This weekend, staff at Glasgow’s 13th Note are staging the first bar strike in Scotland for 20 years. Their fight is proof that workers can organise against the worst conditions in the most casualised industries.

Staff members picketing Glasgow’s The 13th Note. (Credit: Unite Hospitality)

A rodent infestation, a leaking washing machine, chipping knives, warm fridges and unstable deep fryers—these are just some of the health and safety issues staff at Glasgow’s the 13th Note have been dealing with in the past six months alone. ‘At the minute, it seems like every time you put down one issue, another two crop up,’ Nick Troy, a chef at the bar, restaurant and entertainment venue, tells Tribune. While issues like these aren’t new for staff members, what is new is an almost fully-unionised team and, for the first time in twenty years, a vote for strike action. 

Last week, staff at the venue unionised with Unite voted overwhelmingly for strike action after issues raised in a collective grievance, filed more than four months ago, have gone mostly unaddressed. The main issues, says Troy, who is a lead union representative in the workplace, are health and safety, pay, contracts (agreed on a collective rather than an individual basis) and union recognition. Staff are also calling on their bosses to sign up to Unite’s Get Me Home Safely initiative, which ensures free and safe travel home for staff working late (something that will be a given once the venue’s licence is renewed) and to properly staff their shifts. 

Kitchen staff are often put on long, ‘extremely punishing’ shifts alone, doing the work of three people by themselves. ‘I’m on a twelve-hour shift on my own tomorrow,’ Troy says. But the reality is, he’ll likely end up working thirteen to fourteen hours just to get everything done. The kitchen has lost two staff members, a chef and kitchen porter (KP), this year alone, and the owner hasn’t replaced them. In fact, says Troy, ‘she refuses to hire anyone until this dispute is over’. The bar is also continually understaffed, he adds. 

This makes health and safety issues all the harder to deal with. Off the top of his head, Troy lists a number of fixable but dangerous issues plaguing the kitchen. ‘The dishwasher has been fixed but it’s broken again now,’ he says. ‘It leaks all over the floor and people are slipping and sliding all over the place; we also have a tap that’s effectively dangling on a wire—that’s snapped and people have cut themselves on it.’

On top of this, he says, the ‘rodent infestation continues to be a disaster’. Last month, the restaurant was told to close by environmental health due to a mouse infestation. ‘At one point, I was seeing a mouse every single day, sometimes in the kitchen,’ says Troy. However, while the venue was allowed to reopen, Troy says that the problem persists. 

The health and safety issues have been so bad that Troy and his colleagues in the kitchen walked out under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act (1996), which states that an employee can protest unsafe and dangerous work environments without the risk of being fired or losing pay. ‘We did that after a fridge almost collapsed on us,’ says Troy. ‘The wheel snapped off and it almost fell on myself and the head chef.’

The lack of regard given to health and safety at the venue, Liam, a sound engineer and KP at the venue, tells Tribune, is what really sets it apart from other hospitality jobs. ‘In other workplaces, if there was an issue with mice or something like that, it would be of grave concern and they’d try to fix it straight away,’ he says. ‘At the 13th Note, it’s kind of just like “let’s half-ass it and get it over with as quickly as possible or ignore the problems.”’  

Faulty or incorrect and ‘mismatched’ equipment also bleeds into the entertainment side of the venue, where Liam works as a sound engineer. ‘The technical issues, at the very least, are really embarrassing,’ he says. ‘We have to apologise to clients for the state of the equipment and the lack of equipment.’ He says that the PA equipment has ‘overheated and stopped working’ during performances and that there’s a faulty bulb which can be ‘scary’ to see. ‘There’s always something going on,’ says Liam. 

Workers, then, are unable to pride in their work—and this isn’t helped by low wages. At the venue, the head chef and sous chef, as well as sound engineers, are paid below the industry standard. The venue’s head chef is on £11.25 an hour, much lower than the average wage of a head chef, which is around £17.50 an hour. Troy makes around £2 less per hour than the standard. While sound engineers have seen a pay increase to £13 an hour in the past six months, Troy says that many can make £30 an hour elsewhere. Everyone else is on minimum wage, but the union is calling for an uplift of junior wages to Glasgow’s Real Living Wage, which is £10.50 an hour.

Contracts are also an issue for the majority of workers at the 13th Note. Some staff, says Troy, haven’t been given a contract at all, while others are on zero-hours contracts, there’s no set pay and there’s even a clause that states the contracts are subject to change without warning. ‘So we’ve got no security at work,’ says Troy. ‘The contracts are a total mess.’ While the owner has offered to give staff contracts on the grounds that they will be negotiated on an individual basis, staff have refused to accept anything less than collectively agreed contracts for everyone. 

Organising the workplace has been no easy feat—unsurprising considering hospitality is a sector with some of the lowest union membership. The biggest issues, Troy says, have been staff turnover (which meant they had to delay the grievance twice before finally filing it in February), apathy and a lack of self-confidence. ‘Workers will be struggling with rent but don’t feel they deserve a pay rise,’ he says. He got round this by explaining, in concrete terms, Marx’s theory of surplus value and reminding his coworkers, whenever they complained about their pay, conditions or the rising cost of living, that unionising was the answer. ‘You have to be patient but firm,’ says Troy, who says he tried to make space to hear out his co-workers’ concerns, many of which were not unfounded considering they were met with union-busting tactics since voting to strike. 

Not only has the owner flat-out refused to officially recognise Unite, but at least nine staff members also received ‘at risk of redundancy’ emails days after they voted to strike. When staff refused to engage with their bosses’ emails, Liam says, they attempted to contact staff through their emergency contacts. Thanks to action taken by Unite, these redundancies have now been paused until staff and the owner can meet with ACAS on 19 July. 

Of course, staff members were perturbed by the threat of losing their job. But, ultimately, Troy says, it only bolstered the union and their decision to take action. ‘When we got those emails, I thought that we were done and it was all going to fall apart, but it was actually the opposite that happened,’ says Troy. While all the reps happened to be away, either on holiday or off sick, and people began to panic, Troy says ‘new leaders emerged,’ making sure that the fight didn’t die down. ‘Things could have easily crumbled, but they didn’t,’ Troy adds.

While some members of staff did start looking elsewhere for work (who wouldn’t after being threatened with redundancy?), everyone has promised to stick with their fellow workers and see this dispute through to the end. ‘It would have been easier for everyone to jump ship,’ says Troy. ‘But everyone said they’ll be keeping on at the Note because they don’t want to abandon the struggle that we’re all engaged in. It’s really heartening.’

Staff will walk out on four consecutive weekends starting on 14 July and ending on 4 August. ‘Such is the strength of feeling from our members (that make up 95 percent of the workforce) that 100 percent voted for strike action on a majority turnout,’ Bryan Simpson, a lead organiser with Unite Hospitality, tells Tribune. ‘We would urge the owner to bring positive proposals to the table with ACAS next week to end this dispute and bring our members back to a workplace that is safer, fairer and with union recognition.’

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