As the TUC’s march in London approaches on Saturday (May 12), the stakes have never been higher – 3m people are stuck on zero hours contracts or another form of insecure work, workers have endured years of falling living standards not seen since Victorian times, all the while the NHS and other public services have been slashed to the bone.
Unite member Lucy* and her colleagues at TGI Fridays, an American-owned chain restaurant with dozens of branches in the UK, know that now more than ever is the time to take a stand against the injustices now plaguing Britain.
Back in January, TGI Fridays management pushed through a change in its tipping policy with only two days’ notice which would see 40 per cent of waiters’ card tips be taken from them and distributed to kitchen staff.
This flagrant tip theft amounts to, on average, £65 a week – that’s more than £250 a month. When you’re barely eking out a living on the minimum wage, these tips can be a lifeline.
“I know someone who has lost nearly £800 since the policy was introduced,” Lucy tells UNITELive. “The son of one of my colleagues recently got a place on a pro-football under-16s team. She’s had to stop him going to training because she can’t afford the fuel to take him – it’s heart-breaking.”
‘Enough is enough’
Tips theft isn’t the first attack on their pay and terms and conditions either – they’ve had their overtime premium payments taken away and they’ve also been forced to undertake unpaid training at home that can take up hours of their time. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg working for a company whose entire business model is driven by cutting costs at the expense of both workers and customers.
The TGI Fridays workers at restaurants in Milton Keynes and Covent Garden, London, have now decided enough is enough – for the first time in the restaurant chain’s history they have joined together, unionised and voted 100 per cent in favour to strike.
Lucy, 26, says the journey to organising their workplace – in a sector like hospitality, where anti-union tactics are entrenched and job insecurity and bullying are rife – hasn’t been an easy ride.
“Management has persistently lied to us and tried to pit us against each other,” Lucy explains. “They’ve tried to portray us as selfish for not wanting to share tips with kitchen staff when this is blatantly untrue. We’re more than happy to share tips with all staff – we already do with bar staff and serving assistants – but it must be done fairly and with our input.”
The real reason behind bosses swiping tips from TGI Fridays waiters is their refusal to pay kitchen staff properly. Their wages have stagnated over the years so, naturally, there are high levels of turnover in the kitchen.
“That management has pushed this through without talking to us shows that they themselves know this is unfair,” Lucy notes, highlighting that kitchen staff too are backing the strike. “The bosses have even admitted that they’ve introduced this policy to address recruitment and retention problems with kitchen staff.”
Lucy, who comes from a family of trade union members, has helped in an organising drive that’s seen a growing number of TGI Fridays workers across the UK join over the last five months.
“Most people have been very receptive to the idea of joining a union despite never having been in or in some cases even heard of one,” she says of TGI Fridays workers she’s spoken to. “TGI Fridays workers tend to be young people – often young mums – and since joining they’ve really embraced having a voice in the workplace, something that before they might never have had.”
Morale among the workers readying themselves to down tools next Friday (May 18) is high, with union meetings well attended.
“Even before next week’s strike, we’ve made gains – in January, management was going to push through the tipping policy two days after telling us. Once they heard that people started joining the union, they agreed to delay the rollout of their policy for four weeks – something they’d refused to do when we initially complained before Unite.”
Still, the fear of losing your job – a job that many have held onto for years – is a palpable one felt by many of the striking workers.
“Even though being part of the union has given us a degree of protection, a lot of people are understandably afraid to publicly come out against the company.”
That’s why, Lucy says, she and some of her colleagues will be attending the TUC demonstration on Saturday (May 12).
“We’ll be there to give a voice to the people who can’t be there – the people who feel powerless. TGI Fridays and other restaurants keep saying zero hours contracts, low pay, and unfair tipping policies are all just the ‘industry norm’. Well, working seven days a week used to be the norm until people collectively stood up against it.
“We’ve got to start somewhere; to be the front runners in hospitality alongside McDonald’s strikers and others, to organise and say we’ve had enough. That’s the only way things will change.”
Unite regional officer Dave Turnbull agreed and urged everyone – especially young people – to attend tomorrow’s march.
“A new generation of workers in companies like TGI Fridays and McDonald’s are saying enough is enough when it comes to low pay, zero hours and insecurity. Young workers should follow their brave and inspirational stance and join this march to fight for a better future for all.”
Find out more about tomorrow’s (May 12) TUC march – including details on free transport – here.
*name changed to protect privacy