A workers’ inquiry into hospitality and the TGI Fridays strike, examining the labour process of hospitality work, how it creates sociality among workers and how this affinity lays the groundwork for resistance. This article was first published by Notes from Below.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon an annoyed looking customer entered my place of work, approaching the bar they announced “one latte, no foam”, then turning to my colleague, who was helping someone else at the time, commented “honey, get off your phone”. After two attempts at making the requested latte, one “in the wrong cup”, one “with the wrong milk”, despite neither being specified, the customer was eventually presented with their coffee, which they proceeded to spill entirely down their crisp white shirt. Sensing that the staff may have taken some joy in this accident, and we undoubtedly had, me and my colleagues were of course immediately blamed for it, and were told, amongst other things, that we could “learn a thing or two about service”. The customer’s tone turned nasty, and after having a coffee-soaked tissue thrown on the floor as I wiped it, and the educational institutions attended by me and my colleagues quizzed, then mocked, I was about ready to tell them exactly where they could go, until they demanded my full name. I recalled a work meeting the previous month where I had been informed by management that any member of staff who did not meet the expected standards of customer service would be sacked. I was fully aware of the implication of the customer’s question and the complaint about me that would likely follow, it seemed clear that they were aware of this too. It was a threat. I gave my name, as did my colleagues, and it ensured a calm and courteous compliance from the hospitality workers who had just been insulted.
When searching for a bar or restaurant job a host of adverts will inform you that successful applicants must be “creative” or “problem solving” individuals who put their personality into their work. There is certainly truth in this. The nature of the work is creative in so much as it requires a high level of emotional interpretive labour. By this I mean that it is the bar worker, waiting staff, or servers’ job to negotiate the complex task of keeping both the customer and their manager happy. This involves pre-empting and negating any possible dissatisfaction, and often interpreting what a specific individual’s version of “good customer service” entails. You work in a double bind, knowing that handling a rude, stressful or abusive conversation with a customer can often result in a re-enactment under similar circumstances with your line manager later on. Given the nature of the work and the long hours, low pay and insecurity in entails, it is a wonder there is so rarely a collective response from workers to it. The majority of grievances are successfully individualised and negated by management. How can collective action take place in such workplaces, and how does the trade union movement engage with them? To understand this, it is vital to understand the points of contention within hospitality work itself.
The terrain of contention
It may seem difficult to work out the exact profitability of customer service work in terms of labour’s surplus value. The job is not concretely defined by how much you can individually sell, or the precise productivity of your output. Although incentives for upselling do exist, much of what hospitality workers are expected to provide is a customer service “experience”; an emotional form of labour that does not have a precise or quantifiable value. A restaurant may be open from 10am to midnight and do the majority of the day’s trade in a three-hour window in the evening, yet staff have to be present all day. Hence, it is a regular occurrence for a bar worker to take pleasure in attempts to spend a quiet day shift “getting paid to do fuck all”, a commonly uttered phrase that appears to demonstrate an active alienation from work, or what could be described as ‘a condition of estrangement from the mode of production and its rules’1 . At the very least, these fleeting expressions of a refusal to work display a conflictual relationship with management. In stark opposition to the intangible qualities required of an effective customer service worker there are the very material concerns of the bar and restaurant management team. The two most paramount of these concerns are labour and stock. Management must keep a constant watch on these figures, because undoubtedly their area managers will be. The head office, owner, or area manager will set strict targets for these, and a restaurant of bar managers’ yearly bonus is nearly always dependant on hitting their targets. This all predetermines management’s approach to the rota, contacts, benefits and conditions. It sets the terrain of contention. Hence, a hospitality worker may find that one day the right to free hot drinks gets removed without warning, or that workers are suddenly expected to close a shift with half the amount of staff required to do it effectively. These changes are brought in without consultation and are often last ditch attempts for managers to hit their figures on time, as are the seemingly slight changes in the rota that occur week to week; fifteen minutes shaved off a shift here or there.
Workers are typically on zero or low hours contracts that are not indicative of the hours they regularly work. A member of bar staff may on average work a 30-hour week, their contract however, will often only guarantee half of those hours. Meaning that during quiet periods, as long as a particular worker has achieved their contractual minimum for the week, staff can be sent home and lose a day’s pay at a moment’s notice without any recourse. Equally, if management has deliberately understaffed to reduce the wage bill, then it becomes a regular occurrence to be asked to stay late on shift. This allows management to be reactive to the wage cost in relation to the day’s total takings, and leaves workers in a position of utter precarity.
Camaraderie as collectivity
Marx and Engels famously wrote that the advance of capitalist industry brought about a revolutionary combination through association of previously isolated labourers and in advancing this combination the bourgeoisie would inevitably produce their ‘own grave diggers’2 . Today, the lack of collective action or class consciousness amongst precarious workers is often explained by the fragmentary nature of work in the so called “new economy”. Whilst shift work on minimum hours can certainly create a fragmented workforce, one thing that nearly every colleague I know who works in the industry notes is the friendship and camaraderie that they have experienced in hospitality work. The social life that develops from this camaraderie very often becomes the best part of the job. These social ties manifest themselves in lots of ways, but they are all undoubtedly exploited in the interest of capital. So too are the shared interests that organically grow as a result of the technical composition of the work. Examples of this that come to mind are the baristas and coffee enthusiasts who spend evenings after work competing in latte art competitions while representing the particular coffee chain they work for; many cocktail bartenders would note similar types of competitions and training in their industry. It is commonplace within certain hospitality chains for staff to be asked to engage in training, write blogs or contribute to the company’s social media in some form outside of their regular working hours. The engagement in a shared passion, skill or flare in a community of workers is harnessed in the form of free labour. Beyond this, the communal spirit of labour is harnessed in the interests of capital in the day to day running in any hospitality establishment. The most common reason I have experienced amongst hospitality workers for staying late or starting a shift early and working beyond scheduled hours is because not to do so would heap more stress and work on colleagues and friends. Without this level of mutual support amongst workers, many bars and restaurants would be unable to run. There is a distinct community amongst hospitality workers that is apart from those with “normal jobs”, although many talk of getting a “normal job” one day. Whilst some may feel a level of embarrassment talking with others about the “servile” nature of their work, amongst each other there can be support, and stories of dismissive and abusive encounters with customers and managers alike are shared long after the shift is over. But what if this camaraderie, harnessed in the interests of capital, can in fact form the basis of workers’ collective action?
TGI Fridays Strike
TGI Fridays workers have been on strike since May over a recent change in their tipping policy, which has seen front of house staff lose 40% of their share of tips paid via card. This is partly what has made the TGI Fridays strike so interesting, because it involves workers collectively pushing back in an area of contention specific to the technicalities of hospitality work. As the minimum wage rate rises, pushing pay gradually upwards, restaurants and bars have made cutbacks in other ways. Boosting profit margins on stock and reducing wage costs are the two examples I have previously given, but the interference in waiting staff’s tips is another example. It is an area where technology has been advanced in the interests of capital, as card payments begin to replace cash transactions, service charges, or tips, are transferred directly from the customers bank account to the employers. Card tip systems or troncs (a fund into which tips and service charges are paid before distribution to staff) as they are known are supposed to be handled independently of the company; any hospitality worker knows this is not the case, and, in a bid to maintain low hourly rates of pay across the board, employers have used the tronc system to top up people’s pay in lieu of a rising pay scale. A job title which implies seniority therefore, does not always necessitate an increase in hourly pay, but instead can mean an increase in the percentage one receives from the tronc. Hence, in TGI Fridays case, rather than increasing the wages of kitchen staff, they are increasing the amount of money they receive from the tronc. In essence, TGI Fridays are taking money out of the waiting staff’s tip jar to top up the low pay of the back of house workers. This results in a real terms pay cut for waiting staff, and in the application of such a tipping system, reveals the deliberately divisive techniques of management. However, the camaraderie previously encouraged by the employer amongst members of the TGI Fridays ‘family’, a paternalistic term used by the company’s own CEO to describe members of staff, has backfired. Waiting staff facing a 40% deduction from their card tips have made use of the “Fridays Family” connection, and a widely felt grievance across a close community of workers has bridged gaps between fragmented shifts and disparate restaurant locations. TGI Fridays workers were in contact with one another, sharing their grievances and intention to stand up to the company, they had the basis of their union well before their union membership.
The challenge for the established trade union movement is that such workers hardly ever come to them and the few attempts made to engage or reach out to young and precarious workers from above are largely ineffectual. Unions’ achievements in the hospitality industry recently have been the result of workers’ confrontational activity on the terrain of contention in their workplaces. These are workers who have begun to autonomously organise the basis of a collective struggle before first contact with the union, who have harnessed the collectivity present in the sociality of their work. The broadening of membership and increasing activity the TGI strike has bred has led to discussions around wider issues on the picket lines, such as youth rates (£5.90 minimum wage for 18-20 year olds), and the London Living Wage, and has resulted in links made with other workers in similar struggles. Key to this dispute has been the initiative and leadership of workers themselves, as it is their organised and combative collective struggle that has swelled activity and membership in their workplaces, a vital example for others, and a lesson for the trade union movement as a whole.