School Dinner Discipline: a little bit of solidarity can go a long way

School Dinner Discipline: a little bit of solidarity can go a long way

A dinner lady came to Brighton SolFed when there was nowhere left to go. At the time, they faced a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct in three days. They had not been paying union membership dues, so they were refused mainstream union representation.

The individual was working for an outsourced catering company at a primary school. An accident occurred in the work place, where a potential allergen was served to a pupil, thankfully with no adverse outcomes. Although the individual was not at fault for serving the pupil, she was nonetheless held responsible. Having worked there for over five years, this uncertainty was unnerving for them.

They were desperate in this seemingly helpless situation.

After going over the events and procedures with the worker – bearing in mind the investigation had taken place and it was the final hearing in three days – we came up with a plan: Provide the company with a statement from the worker outlining their case, and ask to have SolFed representation at the discipline hearing to support the worker. This was granted.

The morning of the hearing, the worker was understandably nervous. We reminded them of our plan for the meeting, went over their statement, and reassured them that we were there to support them.

The meeting commenced. Straight away there was uncertainty about SolFed's presence, as we were not an official union, and as our member was not a work colleague, so technically they could have refused our attendance. Thankfully they allowed our presence, though they asked for no contributions.

The interviewer would ask multiple quick fire questions in succession, to which the worker would offer replies that tried to encompass all the points. As English was not their first language it was difficult. The interviewer would then turn to the minute-taker and state that the worker did not even understand and was unable to answer the questions. Instead of trying to get clarity, they simply moved onto the next set of accusations and questions. As the meeting started to come to a close, the worker stuck to the plan and presented their statement, which had also been sent to the company. The interviewer remarked that they had never seen it, to which the minute taker exclaimed it should be in the pack. Surprisingly it was not there, so they needed time to look it over.

In this break we regrouped, reassured and planned the next step. We clarified the points they had asked and outlined it clearly; the worker knew exactly what they needed to discuss.

After resuming the meeting the worker clearly explained the points missed earlier. Then the decision came from the interviewer: from seeing the new evidence in the statement and points raised in the meeting, they said were unable to decide there and then and would have to get back to the worker. With these uncertain words the worker broke down into tears. The awkward company representatives wanted the worker to quickly sign the minutes and leave, but our member interjected and made sure we were left alone and given time to read them over once we were ready.

With no idea of the result, the worker was anxious but felt supported, and was thankful for our support. Within three days the worker received a letter confirming they had not lost their job and that they could resume work with a written warning. Result!

Although as a local we did not need to do much, we supported the worker and showed them true solidarity, standing together and looking out for each other. This is raising class-consciousness, where it is workers supporting workers, which is not dependent on money or dues. While mainstream unions see their role in representing their members, delivering support only in return for membership fees, our approach is to organise as workers in solidarity with other workers supporting non-members where we can - because it is through solidarity that the working class can empower ourselves. The worker is unfortunately unable to help the local day to day but firmly supports us and said they would help us with future call outs.

Originally from


jef costello
Mar 2 2017 14:12

Thanks for writing this up.

Mar 2 2017 18:42

hmm while I think helping this worker was a nice thing to do, I'm not sure it has any meaningful radical component.

I mean as a union rep I do this sort of thing every week. And I don't really think that has any radical component either. In the early days I would try to help non-union members as well, but now I kind of think that if workers cannot be bothered to actually join and pay dues (which helps us both keep running as a branch, and more importantly helps us in bargaining with management as we can show what proportion of the workforce we could potentially call out on strike), then I won't help them now.

And while I don't think the unions as they are are potentially revolutionary or pure "working class" organisations, I think that the notion of sacrificing something to be part of a collective organisation (e.g. paying dues) does more to build a sense of solidarity than getting help from someone for free.

(My view would be different in a non-unionised workplace BTW.)

Mar 4 2017 07:50

It is a really very silly article.

1) it is boasting about something that union reps do every week for our members as mere routine as if it is something special SolFed are now doing

2) it is encouraging workers not to pay union dues because SolFed will come in and pick up the pieces - which is certainly one way to undermine the basic principles of working class organisation and is certainly a stretch to interpret as an act of solidarity as described in the article

3) it is also a very dangerous promise they are making as most employers won't allow SolFed into the meeting as (a) they are not a union and (b) their reps are not trained and certified - so it's a false promise they are offering workers. I know that I have often been asked to show credentials to prove that I am a certified union rep and would have been excluded if I didn't have my card with me

4) this worker didn't even join them afterwards! so in what way are they building working class power rather than undermining workers' power in the workplace by encouraging them not to join a union by showing that it's not worth it?

Mar 4 2017 11:31

The article lacks any background information about the workplace involved and the reasons for this worker not paying union dues - there might be good reasons or at least explanations. The SolFed help in this case was obviously welcome but certainly not more than traditional union representation of an individual grievance (not always performed well even if dues are paid). There is of course a need for organised activity to encourage collective class solidarity across union and non-union boundaries to which groups such as SolFed can contribute. Since SolFed strategy appears to encourage 'dual union' membership where this is appropriate and practical it would be interesting to know what they said to this individual worker about the collective lessons were beyond future help given to their own organisation?

fingers malone
Mar 4 2017 12:03

Firstly well done to Brighton Solfed for successfully supporting this worker.

Horrorshow wrote:
it is encouraging workers not to pay union dues because SolFed will come in and pick up the pieces - which is certainly one way to undermine the basic principles of working class organisation and is certainly a stretch to interpret as an act of solidarity as described in the article

It isn't solfed policy to *tell* workers not to pay union dues. I don't know anything about this case apart from what's written here, but this is a low paid person, from abroad, who works in an outsourced role in a school, it's very normal that this worker wasn't a union member. We don't know the background of the branch, whether it was active or not, whether there was attempts by the reps to organise with the outsourced workers. If the branch wasn't very active then it's quite normal that a low paid worker didn't pay dues. Hey I wish people did, but I accept that they often don't.

I am also a union rep, and I also do this kind of work, although not every week, and I *do* think it has radical content. What Brighton have done is good, I would say though that loads of 'mainstream' union reps help non-member workers all the time, my branch sends me out quite a bit to support workers in places where they don't have any union branches. I also spend a lot of time working with people who are not in my union because they have a different job role.

In terms of representation in disciplinaries, in different workplaces sometimes an outside rep might be allowed in and sometimes they won't, this is something outside our control.