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Sheffield Needs A Pay Rise: Campaign aims to unionise service sector

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McDonalds workers on strike.

Whether working front-of-house in a restaurant or answering phones in a call centre, service sector workers are more vulnerable than most to low pay and insecure employment. The problem is exacerbated in Sheffield, the 'low pay capital' of the UK, where workers take home less than in any other major city.

But a novel new project launched by Sheffield Trades Council and the Bakers Union aims to improve pay and conditions in a historically non-unionised sector. We spoke to Rohan Kon, community organiser at Sheffield Needs A Pay Rise, to find out how.

What's the role about?

The idea is that we are building a movement of workers across the whole city coming together to take action to achieve things that they couldn't do on their own. The key demands are for a real living wage - we're asking for £15 an hour - a choice of guaranteed hours if people want them, so an end to zero-hours contracts, and union rights.

We talk about it as a new way of organising, but really it's the old way of organising that's been lost

The campaign started back in 2016 when George Osborne's minimum wage came in, and it was found that more people in Sheffield benefited from that than in any other major city in the country. A group of academics in Sheffield got together and did some research, and concluded that Sheffield is the low pay capital based on the 25% of workers who are on minimum wage or zero-hours contracts.

These academics didn't just want to do this research for the sake of it. One of them was Bob Jeffrey, who's an academic at Sheffield Hallam and is also a member of Sheffield Trades Council and a trade unionist. They wanted to make sure the research was going to facilitate actual organising of these workers and achieve some change. They eventually reached out to the Bakers Union and they formed this partnership to recruit this role.

It's the first of its kind in the country?

Yeah! It's quite an achievement to have brought together all the trade unions to support one idea. We talk about it as a new way of organising, but really it's the old way of organising that's been lost. It's about speaking to workers and having face-to-face conversations, and marrying that with digital activism.

Work has changed and the way that work is organised is different to what it was decades ago when the trade union movement was really strong. We need to be versatile and flexible to ensure that we're meeting the needs of primarily young workers if we want the trade union movement to continue to grow and not go the way it has been going.

If people are in more precarious employment they're less likely to commit to joining a trade union.

Yeah. I think the thing about zero-hours contracts is that workers have increasingly been put into competition with each other. Workers are made to feel that if they stand up for themselves or if they speak out about how they're being treated their hours might be given to someone else, or they'll turn up to work and it's not busy and they'll be sent home. We really need to rebuild solidarity between these workers. Most of these workers, especially in the fast food industry, don't know what a union is. And if they have heard of it it's probably this service model that's been pushed in the past couple of decades: join a union in case anything goes wrong.

It doesn't resonate with people - trade union membership has been dropping off. It's about bringing people together, being on the ground and being plugged into the issues that are going on, going into workplaces and finding workplace leaders who can bring others along. The power of a union is in the strength in numbers, it's not because we've got solicitors. Especially now that people are increasingly working in huge, billionaire-owned corporations, the only way we're ever going to be able to be powerful in the face of them is through organising.

What's the focus?

There's been a focus on fast food. The ultimate goal is organising workers, supporting them to go on strike and getting them to win stuff. There's only one of me and there needs to be a focus. The other part of the role is the wider narrative-building across the city, and re-instilling that sense of Sheffield pride that we all deserve better.

This campaign needs to be a lot bigger than just me

We all deserve at least these demands if not more. Hopefully the idea is that if one Wetherspoons goes out on strike, other workers around the city will see that it is possible. How can we spotlight those small examples? How can we join that up and amplify it under the banner Sheffield Needs A Pay Rise? In places like McDonalds every single worker can be on a different rate of pay.

Is that a divide and conquer trick?

Yeah, "maybe I shouldn't speak out as I'm not on as little as him." Sheffield Needs A Payrise is based on the model Fight for $15 in the US, which started in New York in 2012 with one McDonalds. It snowballed and now they're in over 300 cities across the world. In January 20 million Americans got a pay rise due to a new minimum wage in various states.

That's passed at a state level?

Yeah, I think that's the interesting thing about testing that model in this country. The political situation is on some levels very similar and some levels very different. I think we should be aiming to win concessions out of employers, I don't think it should have to be about getting politicians to agree with us.

How can we organise solidarity across Sheffield so that even if you're a worker who does happen to be on £15 an hour or more you can support this campaign?

What's your practical method for organising in places like KFC and McDonalds?

It's difficult! It's about learning tricks like where workers socialise and where they smoke, and going in and working out how you can get workers to come and help you with the self-service machines. It's quite covert - quite cheeky and exciting. How do we harness all those hundreds of thousands of people who came out during the general election and need somewhere to channel their energy? This campaign needs to be a lot bigger than just me.

There are already exciting pockets of organising happening and it's about how we pull that together and skill people up so that they feel confident to have conversations with their friends about workplace issues. Most of us go to these places! We need to get into the habit of systematically starting conversations with our bartenders and our baristas about workplace issues.

Sam Gregory

Follow Sheffield Needs A Pay Rise on Facebook or Twitter.

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