A Guide to Hospitality: Community businesses & wildcat strikes

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written by

Amardeep Singh Dhillon

Sep 8, 2020

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This article has been adapted from a speech given at Stir to Action’s Playground for the New Economy festival and an article originally published in Notes From Below. It was published in Stir Magazine, Autumn 2019. To support our journalism, purchase this issue or an annual subscription.

In 2018, the workers from The Ivy House pub in South London launched a wildcat strike, shutting down the pub for three days. The striking staff demanded the reinstatement, pending investigation, of four members of staff dismissed without due process, trade union recognition, and an end to zero-hour contracts. A year on, even though we are still negotiating with the management committee, the action has opened up crucial conversations about the place of workers in community businesses, the need to centre staff in the management of their workplace, and the potential for hospitality sector workers to organise. In terms of its business practices – paying the London Living Wage, for example – The Ivy House stands out in comparison to other hospitality jobs in the capital. But a community business offers new possibilities and higher worker expectations. One of the most important outcomes of the strike action has been a more productive relationship between staff and committee and, while there is undoubtedly more work to do, a year later we are now poised to sign new contracts that will set a new bar for employment terms in the UK’s hospitality sector. 

While The Ivy House could become a model for inclusive workplace practices, we are conscious that trade unions are all too often under-resourced to deal with small sites, such as community businesses. Full- Time Officers, stretched across hundreds of small sites, don’t have the capacity to envisage fighting structural changes within community-owned workplaces, especially when these sites are independent and likely to be the smallest in any major union’s portfolio. The support of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) and its organisers has been crucial in mobilising our workforce, but in the months since the strike it is the staff who have taken the lead in articulating our demands and participating in negotiations with our employers. The strike action was hailed by trade unions and left-wing media as a testament to the power of union activity – and it was to a certain extent. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous to pretend that we didn’t benefit from the unique structure of community businesses. My colleagues and I were counting on our ability to leverage shareholder support against the social capital of our employers, and while we willingly risked our livelihoods, we knew we had a greater chance of success than if we were illegally striking at a chain pub. 

The Ivy House also exemplifies the opportunities that community businesses can offer to workers, too. As a nonprofit that aims to serve the wider community, the board are not driven to exploit workers in the same way as Wetherspoons or TGI Fridays might be. Despite this, workers still found themselves in insecure work and suffered as a result of mismanagement and the inherent disparity between professionals on the board and employees with direct experience of the hospitality sector. In the wake of devastating austerity, the erosion of social infrastructure, and the relics of Big Society initiatives, community businesses occupy an uneasy space between dominant and alternative economic models. The Ivy House, for example, since it was saved from property developers in 2012, has stood in opposition to traditional business models by serving the wider community and providing social infrastructure. That said, the pub was a flagship of the Big Society campaign, the first pub to be bought under the Coalition government’s 2011 Localism Act. 

In general, community businesses engage uneasily with government initiatives, local networks, national funds, regional government, and private equity, and in doing so both reproduce and challenge existing labour-capital relations. The use of private capital, government, and charitable funding to support the development of a business model that is not primarily motivated by profit but still operates within a capitalist market, positions The Ivy House at an intersection of top-down and grassroots, national and local economic structures. While we recognise the nearly impossible task of making community businesses financially sustainable, we also need to acknowledge the privilege that makes it even remotely possible. 

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The Ivy House’s purpose is to serve the wider community, but it’s also equally true to say that the fulfilment of this aim involves ‘community-making.’ Precisely because community businesses often emerge in times of crisis – the threat of venue closure, or the sale of a building to property developers – they require an immediate financial investment that can only be given by those with a certain level of disposable income (who, incidentally, are more likely to be white). Rescuing a local venue and transforming it into a community business is time-consuming and demands a particular skill set, ideally combined with social connections, similarly more likely to be available to white middle-class residents. Naturally, those who are leading the charge to save an at-risk space initially depend on existing social networks and capital to develop the “community” and then become those who take on strategic roles. This can easily and inadvertently lead to the domination of white middle-class members and users and this becomes difficult to address given the challenges of trying to stabilise a new community business. Issues like this have no easy answers, but there are small steps through which the social responsibility of a community with ‘assets, networks, capacity and capability’ can be fulfilled. Some take the form of local initiatives that need support, such as Southwark’s Little Village, which provides baby clothes and equipment to families in need and uses The Ivy House as a drop-off point. Another approach would be investment in similar community-serving initiatives, or fundraising activities for local causes (both of which The Ivy House does). 

The strike action and subsequent conversations at The Ivy House have revealed that the position of workers in relation to the wider community has to be a priority when considering social responsibility. The staff now comprise a ‘third pillar’ in the pub committee’s vision. There will always be an imbalance between workers and employers, even when those employers don’t stand to make financial gain from our labour. Enabling greater worker autonomy and engagement, however, goes a long way to offsetting the power imbalance. The ideal approach would be to embed worker participation into the existing management structure. Within this model, workers or a designated representative could participate in committee meetings, access its minutes, or bring supervisors on board with specific working groups. There could also be the introduction of a mechanism to enable the workforce to collectively own or accrue shares in the business. While shares do not offer financial dividends, the ability to vote in AGMs and call EGMs could sustain an engaged workforce invested in the pub as a coalitional project rather than just a temporary workplace. There are problems with these specific proposals, however. The strict rules governing share ownership mean that they cannot just be given away, the presence of workers in committee meetings could conceivably involve a conflict of interest, and workers may simply find it undesirable or even exploitative to be expected to commit to prolonged periods of unpaid labour. 

One small way in which the committee has shown itself open to greater participation is to include a staff representative on the interview board for the hiring process of a new General Manager. This is unheard of in the hospitality sector and shows that The Ivy House is not just a pub that happens to be a community business. Additionally, since the strike action and despite the absence of signed fixed-term contracts (negotiations have gradually progressed), staff have been treated as if they are already employees rather than workers. The disciplinary process is now fair and fairly applied and in the absence of a final union recognition agreement, union representatives are recognised. 

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There are three major takeaways from The Ivy House story that other community- owned businesses can learn from. The first is that however well-intentioned your project, if your business is not strictly a worker co- operative, you have to accept that you are in a position of power over your workers. Running a community business is stressful and time-intensive, and when things fall through the cracks it’s the workers who suffer. If you aim to run an ethical business, you have a responsibility not only to be open to workplace unionisation but to actively promote and encourage it. Community businesses are social hubs and educating people about the importance of workplace unions can have implications throughout the hospitality sector. Unions will enable your staff to feel secure enough to be open about their concerns without risking their jobs, as well as becoming more invested in the business. Furthermore, hospitality is a notoriously difficult sector to organise, and while community businesses can be oases of ethical practice, it’s irresponsible not to look to how they can become enablers of organisation within surrounding sites. Not only can community businesses set a blueprint for ethical business, they can actually support workers outside of their workplaces to unionise and demand fair treatment. 

The second takeaway is that while conflict can be the basis for positive change, TUC unions are, by and large, woefully under- resourced to support independent businesses. We had some of the most incredible organisers advising us in a personal capacity from the V, but our experience since the strike has been sobering. In the face of a pessimistic pragmatism across the labour movement, we need radical approaches that go well beyond the legal minimums to empower workers. I welcome BFAWU president Ian Hodson’s speech at this year’s National Conference that stated, in no uncertain terms, that unions should back striking workers even in the face of anti-union legislation, and I hope this will be borne out in the many ongoing struggles of the Fast Food Rights’ campaign. 

The third takeaway is that the idea that young people are politically disengaged, or that the service and hospitality industry cannot be organised, is facile. Just look at the Wetherspoons workers in Brighton who went on strike last year, the Fast Food Campaign in London that’s taking on McDonalds, and the Antic workers who are fighting employers who breach health and safety regulations. The unrest and anger I’ve encountered in all the hospitality jobs I’ve worked is indicative of a barely bridled appetite for change – give us the tools, platform our voices, educate us, and listen to us when we are educating you. 

Ultimately, The Ivy House case is both a testament to the power of collective action and a warning as to the limitations of community initiatives. It offers a glimpse at the radical potential of community business and reinscribes the limitations of their ideological base. Greater worker empowerment in the hospitality sector more broadly, if it happens, will be incremental. We’re proud to have taken the first steps towards it, and offer The Ivy House as a space in which to open up the conversation beyond our own situation.

Amardeep is a London-based journalist, bar-tender and Branch Secretary of The Ivy House Union (BFAWU), writing on music, migration and trade unionism.

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