As well as being a self-employed writer, I’m now also a freelance usher at one of London’s most esteemed cultural hotspots. It’s not a bad gig – free entry to all the events when I’m not working, which is quite a lot of the time. Even though I need the money, I find it difficult to accept any more work than the minimum required to prevent myself from starving. That’s because we earn just above minimum wage, and while a lot of people’s answer to low wages is to work more hours, my attitude is to work less. That way, there are fewer hours in which I feel like I’m being taken for a ride.
The staff at the cultural place are mostly aspiring film makers and actors, which means I’m witnessing heartbreak and borderline mental illness every time I clock in. There’s one guy here, Tommy, who works an eighty hour week, stretching his life between a sandwich chain and the relative comfort of the cultural place. He’s selling himself to these jobs so he can buy a camera to make a film. And he’s developing a twitch.
Tommy laughs manically at the smallest things now. Just last week I speculated that maybe he was losing his mind a little because he was shaking his head and talking to himself in a Loony Toons voice as he poured some wine into a glass, but all he did was laugh hysterically, either in recognition or denial, I couldn’t tell. The only girls he dates now are customers, but because he works so much, all he does is invite his potential future wives to the cultural place to go see something on their own while he’s bartending.
On one of my many days off recently, I caught up with a former member of staff at Pret A Manger who was fired for forming a union. James* is a kind of steam-punk Braveheart turned union organiser from the Czech Republic. He was protesting outside the St Pancras station branch of Pret with a banner, a megaphone, a bandanna, a pair of Cyberdog trousers and a pair of aviator shades. But before being moved on by the police, James and a small band of activists were demanding not just that Pret buck their ideas up and stop firing union organisers, but also that James be reinstated.
“Pret A Manger! Reinstate James!” they chanted. I couldn’t understand why James, a finance student at London South Bank University, would want to go back there, so I asked him. And what he said made him seem selfless and kind of heroic.
“I want to keep organising the staff against the bad treatment,” he said. “I don’t care if they treat me so badly. But I really cannot stand when they also treat the other people as bad as they treated me. There were five of us, then our numbers started increasing, but after I was fired they intimidated the staff. So the activity is very low right now.”
One of the other founding members of the Pret union has since been hounded out. But James says regardless of whether he gets his job back, his goal is to get Pret to pay the London living wage of £8.55 an hour to its all staff in the capital.
The living wage is a noble and essential cause. Being able to survive and feed your family, or even save up for a camera, without getting another soul sucking job, is no joke. But as this thunderous tract points out, it’s not as though low wages are the only blight of the contemporary workplace.
While I recommend reading the whole thing, in particular it highlights the alarming methods of control used by large companies in the catering and service sectors. In this instance, Pret, which is at the forefront of getting inside the heads of its staff. At Pret, and no doubt other multinational restaurant chains, not only are workers’ outer actions controlled by the company – the tasks they agree to do for their wages – so are their emotional responses to those tasks. So they don’t just have to make coffee and operate a till, they have to be super happy and enthused while they’re doing it. While I don�t like sweeping floors, I object more to being told to look happy while I’m doing it.
The theoretical term for this is ‘affective labour’, which was given a sickeningly positive reception when Pret was surveyed by a New York Times business correspondent last year. So for example, Pret’s worker bees are disciplined for not smiling enough, or for not creating the ‘Pret Buzz’. And it’s not just an individual worker who suffers, but the whole ‘team’ is penalised for one person failing to be sufficiently ecstatic.
While I admire people like James, global capitalism has proven itself to be pretty much immune to trade unions. It’s just not a fair fight any more. It’s like a team of well-organised rat catchers armed with traps and mallets trying to stop a computer virus. They’re operating on totally different playing fields. One is old and slow, a bi-product of the mechanical age which gets around on foot, whose threats are physical, obstructive and primitive. The other is a complex, nebulous, shape-shifting entity with access to tax havens, devious lawyers, political lobbyists and unlimited reserves of cheap labour from around the world.
What makes this worse is that big trade unions are essentially political structures not unlike a lot of the companies they rile against, whose leaders earn ten times as much as their members. No wonder membership is declining. Besides their dwindling influence and the lack of unity in a global temporary workforce, big old unions just don’t appeal to people who grew up with Tony Blair as a Labour prime minister. Unions embody a 20th Century form of power which struggle see, let alone connect with the thing it’s trying to hit. Even if their interests are aligned, to the young worker toiling in a sandwich chain, big unions are as antiquated and removed from their experience as coal mines and steelworks. Which is why I’m so encouraged by James' campaign, even if he’s on a hiding to nothing.
Just before I joined, there were rumblings of forming a union at the cultural place, to demand better pay. Again, the London living wage was mooted. While you expect a company like Pret to act like a plantation owner, you’d think there would be more enthusiasm for the living wage in a firm whose director of operations is regularly seen swanning around in a Ken Loach t-shirt. But my friends at the cultural place were just as afraid of losing their jobs to actually form a union as the Pret guys, so they settled for a 20p an hour pay rise from head office, which means we’re still earning less than the guys who serve sandwiches.
*Name has been changed.