'We're not going away'

Unite members at Scottish pub chain MacMerry joined by US delegation in London protest over staff mistreatment

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Unite hospitality members and their supporters sent a loud and clear message on Wednesday (March 9) that they will no longer tolerate any mistreatment of staff employed by Scottish pub chain MacMerry.

MacMerry workers, Unite members, were joined by two US delegates from American union Unite Here at a protest on Wednesday outside the Abandon Ship, the MacMerry chain’s flagship London pub in Covent Garden.

As part of an ongoing Unite campaign against the MacMerry chain, the workers staged the demonstration to highlight a litany of grievances against MacMerry and Abandon Ship pubs in Dundee and Glasgow, including concerns over serious health and safety breaches and inadequate responses to sexual misconduct allegations.

Unite has submitted a seven-page grievance document to MacMerry, which runs 13 bars and restaurants across Glasgow and Dundee, signed by 58 current staff and 13 former employees.

The grievance document allegations accuses MacMerry of “the mistreatment of workers across all venues” as well as failing to abide by “the most basic legal obligations of duty of care towards staff”.

‘It was horrendous’

Speaking to UniteLive ahead of Wednesday’s protest, Unite rep and MacMerry bartender Cheri said she’s had personal experience with many of the issues detailed in the collective grievance.

“Over Christmas there was a massive Covid outbreak,” Cheri explained. “We had staff that were waiting for PCR tests who were pressured to come into work. On two separate occasions I received Track and Trace texts notifying me to immediately isolate but was told I had to stay and finish my shift.”

Unite rep and MacMerry bartender Keetah said she suffered the same experience.

“It was horrendous,” she said. “So many people caught Covid and it kept them from going to see their families over Christmas – and management didn’t seem to care. It made me really angry that they appeared to be putting their profits over our health and over the chance for us to spend Christmas with our families after who knows how long because of the pandemic.”

Keetah noted that concerns about unpaid holiday pay and other pay irregularities were a regular occurrence for many staff, and Cheri highlighted other health and safety issues, including a broken dishwasher at one of MacMerry’s biggest bars in Dundee that wasn’t fixed for more than six months.

“It was just recycling dirty water essentially,” she said. “It wasn’t safe or hygenic for either staff or our customers.”

Meanwhile, at the same bar, a flood in the downstairs basement – a key back of house area –  caused a step to break, forcing staff to navigate dangerously unstable stairs.

“The stairs were rickety before the flood, and you can imagine what they were like after – the broken step wasn’t fixed for months.”

Cheri said it was “overwhelming” the number of issues she and her colleagues have faced, including allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct not being responded to adequately. 

She highlighted too what she saw as an entrenched bullying culture, where some managers had ostracized staff they didn’t like by sending them to work in different bars part of the chain for seemingly no apparent reason.

The perception is that such a tactic may have been increasingly used to seek to impede trade union activity, both Keetah and Cheri noted.

“They’ve moved us all around so now there’s one bar that is 100% non-unionised and didn’t sign the grievance,” Keetah explained. To her, it seemed like “an obvious attempt to divide us”.

Cheri agreed.

“We used to have a big group chat that had all the staff members on it but it’s been taken down so we no longer know who’s working at other venues outside of our own,” she explained. She said it feels like “they’re very much trying to limit our contact with one other. A number of the more vocal among us have been sent to quieter bars.”

‘Don’t be silent’

But both Cheri and Keetah say that they and their Unite sisters and brothers will not be silenced.

“We’ve organised this demo to let them know that we’re not going away and they can’t just continue as they are because we’re not going to let them,” Keetah said. “I want this to be a wake-up call for them.”

Cheri likewise had a clear message to management – not just to MacMerry bosses but all hospitality owners.

“The times are changing and they can’t keep treating us like this,” she noted. “The days of maximum effort for minimum wage — of them telling us to jump and us asking how high — are over. We don’t need them; they need us.”

Cheri said that the mistreatment facing workers like her is a global problem, and Elena*, delegate from American union Unite Here agreed.

Elena traveled all the way from California to join her brothers and sisters at the MacMerry demonstration in London on Wednesday (March 9) to show her support. She and her colleagues are fighting a very similar fight back home against a glitzy Los Angeles hotel famed for its Hollywood celebrity guests – and alleged shameless mistreatment of workers.

Speaking to UniteLive after this afternoon’s protest at the Abandon Ship, Elena said she was thrilled to show her support.

“The protest was fantastic,” she said. “I was very proud to show solidarity with our union comrades here in the UK.”

She highlighted the importance of international solidarity.

“It’s only when we stand united and we fight together that our rights will be adequately respected,” she noted.

Elena urged other hospitality workers who are battling the same battles to stay strong.

“Don’t be silent,” she said. “I used to think that our bosses can harm us and disrespect our rights and we should just stay silent. But it’s not just – we have a right to defend our rights. We have a right to be treated with respect at work and we need to keep fighting. We can’t let them walk all over us.”

‘Great to see’ international solidarity

Unite hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson agreed, adding that Wednesday’s protest was “about sending a message to MacMerry owners that we won’t be going away”.

“We’re here to demand not only that action be taken to properly address the grievance but we also demand trade union recognition,” he explained. “We have way more than 50 per cent membership across the company but the company is refusing to engage in statutory recognition talks.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham welcomed Wednesday’s protest.

“It is great to see solidarity between Unite members and US union, Unite Here, joining together to fight MacMerry’s failure to adequately  protect its workers,” she said.

“MacMerry claims to be acting upon their workers’ very serious grievances, but for us these are empty words – in fact, things are getting worse for the workforce as we believe MacMerry has now targeted Unite members for standing up in support of one another,” Graham added.

 “MacMerry’s appalling behaviour has impacted negatively on the company’s reputation. Things will not improve until the company works with Unite to address its appalling treatment of staff.”

*Name changed to protect privacy

By Hajera Blagg

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