Sick of the problems rife in hospitality, staff at the iconic queer venue Dalston Superstore formed a union. Their victories are already proving what organising can achieve in a sector with far too little union presence.

Dalston Superstore staff and members of Unite the union after their union recognition agreement is signed in June 2022. (Unite the union)

Dalston Superstore’s reputation precedes it. From raucous noughties pop nights that can only be hazily remembered to community drop-in services like HIV testing and housing support, it is a place that offers plenty to many. As one of the few remaining queer bars in London’s ever-shrinking pool of late venues, it has survived the impact of gentrification and redevelopment and is a natural port of call for queers visiting London or looking to stay. Behind the magic of Superstore is the staff who comprise the institution’s fabric, and it would certainly not be the same with a team that cared any less.

But despite Superstore’s well-deserved reputation as a haven of community, work is work, and the conditions its staff faced were those widely faced across the hospitality industry. If their problems were similar, their solution was somewhat different; in a rare moment in English hospitality, it was announced several weeks ago that Superstore workers had voted unanimously for union recognition, joining Unite the Union. This was noted constructively by Superstore’s owner Dan Beaumont, who said on the bar’s website that ‘our team now officially stand shoulder-to-shoulder with over 1.5 million workers across the country.’

How has the news gone down? ‘Our customers are broadly supportive of our union,’ says Max Beecher, a self-described ‘unappointed Queen of Dalston’ and proud Unite member. For them, the bar is a brilliant space, warmly describing the ‘camaraderie’ that exists between staff as well as regulars. But while it is an ‘extremely rare’ environment, workers still endure the same problems many hospitality staff face. ‘The expectation is to just grind away,’ they tell Tribune. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re short on people. There’s always this expectation that you turn up to work and just get it done—that was true of this and of every single hospitality venue.’

For many workers at Superstore, pay was a core issue. Just like in many bars across London, a probationary pay scheme existed where for the first three months of your employment, you would be paid less than your colleagues for doing the same work. Among staff, this created an exceptionally bad feeling in the workplace. Concern over workplace safety existed, with workers often being put into potentially dangerous situations at work and not being able to be guaranteed a safe journey home afterwards. Questions also abounded like having no staff toilet— ‘for us trying to make a minute away from the bar on a busy night,’ Max tells Tribune, ‘you’d just see a massive queue. If you wanted a piss, you’d have to tell yourself, “oh well, there goes my break.”’

A sentiment that things had to improve brewed under the surface for years. But things really reached a boiling point for workers more recently, as the coronavirus lockdowns came and went. Not only were staff at a heightened risk of catching the virus—Max bleakly jokes that they caught it at least four times—but were also dealt the responsibility of preventing transmission, registering details, doing hourly sanitising, and enforcing the separation of different groups of people, along with the impossible task of stopping people from dancing. ‘We’d be coming to tables,’ Max laughs, ‘telling people—I’m counting seven on this table. You’ve got to pick your least favourite friend.’

Max told Tribune that it was ‘the most mental strain I have ever felt on the job’. But the crisis also triggered a deeper change in perspective. ‘It made me think that this job should be afforded the respect of someone coming into the same place every day and try to keep it going against adverse circumstances that were constantly changing.’

Eventually, workers drafted a grievance letter which focused on getting rid of probationary pay. When management responded positively, safety was taken up as an issue: after winning the argument that their management had a duty of care that extended beyond the hours they were working, it was agreed that workers would be able to invoice taxi rides home as expenses, and following discussions with Unite, new policies over workplace safety and difficult customers were drafted which has meant that a real welfare policy for staff exists beyond ‘toughen up’. And they got their staff toilet. ‘No more running around the back of the venue and pissing in an alleyway anymore,’ Max says. ‘That’s our union-gained toilet.’

Since it was announced that Superstore gained recognition, there has been a real knock-on effect. Just a mile or so down the road is The Glory, another legendary LGBTQ+ venue whose staff are currently engaged in securing union recognition. On a national basis, hospitality workers are fighting for wage dignity and employment rights from Brighton to Glasgow. ‘There’s something in the air that’s galvanising people,’ Max tells Tribune. ‘People are really realising what unionising can achieve for them for the first time in ages.’

Max believes that the pandemic triggered a real shift in perspective. ‘A lot of people’s relationship to work changed,’ they tell Tribune; ‘it certainly has for me. In the past I’d have to be taking any shit that’s going, grinding away all the time. There was a shiftmaster in my brain.’ But for them and many others, the intensity of the crisis has brought the reality of work into focus. ‘Why must I always be at work and just accept any conditions on offer? I’ve spoken to friends who work in hospitality and other venues as well.’ For them, Max says, ‘work doesn’t need to be this central thing in life that everything revolves around—what is actually important is how people want to spend their time.’

But if an historic crisis was the moment to begin fighting for better, the reasons for workers organising in their industry remained age-old. ‘Hospitality is an industry where people who work the worst conditions are encouraged to think they can’t do anything about it,’ Max says. ‘There’s almost a reliance on people who are stuck in that position in a lot of hospitality venues to make it work.’

In Max’s words, Superstore union members want to ‘crack that culture’ across the country. ‘If unionising swept through hospitality, it could change that culture—all that feeling would disappear. It would mean the possibility to exploit would evaporate. It would mean that for people who worked in nightlife, it would be a job you’d go into knowing that your employer will genuinely have your best interests at heart—or at least not be able to get away with murder.’

In the past few years, the hospitality industry has regularly made headlines, with what has been termed the ‘Great Resignation’ taking place as simmering discontent with harsh working practices and work-life balance has led to workers finding new opportunities—and the industry facing unprecedented levels of resignations and staff shortfalls. But in practice, this has meant only slight or temporary improvements in pay for many, and while some bar managers may learn to be nicer, there are still the long and gruelling shifts to contend with.

Within this restive context, Superstore staff have gone against the grain, demonstrating to other workers there’s no need to curb their ambitions, and that they can achieve wholesale improvements by fighting hard for a workplace union. They have been proactive in sowing the union seed across other hospitality venues, too, sharing resources and giving advice to other workers on how to get things going themselves. To help push that potential forward, Max and fellow Unite members are intending to start monthly open forums for anyone who works in hospitality and is interested in unionising their workplace. Already, they say, ‘people here have been very committed to giving people the resources to do it themselves.’

Does the future give Max hope? Laughing about ‘Gen Z types on TikTok’ gaining thousands of views for doing ‘bite-sized videos about the history of the workers’ movement,’ they are cautiously optimistic. ‘I do like to hope there’s a whole generation of people about to come through who are willing to say—we are absolutely not going to be taking any of your bullshit. And I do think that’s a wave that’s coming.’

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