Part five of our series on the cost of living crisis ...

BANK of England governor Andrew Bailey caused a stir when he told workers in February that he wanted to see them showing “quite clear restraint” in their wage claims, so as to prevent a wage-price inflation spiral.

The comment was widely derided, including by Unite the Union’s new general secretary, Sharon Graham, who responded: “Why is it that every time there is a crisis, rich men ask ordinary people to pay for it?”

Perhaps more surprisingly, Bailey, who earns £575,000 per year, also irked a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, Danny Blanchflower, who said that pay had already been “frozen for a decade of Tory rule” and that it was “time for workers to tell [Bailey] to get lost”.

READ MORE: How a revolution in Scottish public transport can help tackle cost of living

Indeed, if 10 years of austerity wasn’t bad enough, workers are now facing the sharpest decline in real incomes since ONS records began in 1956-57. In that context, will workers follow Blanchflower’s advice by telling their bosses to “get lost” and fight for pay rises to cope with the rising cost of essential goods like food and energy? Or is the fear of poverty likely to make workers less confident about joining a union and taking industrial action?

Tough time to work in hospitality

The National: The bar at the Bull and Dog pub and restaurant in Ormskirk which has had some bookings cancelled. Hospitality firms are ramping up calls for support from the Government for hard-hit pubs and restaurants as the Omicron variant sweeps the country and

SOMEONE else who did not take too kindly to Bailey’s call for “restraint” is Bryan Simpson, who organises hospitality workers for Unite in Scotland. “It’s obscene that someone whose annual salary is 20 to 30 times what our average member earns can say that,” he tells The National. “Some 60% of hospitality workers earn less than the real living wage.”

Hospitality is a notoriously low-waged and precarious industry, and the pandemic crisis brought an avalanche of job losses and furloughs, as cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels shutdown. Now, just as the industry begins to get back on its feet, the cost of living crisis has come as another body blow to the waiters and baristas whom Simpson organises.

“There were 600,000 job losses in hospitality across the UK during the pandemic crisis, but a lot of that was ‘fire and rehire’,” he said. “So you had a lot of workers coming back from being paid £11 an hour to being paid £9.50 an hour.”

The lack of job security means a hospitality worker can have their lives turned upside down overnight. “One worker I represent in Glasgow, who has a young child, has lost their job three times since the start of the pandemic crisis. He was a chef in a five-star hotel, and now he’s in a cafe. He went from £30 an hour to minimum wage, £9.50,” Simpson said.

“He lost his flat because he couldn’t pay the rent. He found a cheaper flat and within six months the rent was increased by 15%. Add to that the rising costs of heating, and he’s struggling to pay for that flat now, but there are few places out there that are cheaper.”

READ MORE: Europe shows ‘laissez-faire’ economics is not the answer to the cost of living crisis

Given the extreme precariousness many hospitality workers are experiencing right now, what chance is there that they will take the risk of a collective grievance or an industrial action against their employer? Simpson, who has been organising hospitality workers since 2015 and has seen trade union membership triple in the sector in that time, says the cost of living crisis is “making workers more determined”.

“There’s a sense of ‘we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain’,” he says. “Obviously there’s anxiety and fear for workers who have only just joined a union and have never challenged their bosses before but their treatment by management is galvanising them and breaking this ‘we are all in it together’ idea.”

Simpson has been part of organising some remarkable victories in Scotland’s hospitality sector. Some 4500 Unite hospitality workers at Pizza Express, one of the largest restaurant chains in the UK, forced management to U-turn on a change to the tips policy made in April last year. The tips were previously split 70/30 between front-of-house staff and the cooks in the kitchen.

“In order to encourage chefs to come back and work as the pandemic eased, Pizza Express unilaterally imposed a new tips policy which forced the tips from front-of-house to pay for the wage rises of back of house,” Simpson said.

In April, the move to a 50/50 tips policy was successfully defeated by demonstrations and the threat of legal and industrial action across the country.

At MacMerry 300, a Scottish-based bar and restaurant chain, a dispute over pressure to work at Christmas time despite positive Covid-tests led to two-thirds of the workforce across 14 bars joining the union. The workers lodged a collective grievance for “systemic mistreatment” which included allegations of sexual harassment and cover-ups as well as Covid and health and safety breaches.

“Most of these workers are young women and you can see they’ve grown in confidence by taking on their bosses collectively,” Simpson says. “Now we think we are going to get an agreement from MacMerry 300 to pay the real living wage, so across the whole chain workers will get £10.50 an hour.”

A revival of the trade union movement?

THE efforts at MacMerry 300 are undoubtedly heroic but the overall situation is still trending towards greater precariousness for low-income workers. The number hired on zero-hours contracts in Scotland has risen from 46,000 in 2013 to 85,000 in 2021. From 2020 to 2021, an additional 13,000 Scottish workers had a zero-hours contract.

Gregor Gall, visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds, has been studying Scottish industrial relations for decades and told The National unions are still struggling to get to grips with organising workers on precarious contracts.

“There are probably more attempts going on now than ever before but they are not at the scale that is required,” he said.

Gall cited Simpson’s efforts in Unite as “the kind of thing that needs to be replicated on a much greater basis” but believes unions’ limited resources mean they may not see it as a priority at the moment, as their current members are also facing major pressures.

The National: Unite the Union

“It’s difficult to create resources to spend on trying to recruit groups of workers where you don’t yet have a membership,” he said. “It’s easier internally to make the argument for dedicating resources to existing members.”

The Scottish Government has established a union modernisation fund to support new organising efforts but Gall describes this as “small-scale” relative to the forces pushing in the other direction, which include Boris Johnson’s government.

Brief hopes that the shocking mass sacking of P&O ferry workers could lead to a pro-union employment law at Westminster were dashed, when the Tories shelved plans for an Employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech.

Since Thatcher began her crusade against trade unions in the 1980s, organised labour has never had a friend in 10 Downing Street, and that doesn’t look like changing anytime soon.

Indeed, the industrial relations professor is highly sceptical of all direct comparisons between today and previous eras, including the late 1970s, which was the last time there was a major inflation crisis in the UK.

It led to some of the most important conflicts between workers and bosses in British history and some media reports have speculated about “a return to the chaos of the 70s” in this crisis. Gall believes such a titanic struggle between classes remains “light years away”.

“If you go back to the 1970s, where there was a major fall in the value of real wages, the level of class consciousness was a lot higher,” he said. “And I think that’s one of the things that colours and shapes the response that workers have, particularly those in unions.”

Certainly, union membership and the number of strike days per year are nowhere near the level they were half a century ago but there are some signs that unions in Scotland are beginning to respond to the current crisis facing workers.

READ MORE: What can Scotland do to tackle the skyrocketing price of food?

First Bus drivers in Glasgow called off a strike after getting a much improved pay offer, while Stagecoach drivers in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire in Unite won a 10% pay increase. ScotRail drivers are currently in an ongoing action over pay which has severely affected services. Gall sees a common thread between all of these disputes.

“Where disputes are happening, it’s usually connected to transport. You have to look at why it’s these workers and pretty much only these workers who are engaging in significant levels of action.

“I think that comes down to an understanding of which workers have important forms of leverage, and by contrast where do workers not have leverage or where have they not yet discovered their leverage?”

Do public sector workers have leverage?

THE Scottish Trades Union Congress has called for a real-terms increase in pay for those in the public sector which would require the Scottish Government to deliver a pay rise of at least 8%, something ministers have given no indication they would be willing or able to do.

Indeed, almost echoing the Bank of England governor, Scottish Minister for Employment Richard Lochhead said only “sensible” pay claims will be accepted.

The dispute over pay also has to be seen in the context of Finance Minister Kate Forbes’s Spending Review, where she announced that Scotland’s public sector must become more “efficient”, with real-terms cuts due across a range of departments, including long-suffering local government, where there is likely to be significant job cuts.

Leaders of Unite, Unison and the GMB wrote to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (below) warning that strike action will “close schools across the country and see waste piling up on the streets” if more money isn’t forthcoming for councils.

The National: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon making a speech as she officially opens the Margaret Irwin Centre, which has been named in tribute to the STUC's first secretary, who was instrumental in establishing the organisation 125 years ago. Picture date:

Are we likely to see serious industrial conflict in the public sector this year, possibly across multiple unions? Again, Gall is cautious.

“When Unison balloted Scottish local government workers last year, they got a majority but it didn’t get above the 50% turnout threshold required by the 2016 UK Trade Union Act,” he says. “Though the situation has changed with inflation, and the mobilisation may be better this time round, it still remains to be seen whether unions in the public sector will secure the mandates they need for industrial action.”

Gall believes that a resurgence in the trade union movement will require a major social movement emerging in response to the cost of living crisis, one on a par with “the anti-Iraq war or anti-poll tax movement”, and it needs to happen quickly.

“Time is not on the trade union movement’s side, because the time for workers to respond to rising inflation is now,” he said.