Sheffield’s Fight Against Poverty Pay

The 'Sheffield Needs a Payrise' (SNAP) campaign is organising workers to fight back against low pay – and offering an alternative to the dismal working conditions that plague post-industrial Britain.

Long before the current crisis and December’s general election result, many in the labour movement expressed concerns about how Labour’s limited amount of community organising was letting people down and diminishing our reputations in working-class communities. 

The Party went some way towards addressing this by creating a Community Organising Unit (COU) and appointing community organisers in some areas. But sadly, this didn’t properly cut through as effectively as it should have done. It didn’t link up to workplace organising by our trade unions. Despite the efforts of many, it missed the vital link between the two.

History has taught us that what’s needed for a genuine change in the balance of power towards working people can’t be simply delegated to a Labour government. But decades of stripping down community-based institutions has meant that many people don’t value the importance of united struggle in the same way previous generations did, and the widespread sense of collective solidarity has eroded in many former Labour heartlands. To rebalance our society in our favour, we need to rebuild this consciousness by organising collective action at a community and industrial level.

This is exactly what the Sheffield Needs A Pay Rise (SNAP) campaign is doing, and it is a model that should be replicated across the country. People have a right to be angry in Sheffield. For several years the city has been reported as the low pay capital of the country. In December 2019, sadly, this was still the case with one in ten workers paid less than £7.90 per hour in 2018. Sheffield exemplifies the ever-increasing inequality between the many and the few.

In 2016, Sheffield Trades Union Council and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) formed a coalition to launch a campaign over poverty pay. After raising funds from sympathetic individuals, community organisations, across the trade union movement, they could appoint a full-time organiser dedicated to coordinating SNAP. In line with the campaign, Sheffield TUC commissioned academics at Sheffield Hallam and Staffordshire University respectively to undertake research to inform the campaign. This research provides evidence about the extent of work insecurity in Sheffield and various trade union strategies to combat this.

Following the 2019 general election, the campaign was relaunched in January 2020, with Rohan Kon as their organiser. She is also involved with ACORN, a community union who have done great work to support and empower private tenants across the country. Rohan has now been able to build an effective model, focusing resources and energy on fighting the corporations exploiting low paid workers in the city.

However, the campaign’s strongest asset is that it is worker-led. In the workplace canvassing sessions I’ve joined, I’ve been taken aback by the fact the majority of activists are the very workers the campaign reached out to and empowered. These are workers not only interested in addressing the issue they face in their own workplaces but are sharing those successes to inspire others into activity. It is the epitome of what we mean when we talk of campaigning from the “bottom-up.” And these organised workers are winning success after success.

Before the Job Retention Scheme was announced, a solid number of workers from across three Sheffield Mitchell and Butler pubs (one of the largest operators of pubs, bars and restaurants in the UK) marched on their bosses with letters of collective Covid demands. As a result of their pressure, they won full sick pay and guaranteed no job losses for all Mitchell and Butler workers nationally.

The following week, Wetherspoons owner Tim Martin told his staff he wouldn’t be paying them a penny until the government reimbursed him. SNAP organised local Wetherspoon workers to work alongside Wetherspoon workers in the SpoonStrike campaign across the country. Soon, they mobilised more than 14,000 people to “e-mail bomb” Martin to demand that there be no gap in pay during lockdown. The campaign mobilised serious political support, and 95 supportive MPs signed an open letter to Martin pressuring him to concede to the demands. As a result he made a complete u-turn, making the call to pay staff and apologise for his “mistake.”

In last year’s general election we suffered the loss of Labour seats in many of our traditional “red wall” constituencies. The need to win these seats back is obvious, but to do so we must face up to why these communities turned away from us. I don’t for one moment underplay the impact of Brexit, but this was not the sole reason. 

The deindustrialisation that started over 30 years ago runs deep. It resulted in the growth of unstable employment, with a rise in zero-hour contracts, bogus self-employment and low pay. We must add to this the failure to invest in public services over the last decade, the increase in their privatisation which may have started under Thatcher’s government but certainly continued to expand under the last Labour government. 

People face tremendous difficulties: in accessing a stable and affordable place to live, private rents out of step with income, low pay that doesn’t cover the bills, low incomes preventing savings to pay a mortgage deposit and the decrease in local council housing stock. And despite the great offers in the Labour manifesto to set about solving these problems, it failed to resonate with a lot of working-class voters.

Labour does not need to change the socialist direction it was going in. But it does require an acknowledgement that MPs alone cannot achieve better social justice when in power. Nor is the answer just to continue better working relationships with our trade unions, even though that is imperative under the new leadership. What is needed is exactly what SNAP is doing. 

The campaign recognises that working-class and community organisations achieve success when are led by and owned by those they concern. Aided and suitably resourced by our trade unions, campaigns like SNAP should be influencing the actions of elected politicians – both nationally and locally. From this grows real working-class power, borne of collective action and organising, and this should be taking places in the hearts of our left behind communities. Taking this approach to rebuilding our communities can also bring back a belief within them that collective action works, and that unity is strength.

Many people talk of a “new normal” on the other side of the lockdown and Covid-19. But we all know that this Tory government’s idea of a new normal will not be one that narrows inequality and rights the wrongs that people feel in their workplaces and homes. Trust is not easily won, but when victories and successes are collectively owned, we show that socialism is not just a theoretical alternative but an achievable reality.