Fighting for fair tips

Nilüfer Erdem reflects on organising the unorganised in restaurants and hotels

(Photo via Unite the Union)

(Photo via Unite the Union)

The ‘Fair Tips’ campaign, led by the Unite Hotel Workers’ and Restaurant and Bar Workers’ branch, over the tips policy in big restaurant chains has seen many successes.  The campaign targets large chain companies, which take money from staff tips – a so-called ‘administration fee’. This is in a sector where workers get low pay and experience the poor conditions at work.  Following recent actions, staff at Pizza Express, Giraffe, ASK and Zizzi now take all of their tips and for the first time unions are gaining notable headway in the British hospitality industry.

The hospitality industry accounts for 10% of the workforce in the UK— that’s 2.7million people. Union density has, however, been shamefully low. Up until now the sector has attracted little attention from union bureaucracy mainly because of the high staff turnover. Some unions have even shown reluctance to organise migrant workers. The ‘fair tips’ campaign is undermining their reluctance. Thousands of workers, many of whom are migrants, have since joined unions and boosted their income by standing up to management.

New tactics, new allies

The campaign hasn’t been an ordinary one. It has made use of a whole range of tactics unusual for unions like Unite. It has managed to mobilise support from Pizza Express workers and other trade unionists such as the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and United Voices of the World. It has made links with precarious agency workers sacked by the famous (now infamous) Sotheby’s auction house. The branch has remained largely untouched by bureaucratic influence.

The fair tips campaign is a grassroots initiative reliant on engaging directly with workers in their place of work and in the community through weekly accessible advice surgeries. This has allowed creativity to flourish, making protest a truly fun and exciting experience.

We disrupted a busy shift at Pizza Express by singing the Dean Martin song ‘That’s amore’, with lyrics altered in defiance of CEO Richard Hodgson, as diners sat inside eating their meal. We had the ‘Meal of Justice’ and filmed ourselves exposing the pinchers by announcing to all guests that we will take tips in cash rather than by card. We used social media to promote our activities.

Taking tips

Our methods have gathered media attention and support from customers. Campaigners were interviewed on radio and television. Channel 4 news did a whole piece on the campaign that showing the self-activity of workers.

The hotel workers branch and its circle of activists have seen good results, but there’s still a long way to go. A number of brand name restaurants still charge admin fees and many apply other unfair deductions. Offenders still in our sights include Cote Brasserie (which takes 100% of the service charge from waiting and kitchen staff), Las Iguanas, and Turtle Bay where staff ‘pay to work’ paying 3% of their earnings per evening, and the hotel sector where taking of staff tips is rife and high (between 35% and 100%).

This is not to mention the underhanded methods and complete lack of transparency in many hotel tip and service charge arrangements. In many enterprises tips are used like dog treats, distributed according to managers’ whims to reward favoured workers and discipline others. They are used politically, to divide the kitchen from the front of house, and to compensate for low pay. Tips are not only used as a means of taking money from already poorly paid workers, but also as a disciplinary mechanism. The success of the Pizza Express campaign serves to undermine oppressive disciplinary structures as these, which tightly control the workforce and empower management.

The employers are pushing hard for the Business Secretary to offer concessions that will allow them to keep dipping into staff tips. So we now have to push even harder to ensure we get a fair deal for once.

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