After a mass strike of Dundee millworkers in 1906 was offered no formal support from their existing trade union, Mary Macarthur and John Reed of Dundee Trades Council founded the Dundee and District Union of Jute and Flax Workers. Upon its foundation, the union had over 3,000 members; by its peak in the twenties, the union held the loyalty of as many as 20,000 people in the Dundee area, two-thirds of whom were women.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the grievances of workers in Dundee at the turn of the last century. Low pay and long hours defined the existences of those in the town’s dominant jute and flax trades. The average worker’s day was 12 hours long, with a 45 minute break in the morning and an hour’s dinner time in the afternoon.
It might seem strange to compare conditions today with those experienced by workers a hundred years ago, but for far too many all that’s changed is the scenery. As a hospitality worker, I am writing this after working a 13-and-a-half-hour shift with a fifteen-minute break. That’s the life many workers in this industry face in 2019.
And long hours aren’t the only challenge hospitality workers face. I’ve been forced to pay for my own uniforms, experienced workplace bullying and sexual harassment — from both customers and colleagues, and had my wages withheld while working in one of the swankiest restaurants in Scotland.
Scotland’s low-paid workers are no longer in mills — they are in bars, restaurants, hotels, and call centres. Many of us go to bed when you wake up. We service your relaxation time. Without rest, without respect, a job which is meant to bring others enjoyment can turn the lives of workers into a misery.
It would be far too kind to characterise hospitality as merely an industry gone wrong. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it is an industry which facilitates racism, sexual violence, and social isolation.
But hospitality workers continue to push back. At the end of September last year, workers at the Dundee restaurant Brassica walked out in protest at unpaid wages — the first wildcat restaurant strike in the city’s living memory.
Workers took action because they were owed upwards of £15,000 in unpaid wages and tips, and did so without any union backing or even involvement. A similar walkout happened with workers at Dows Bar in Glasgow, who walked out on New Year’s Eve 2018 over their wages not being paid.
As workers are increasingly using their own means to challenge their employer — often without union backing — we could do worse than look back to when the labour movement was being born. In the Dundee mills, workers often acted of their own accord, locking out bosses and taking over production themselves.
As organisers, our role shouldn’t be to attempt to tame militancy or cool down direct action — our job is to give workers the tools to build their own winning strategy.
But nor can we rely on the intoxicating buzz that ‘movement moments’ like wildcat strikes bring. We must ask ourselves difficult questions: why are we, the labour movement simply reacting to workplace injustices, instead of going on the attack across the country? How can we be better at empowering workers in sectors that have proven difficult to organise?
When the buzz of a protest and its media coverage fades, we must build the infrastructure that allows movements to be sustainable. Our strength is not measured simply by members coming and going, but by building union density and recognition agreements for our union members.
The working class in Britain today looks different to the Dundee millworkers of a century ago. It is now majority female, and workers are often BAME, disabled, or LGBT; issues such as sexual harassment and racist abuse confront the modern working class as well as low wages and poor conditions. In scores of workplaces, they are the issues workers most need unions to challenge — and confronting them is the basis on which unions can build cultures of solidarity.
To build the power we need, there are no short cuts. New apps or social media can be useful tools to aid movement building, but they are not quick fixes — and they will never replace serious organising. No amount of branding will fix low trade union membership rates among young people, or unionise unorganised sectors of the economy. Hospitality workers deserve so much more than consumer servicing from their trade unions.
To quote one of the great slogans of our movement: ‘the past we inherit, the future we build’. The past we have inherited is deindustrialisation. Dundee’s mills have lain empty since the 1970s, but they still loom on the landscape. We have a duty in the modern economy — one of low pay and insecure work — to rebuild the union power that once won a decent living for workers in those now decaying mills.
In the face of widespread misery, we can offer something far more powerful than cynicism and demoralisation. Our movement can give people the means to take back control of their lives. It was founded on nothing but the hard work of our class. Let’s not watch it slip away.