Opinion

An east London nightclub has shown how to unionise the nightlife sector – and win

The joy of Britain’s nighttime revellers is sustained by an army of low-paid, precarious and harassed workers. More than eight in 10 bar staff earn less than £10 an hour, and in the hospitality sector staff turnover is double that of the national average. Bullying from management and harassment from customers is rife. Although 425,000 people work in the nightlife sector (this number has fallen by tens of thousands since the pandemic), unions have a pitifully weak presence in Britain’s bars and clubs. Recently, a trendy east London venue has forged a new path. It could spark a revolution in the sector.

At Dalston Superstore, a queer venue in Hackney, LGBTQ+ partygoers and their straight allies down shots while drag queens and gender non-conforming artists dance raucously on bar tops until the early hours. “Everyone that’s queer goes to Superstore, or knows about it, or knows people who work there,” says 25-year-old Ayanna, who’s poured pints there for more than a year. When the management hired a new welfare team to protect customers’ and bartenders’ wellbeing, existing staff discovered that these new workers were being paid £15 an hour – more than the London living wage of £11.05 that most staff received. The bar’s management were adamant that this was the going rate for a stressful job, that welfare officers’ hours were limited because of the intensity of the role, and their wages were not supplemented with tips. Nonetheless, this frustration opened a floodgate.

Staff called a meeting at which other grievances swiftly emerged. Some were mundane, such as dishwashers not running hot water on certain nights. Others were more serious: the staff are all queer and many are people of colour. Some feared for their safety when travelling home in the early hours (these fears are are well-founded – hate crimes against LGBTQ people are surging). In April, staff at Dalston Superstore approached the Unite union for support.

It’s worth noting that Dalston Superstore’s owner, Dan Beaumont, is widely regarded as a very well-intentioned employer. His bar staff are paid more than most in the sector. Tips are ring-fenced for staff; in many other places, they are taken by management. “Dan is obviously a very good person and politically aware,” says Janet MacLeod, Unite’s service sector organiser, “but it’s the workforce who stood up, actively sought out a union and got unionised.”

What Superstore underlines is that no matter how benevolent the management, checks and balances are needed to mitigate the inherent imbalance of power between workers and bosses. Only unions can offer this check on power and give workers a space where they feel secure about voicing their grievances.

Superstore’s management swiftly recognised the union and held a grievance meeting with staff. Some complaints were based on misunderstandings, but others were more serious. Workers who had previously lacked a space to raise complaints said they felt managers were failing to act on customer aggression, for example. “It’s been very difficult because I’ve always wanted to be exemplary as an employer,” admits Beaumont. “Having a light shone on your failures, especially on the most vulnerable members of your team: well, it was a necessary wake-up call for us on these things.”

The company quickly made changes: staff are now reimbursed for taking taxis home in the early hours, a toilet is reserved exclusively for staff, monthly training has been introduced for new workers and negotiations have begun over pay. The newly unionised staff of Superstore have set off a chain reaction: workers at another nearby queer bar have followed suit, and other bars in the area are taking note. “I’m a longstanding union organiser and I’ve brought in many agreements,” says MacLeod, “but it’s the first time I’ve seen unionisation be so contagious.”

One of the profound challenges facing unions in the hospitality sector is that many of its young workforce are simply unaware of what unions are. Many don’t have relatives who were union members. After the wage councils that allowed for wage levels to be set across entire sectors were abolished in the early 1990s, bosses in nightlife have been able to suppress pay and scrap training opportunities. But unions’ flaws are also at play: not least, their failure to make many workers from marginalised backgrounds feel welcome.

The notoriously poor conditions in the nightlife sector have led to an exodus of staff. Now, staff shortages could strengthen the hand of remaining workers, while surging prices have given low-paid workers a choice: either fight back or sink into acute hardship. Beaumont also reckons that the lasting trauma of a pandemic that forced precarious workers to put their health at risk has spurred on demand for change in the sector.

These struggles depend on workers in low-paid sectors finding their voice. “It’s quite easy as a hospitality worker to feel worthless, that you’re just an ant in the system,” says Superstore bartender Sophie. There is a sense that has been widely internalised across our economy and society that low-paid workers deserve their plight. “But you are of value to the employer, it’s a skilled job being a barista, which you should be rewarded for,” she tells me.

Superstore’s new Unite branch is already planning to hold regular meetings and launch a zine for hospitality workers who want to learn from its example. If this revolution is to succeed, it will have to confront significant challenges. As members of a minority that suffers discrimination, many young queer workers have already been politicised, and are therefore more disposed to progressive ideas such as unionisation. This doesn’t always apply to their peers.

Compared to the management at Superstore, other managers are not so benevolent. Across the sector, high staff turnover makes organising trickier. But Unite is bullish about overcoming these roadblocks. Success stories such as Superstore will only embolden workers who have long been expected to simply accept insecurity and hardship for the sake of the nation’s piss-ups. Many have had enough, as the head honchos of Britain’s nightlife may soon discover.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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