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Bristol’s Wildcat Bakery Strike

After being told four out of nine workers were being made redundant – two with minimal notice – staff at Bristol's Assembly Bakery are striking for better treatment.

Credit: Alex, Bristol

Last week, on an overcast morning in Bristol, a group of bakers and hospitality workers congregated in a historic tranche of the Old City to protest their alleged treatment at the hands of their employer.

It was a spontaneous act of solidarity. All nine workers from the popular artisan Assembly Bakery in Old Market turned up to launch a five-day walkout—or wildcat strike—that would lead to the temporary closure of the business many of them had put their lives into.

The workers were in good spirits. Homemade placards read ‘we knead respect’ and ‘doughnut take our jobs’, giving passersby a flavour of the issues at stake. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) showed up in solidarity, as did the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Passing cars honked in support.

The comradery of the picket line masked what was reportedly a more malign situation. Last week, two bakery workers claim they were fired from their jobs over email with just one week’s notice, receiving little explanation and less support.

Strikers say it began with a call to an emergency meeting issued by company director James Dingle and co-owner Jamie Pike. Dingle and Pike reportedly told all the bakery’s workers they were being given one week’s notice of redundancy, and would then be told individually whether they were being taken back on. The next day, the strikers say they were unable to contact the pair through the official email address they had set up. Jamie Pike denies being unreachable – his response is addended to this report.

Alex, 29, has worked in retail at Assembly Bakery for almost three years. He says this was the first time he had spoken to either Dingle or Pike.

‘They gave some reasons for the redundancies,’ Alex tells Tribune. ‘The rhetoric was mainly around the business failing. They said nothing could have been done, but the directors are so disconnected from the business, they could have turned things around if they’d involved the staff.’

Other, more unusual reasons also apparently came up. Alex says Dingle explained he wanted to study for a Master’s degree, adding that it would be difficult for him to find the time while running the business. ‘It seemed like an inappropriate thing to admit when we were losing our jobs,’ Alex says. ‘He’d known the business was collapsing for a while and he should have engaged with us to prepare us for the worst. We accept that redundancies have to happen, but this shows a total lack of respect.’ According to Jamie Pike, James Dingle has since stepped down from his role.

The workers sat together in a local park after the meeting. As they processed what had happened, they agreed not to go into work the following day.

‘We set up a joint email address,’ Alex says. ‘We sent the directors two demands: clarify who did and didn’t have a job, and guarantee a one-month notice period for every worker facing redundancy.’

The bakery responded quickly. Four retail employees—including Alex—were set to lose their jobs. Two were given one month’s notice; the other two, one week.

‘They were really proud that they had responded within twenty-four hours,’ Alex says. ‘They held that up as some sort of achievement, but they refused to amend our notice periods and they only let us know because we threatened to go on strike.’

The workers claim the Assembly Bakery directors have refused to explain the rationale behind who was losing their jobs, despite it being a legal requirement. ‘We need to know they’re not discriminating in their choice of who stays and who goes,’ Alex says. ‘They said the people being kept on are the best in the business. That isn’t good enough.’

Assembly Bakery co-owner Jamie Pike denies that there has been a refusal to explain the rationale, adding that the managing director made the decisions ‘based on who she felt would be best suited to the smaller and simpler operation.’

Alex says one of the most challenging aspects of the strike has been trying to get the directors to communicate with them via a single point of contact. ‘We’ve been contacted individually,’ Alex continues. ‘There’s been a lot of emotional manipulation. They’ve been pulling on people’s heart strings, talking about food waste and claiming the strike is pushing the business closer to insolvency. It’s made it difficult to maintain solidarity.’

But Alex also says that the public picket helped to bolster the workers’ resolve. ‘We contacted the IWW who suggested we organise a picket,’ Alex continues. ‘We didn’t know what to expect—none of us are that political—but it feels amazing to have all this support. Connecting with people in the community really boosted our confidence. It was a great day. We’re all in now.’

Alex and his co-workers weren’t able to organise the industrial action through official channels. The law states that employers must be given seven days’ notice of a ballot, which takes around two weeks to conduct – and with a one-week notice period on the horizon, the workers concluded that a wildcat strike was the only way to go.

Despite lacking the job security of an official strike, the picket reaffirmed the workers’ beliefs that their demands were reasonable and achievable. ‘The two staff members work part-time,’ Alex explains. ‘We did a back-of-an-envelope calculation, and we think it would cost them roughly £1,000 per staff member to keep them until the end of the month. We’re losing that much every day we stay closed. I don’t know why they’re being so stubborn.’ When asked about this figure, Jamie Pike said it likely ‘would be in that region’.

Assembly Bakery has been active on social media since the strike broke out. Comments have been posted on one page expressing solidarity with the workers, decrying ‘misinformation’ and imploring people to hear ‘both sides of the story’. But the workers feel the bakery’s comments misrepresent their stance.

‘They’re suggesting we’re striking in protest at the redundancies themselves,’ Alex says, ‘rather than the circumstances under which we’re being let go. They know that isn’t the case but it’s very misleading for the public. We all know that redundancies are a fact of life. It’s the way they’re going about it we have a problem with.’

Assembly Bakery describes itself as a business with an ‘ethical stance’. Its website boasts of sourcing ingredients responsibly as well as powering the business using renewable energy sources. But Alex feels these ethics aren’t reflected in the businesses’ treatment of its staff.

‘They’re taking this all extremely personally,’ he says. ‘I think they’re having a hard time reconciling our demands with their view of themselves as ethical businesspeople. But instead of firefighting on social media they should engage with us directly to discuss the issues at hand.’

After last week’s action, the directors of Assembly Bakery have agreed to meet with the workers to discuss their terms. The outcome of the meeting remains to be seen, but the picketers see the invitation as a step in the right direction.

‘Our demands have yet to be met,’ Alex continues. ‘But the bakery is listening to us in a way that they weren’t before the strike. We have a seat at the table now.’

Alex is quick to add that the strike isn’t ideological. He says this is the workers’ first experience of industrial action – an issue they see as purely practical.

‘There is no ideology behind it,’ Alex says. ‘In my mind, it doesn’t have anything to do with politics – it’s about standing up for yourself and the people around you and asking for what you’re reasonably entitled to ask for.

‘It’s simple,’ he concludes. ‘They’re not treating us fairly, they’re not doing what we asked them to do, so we’re not going to work.’

Assembly Bakery’s management issued several sets of comments.

Co-owner Jamie Pike said the following:

No profit has ever been distributed to any director or shareholder of the business.

The stress of the strike has caused Jodie the managing director to resign. This has meant it is not possible to run the business until new management can be found.

There was a meeting held last week on Wednesday in which two people were given their one week statutory notice period and two people were given their one month statutory notice period. This was intended as a temporary measure and the statement of intent to re-employ staff following a recovery was made. We also stated that we would like to find jobs for those affected with friends and partners in the city.

The reason four people were let go was because the only way for the company to survive was to reduce the size of the team and reduce the costs.

We also set up a WhatsApp group to help keep the conversation going. This was welcomed by the team and then went silent after the strike was organised. Several of the team made contact privately saying they did not agree with the action.

After a further exchange of emails, Pike added the following comments:

The big reason that it has been difficult to keep the business going is that there are not enough chefs, bakers and managers in the food sector at the moment.

James D has stepped down from his position in order to retrain and is unable to be a director at the same time as doing his course.

There has been no refusal [to explain the redundancy selection process]. The decision about who to keep in the smaller team was made by the bakery manager/director, who made the choices based on who she felt would be best suited to the smaller and simpler operation. I imagine there were several factors including skills experience, team dynamic, suitability for role, availability and shift pattern.

Neither James nor I went on holiday. James does not work on the weekends and was with his family at an event away from Bristol. I was helping at my best friend’s wedding. Alex made a refusal on behalf of the team to communicate with anyone via the chat group [mentioned above] stating we must use email. This essentially made it impossible to respond to email till today (Monday) as I don’t have email on my phone. We also tried to call Alex a couple of times so we could discuss things but he refused to pick up and messaged back saying we had to use email.