#HeartUnions Week: Glee Club recognition win
During #HeartUnions Week, the TUC highlights Unite’s recognition win at the Glee Club in Cardiff
Reading time: 13 min
During #HeartUnions week this week, the TUC shone a spotlight on Unite’s long and hard-fought campaign to secure union recognition last year at the world-famous Glee Club in Cardiff, Wales. This agreement represents the first of its kind within the Welsh hospitality sector and means that the 35 employees at the venue will be covered by a collective agreement.
The TUC caught up with Michela Gilroy, an industrial officer with Unite, who took them through each stage of the campaign, the ups and the downs along the way and the lessons learnt in this historic victory.
This case study originally appeared on the TUC’s website, which is featuring a union win every day this week for #HeartUnions week.
Making the first approach
The popular Glee Club in Cardiff opened its doors in 2001 and has played host to some of the finest names in comedy for over 20 years, but all was not well behind the scenes.
For some time, the workers – mainly bar staff, waiters and waitresses – had been facing issues in the workplace, which they knew were unfair.
Workers were employed on zero-hour contracts, shifts were often cancelled anything up to an hour before the shift was due to start and there were reports of no hot water being available. They knew that something had to be done.
The collective anger was building but the workers were nervous about how to proceed and where to turn for support.
That is when one of the team reached out to a trade union. Michaela Gilroy, an industrial officer with Unite, took the call and so began their first step towards improving their working lives, strengthening their bargaining position and winning union recognition.
Michaela told the TUC: “I was approached by one of the workers, Joe. I was keen to listen to the issues and start to draw up a plan about how we could help.
We were aware that the workers had reached out to a few unions in their search for basic protections and understanding their rights at work. They knew they wanted to be in a union but were not entirely sure about what a union could do. This is something we are finding consistently in the hospitality industry.
We felt it was incredibly important to initiate that first meeting and start the conversation and build that relationship.”
Michaela continued: “I was really passionate about how we could help. I imagine that came across strongly when we met and made them feel comfortable to follow our lead and take our advice.
What they were going through was terrible and anyone in the movement would have been so enraged about their experiences. We used that passion to build our campaign.”
Obvious workplace leader
Michaela describes Joe, an employee at the Glee club, as being key to the campaign. His strong voice in the workplace and evident position of influence, almost immediately showed him to be an obvious workplace leader.
Michaela explained: “We have always found with hospitality workers that having a good leader is vital for any campaign towards organisation, recruitment and pushing for union recognition.
Workers in hospitality, a notoriously transient workforce, have never been in a union. They are not entirely sure what a union is, they don’t want to rock the boat in their place of work. They are in that job because they are students and paying their way to fund their education. Joe was without doubt key to the campaign and the path to winning recognition.”
Joe then encouraged and organised for other colleagues at Glee Club to come and meet Michaela over a series of meetings before they even thought about joining.
Michaela said: “It was a long road to earning their trust. Some of the things that we were being told were issues that had taken root long ago and were too easily accepted as common practise.
The fact the staff had no access to hot water was illegal, let alone immoral. I took the time to explain to them how these incidences were wrong, they shouldn’t be happening and how Unite could help.
There were so many complaints, but it was really important to identify the main issues from the outset, to centre around what we could fix in the immediacy. We had to start with the issues that were most winnable.”
Growing the membership
By focusing the minds on how they could start to address these issues, the membership in the workplace began to grow. Of the 30 employees, they had managed to recruit 28 into the union.
Michaela said: “Higher density is always key to pushing towards eventual recognition and we made sure to use the issues as focal points and reasons to join the union.
We did this by targeting the new starters coming in. The nature of the job means that you often have a high turnover of staff and that can be difficult when trying to build a union within the workplace.
We used a worker-to-worker approach to recruit and outline the benefits of belonging to the union alongside highlighting the issues that we were fighting against.
It wasn’t before long that we identified the lack of access to hot water as a central issue, we invited the HSE to come in and inspect. This resulted in the hot water being restored and we had our first win. Now, it was on to the next.”
Engagement and building relationships
Another key element to this campaign was the way in which Michaela and the team stayed connected and stayed updated, involved and active.
She said: “Very early on we established a team WhatsApp group. We used this for regular communication, updating on every detail and making them feel a part of what we were building.
We listened to them and did what they were comfortable with – and most importantly we could capture their ideas and input on how they wanted to shape the campaign and face the challenges.
That is where the What’s App groups are so important. We have more of an open discussion rather than a stereotypical union meeting. That tactic was extremely important.
Building for recognition
Originally, a request for voluntary recognition with the employer was sought. This effort was swiftly rebuffed with the prevailing perception of unions being “troublemakers”.
So, faced with an employer who was unwilling to recognise the presence of a trade union, the next stage of the campaign was to apply for union recognition through the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC).
The CAC is a UK government body, whose task is to oversee the regulation of UK labour law as it relates to trade union recognition and collective bargaining. And that is where Michaela and the team would turn next in their fight for union recognition.
Michaela said: “It was clear very early on that management were not interested in voluntary union recognition and they had closed off several opportunities to discuss this with us.
So, we took to social media to start building our campaign and raising the issues publicly. While opening the process to apply for recognition through the CAC.
At the point of applying to the CAC, we got close to the workers again to guide them through that process. As the union responsible, we had to make sure we had the numbers to achieve recognition first and foremost.”
Michaela told the TUC: “The whole process with the CAC took months and culminated in a full hearing in Birmingham with the employer.
We felt the employer wasn’t being entirely honest throughout that process in an attempt to undermine our claim. To counter, we took two of our workplace leaders with us to that meeting.
The company at this point were clearly uncomfortable with recognition. As a response to our endeavours, the company held meetings with the workers that can only be described as “union busting”.
They excluded key employees who they believed to be activists from attending those meetings and they used them to tell staff that the union can’t do anything for them and that the subs were a waste of money.
In one incidence they actually offered to increase pay on the proviso that they don’t join the union.
So, the route to winning recognition wasn’t easy. We had to keep momentum going and morale high. There were parts where you could see the workers were getting tired and at times it was getting a bit too much for them.
So, it is really important that you keep momentum and say to them: We are going to win this, and recognise how far they had come. Fortunately, they stayed positive, with the right encouragement and they could see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Bid for recognition rewarded
On the 11 July 2023, they had been informed that they had won their bid for recognition and their hard work had been rewarded.
Recognition by Unite means workers will be covered by a collective agreement, enabling Unite to negotiate with the employer on workers’ pay and other terms and conditions of employment.
Speaking on victory, Michaela said: “The significance of winning recognition here cannot be understated. It is one of the first agreements of its kind within the Welsh hospitality sector.
“Terms and conditions in the hospitality sector are notoriously bad, so union recognition will give Unite the opportunity to change that for these workers.
We are now seeking urgent constructive talks with the Glee Club to agree the terms of the official recognition agreement.”
Life after recognition
Winning recognition was not the end of the campaign and following the news, the employer’s immediate reaction was issuing a threat to close the venue.
Michaela explained: “We were prepared for that kind of reaction and had anticipated by telling our members that this could be a potential outcome. There was a sense of anger and of course worry about how the situation was developing. But we were determined to persevere and work with the company to create a more stable situation.
We had a responsibility to reassure our members and we did just that. We continued to take them along the journey, constantly keeping them updated and involved.
Around this time, we also actually lost Joe from the team, who left the company to pursue a post-academic career. When he left, we were hoping that all of that enthusiasm and trade union fire wouldn’t be lost. There was a danger that everything we had built was now at risk.
However, we identified a new leader within the workplace, Shaun, who has those same qualities and can keep everyone together.
We continued to have issues around victimisation at work with reports of union members feeling targeted when it came to internal promotions and distribution of shifts and work hours, with the employer accused of favouring those who weren’t union members.
The union is there to prevent these practices, and where they are being used, to raise grievances to fight against them. This is exactly what we did. We had demonstrated our value and our strength throughout this campaign, and we will continue to maintain our presence.
We have now seen a period of calm. The relationship with the employer is now improving and we work hard to maintain that relationship for the good of the workers.
Lessons and learnings
The importance of a strong workplace leader cannot be underestimated in keeping a strong union presence in the workplace. This runs as a central theme to success in this recognition win. We asked Michalea, how you identify someone who is prepared to step forward and represent others.
Michaela reflected: “It must be someone who can influence others, a strong personality who is looked up to by colleagues. It is typically a well-respected individual within the team who has that passion for justice at work and an idea of how to improve it.
“We were very lucky at Glee that we have Shaun in that role now, with Joe previously, both strong characters who were only ever interested in making work better and fairer for their colleagues.
“Prior to recognition Joe was never officially a rep, but a workplace leader. But we were in constant contact with him, guiding him along the way. With Shaun, now that recognition has been achieved, he will have the full reps training that Unite has to offer and will be supported through that journey.”
Michaela’s message to any rep trying to gain recognition is: “My message to anyone in a hospitality job who is interested in belonging to a union and having their rights at work protected is that they can make a difference and they can win at work.
“I think you have got to make sure you focus on the right issues and have the right leaders in place. These might appear basic points, but they are so incredibly important. Without those people coming forward and leading from the front, any campaign falls away.
“So, don’t be scared. It has been done now and we are showing it can be done again.”
This article first appeared on the TUC’s website here.