Telegraph pubs in Brighton told the Guardian securing a wage rise would alleviate their mounting personal debts and lift them out of subsistence living.

They have taken a move by Wetherspoon’s to bring forward an annual pay rise for workers from April next year to this November as a sign that the company is sufficiently worried about the possibility of the action spreading. According to the chain, the minimum starting rate for bar staff over 18 is £8.05 an hour while kitchen staff receive £8.25 an hour – increasing by 10p in each case after a probation period.

Chris Heppell, a 29-year-old working in one of the pub chain’s kitchens, said that every penny counted when he and his colleagues were struggling to get by. In his own case, more than half of what he earned each month went towards paying £450 in rent to share a cramped one-bedroom apartment.

“It’s impossible to save and you find yourself taking on more and more hours just to keep on top of the debt,” said the politics graduate who has worked in the hospitality sector since graduating, spending the last four years on what he described as “poverty wages” at Wetherspoon’s.

“Up until recently I haven’t thought very much about the future because it is genuinely scary, but that has started to change.”

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Heppell is among workers at the pub chain who have joined the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) after being inspired by the strike action taken last year by McDonald’s workers in a dispute over zero-hours contracts and conditions.

Another Wetherspoon’s kitchen worker, 19-year-old student Alex McIntyre, described working for the company as the most “emotionally and physically draining” job he had undertaken after working extensively in the hospitality sector.

© Getty McIntyre said over the course of a 30-hour week, he worked in a small kitchen that was often understaffed, and put more than half of his wages towards renting in shared accommodation with five others.

“I have an overdraft and rarely have a full fridge. I just thought that was what student life was, but there’s a sense now that this could change. Being paid £10 an hour would mean that I literally don’t have to choose between a food shop or getting a long needed haircut – basic things that people take for granted,” he said.

“Now though, I’m being asked about union membership by friends and people from my generation on social media who wouldn’t have considered it before. The cards we have been dealt mean that a lot of us have tended to keep our heads down until now.”

Tim Martin, founder and chairman of Wetherspoon © Getty Tim Martin, founder and chairman of Wetherspoon

Organisers have been reluctant to provide numbers or speculate on the turnout. However, in Brighton the ballots have gone out to more than 20 people – resulting in a 100% endorsement of strike action – while others taking part in the strike are expected to include McDonald’s workers from four London restaurants and workers from TGI Fridays branches. Ahead of the action, which is expected to involve strikers coming together for a rally in London, workers from other chains in the sector have also been getting in touch with the union.

Wetherspoon’s spokesman Eddie Gershon said that rates of pay have come under review at most pub and restaurant companies and the chain had announced on 14 September that it was increasing pay rates in the last financial year (to July 2018) by £20m and would be increasing rates this year by £27m.

“We also decided several months ago that management will work a 40-hour week instead of the current 42.5 hours from April 2019. We are also moving to the same rate for 18-21s as we already have for over 21s from 5 November 2018,” he said.

“In addition we are putting up the rate of pay. In the last financial year we paid record monthly bonuses and free shares of £43m, equivalent to about 50% of our net profits. Seventy-five percent of this sum was paid to those who work in our pubs.”

© Getty At the time last year of the first UK strike by McDonald’s workers, the company said that it had involved a small number of staff representing less than 0.01% of its workforce. It also pointed to the delivery of three pay rises since April 2016, which had increased the average hourly pay rate by 15%.

TGI Fridays, which was named and shamed earlier this year by the government for failing to pay workers the legal minimum wage, said at the time of a walk-out in August by staff in a dispute over tips and pay that it believed all of its workers were treated and paid fairly.

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