Photo credit: Colm. The Saramago dispute, Glasgow, 2023

José Saramago was a Portuguese communist known for his critiques of the IMF, the Catholic Church and financialisation. Until 21 April this year, his name could also be found in the centre of Glasgow, where the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) had outsourced its bar-cafe space to a private company. The Saramago bar was vegan, trendy and fairly expensive, but when its staff organised a 40-minute work stoppage to demand better conditions in March, three workers were summarily sacked. Three others walked out in solidarity and were subsequently sacked. In the end, a total of eight workers were fired for organising in the bar. A month later, the bar itself was evicted by the CCA.

The state of hospitality organising

Hospitality is a notoriously difficult sector to organise. Ellis Chapman, the IWW organiser for the West of Scotland, puts it down to:

‘the churn of staff going in and out of different workplaces. Hospitality is 5 percent unionised. And that’s just with trade union membership, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are organised and wielding power. Most unions have a 1 to 10 ratio of active members.’

The last few years have seen a huge staff shortage across Britain’s hospitality sector, with a record of 174,000 jobs available last summer. Despite this, and despite the fact that the service industry is one of the primary earners for the British economy, wages in hospitality are being suppressed. Because so few workers are organised in hospitality, there is little pushback against this, but there is a lot that could be won.

As Ian Allinson writes in Workers Can Win:

‘one of the weaknesses of the working-class movement is how bad we are at sharing our successes and what we learn from failures. This is partly because of the fear of employer reprisals, partly because we underestimate the value of our experiences and partly because recent decades with few strikes have left activists disconnected from each other.’ (p.235)

The Saramago workers have been at the cutting edge of hospitality organising in Glasgow, with creative tactics leading to major wins and the final implosion of the business. The following is an account of the dispute: its tactics, lessons, and effects on other hospitality disputes in Glasgow since, based on conversations with the workers and the IWW organiser supporting them.

IWW tactics

The work stoppage at Saramago did not come out of nowhere. For the previous ten months, workers patiently organised with the IWW, without telling management there was a union. Six workers delivered a collectively-written letter to the boss, which immediately won week-night taxi cover. Similar tactics led to a pay rise, then another pay rise. For some of the staff, this was their first experience of being in a trade union. One worker, Bianka*, recounted: 

‘I’m an immigrant here and there is not much information available about workers rights in general. When you start in the workplace, you just get the contract, but even if they explain it to you, there is no option of change. Previously, I felt like I was just kind of saying yes to things like I didn’t see an option. And as I started to learn about workers rights during this organising and with the union, I felt like that was empowering. To feel we can actually do certain things about it.’

Another worker, Colm*, says: ‘the IWW’s strategy was about putting the power in the hands of workers in their workplace to solve the problems on the shop floor. They emphasise the ready use of direct action, which I think is both more effective in the short term, and has a much more powerful effect on the workers who are organising. It has a transformative effect on people just in terms of how they feel empowered, versus feeling disempowered in work the rest of the time, because you’re told when you can eat, when you can go to the bathroom, bizarre things. People learn by being involved in conflict in their workplace or disputes with their boss. And they learn about unions better that way. And it’s not by being told, and instructed. It’s kind of through experience that people learn much more.’

Ellis, the supporting IWW organiser says: ‘If you’re not adept at manoeuvring through bureaucracy, it’s just overwhelming. So in the IWW, we try to reduce that bureaucracy as much as possible to give workers the freedom to define their own goals, define their own objectives, and meet those in whichever way that they think is appropriate.’

The workers’ advice to others organising in hospitality is to:

‘just talk to your co-workers. All of this is based on relationships with each other. And also keep the union secret from management for as long as possible. If there’s anything that’s been borne out in this, or was proven to be useful, it’s that even after you’ve delivered two letters, don’t acknowledge that there’s a union until you absolutely have to. A lot of unions go public as the first thing, but that doesn’t really earn you anything, it just makes you more open to repression from the boss.’

Once the Saramago bosses cottoned on to their workers organising, they started to have union-busting talks with individual staff. The CCA’s left-of-centre culture made the entire thing extra ironic. ‘This manager would sit across from us with half a dozen Support the Strike stickers on her laptop, but be telling us not to organise in a union.’ Several workers were treated to the same individualised conversation about how they were spreading negativity in the workplace. Their union meetings became a space to swap notes about how the management were reacting to the union, and to reinforce each other’s sense of collectivity whilst further actions were planned. 

Work stoppage

Colm: ‘In retrospect, we would have been in a much stronger place to do the work stoppage and the dispute afterwards had we had more support from inside the workplace. We were certainly a majority, but we could have been a stronger majority. There’s also other factors why we took the action when we did. Conditions were getting worse and worse and worse, like it was actually getting kind of unbearable to work there. People were ready to hop off the ship and just leave several times. And that’s the challenge of working in hospitality. It’s like the transience of the work; people definitely have this mentality of like “it’s shit here, I’ll just get a job somewhere else.” Conditions there might be better for a little while, but obviously the same contradictions come up again. So it felt like we needed to do an action or else everyone was just going to leave and we’d be back at square one.’

The primary grievance was that the bar was incredibly understaffed. The workers issued the bosses with a collective letter demanding more staff, and notified them that they required a response within three days. Silence from the bosses led to the workers’ action: a 40 minute work stoppage, which had an organised show of public support too. 

Colm: ‘I don’t think any of us expected the level of aggression the bosses reacted with when we finally did the work stoppage. We didn’t go into it naively. We did talk about possibilities and like, if they fire someone the day after or during it, how might we respond. But that they fired six people almost right off the bat, we didn’t expect that level of reaction.’

Bianka: ‘Even before the last letter we issued, we were already singled out and I felt personally targeted. From that point, I was aware that they might fire me at some point, or certain people who they suspect to be organisers. But the level of how they did it to me was what was even more shocking for me, because even though I expected it to a certain extent, like the first three firings were done in public, and it was very obviously to make an example out of us. The other staff members were quite shocked too by it, who were not part of our organising. And the CCA staff was shocked right away.’

After the first firings, the workers organised a huge protest outside the bar with the support of the IWW. A speech from a fired Saramago worker was followed by speeches from a CWU rep who’d been fired by Royal Mail, and a USDAW rep sacked by IKEA for organising around sick pay. UCU, Unison, GMB, PCS, RMT and Unite also came along to show solidarity, as did Living Rent and Glasgow’s Southside Strike Solidarity.

Over the next month, chants of ‘Union Busting is Disgusting’ rang out across Sauchiehall street almost daily, although the pickets varied in numbers attending. The Red and Black Song Club, Glasgow’s regular choir of solidarity, brought tunes to the dreary midafternoons and even wrote song lyrics about the Saramago dispute to the tune of ‘Whose Side Are You On’. Comedian Connor O’Toole came down to tell jokes and keep up the morale. Friday night pickets had a particularly good atmosphere. 

Sauchiehall Street has the largest foot traffic in Glasgow and thousands of leaflets were handed out. Hundreds of conversations were had with people encountering their first picket. A banner was dropped out the window of the flat across the road from Saramago saying ‘Reinstate the Sacked Workers’ so there was no forgetting the actions of the Saramago bosses. 

An open letter, signed by 284 people who engage with the CCA as artists, audiences and event organisers, called for the publicly-funded arts institute to pressure their business tenant to reinstate the fired workers with better conditions. The CCA’s workers were quick to show solidarity, often joining the pickets. Artists with events in CCA during this period showed practical solidarity either by not letting in anyone with drinks from Saramago, or by outright cancelling their events. Despite all this, the response from the CCA management was slow in coming. On 21 March, they released a statement on Twitter expressing ‘concern’ rather than support for the dispute. 

However, pressure was sustained such that Saramago ceased to do any meaningful business, whilst the bar also engaged in embarrassing public attempts to gaslight and discredit their fired workers. It also emerged that the bar owners had not been paying rent on the space for 3 years. The publicly-funded CCA had also bestowed free electricity, heating, cleaning and security upon the business gratis, although technically the bar was a tenant. Eventually, on 21 April the CCA announced they would no longer be doing business with Saramago – the bar was fired from the premises. 

Bianka: ‘I didn’t expect that they would give up their business because we wanted a couple of extra staff members.’

13th Note: the struggle spreads

The workers in the 13th Note, another bar in central Glasgow, were the only other hospitality workplace to show open solidarity with Saramago during the dispute – perhaps because it is quite rare for hospitality organising to be public knowledge. 13th Note workers attended the Saramago pickets and they organised a solidarity concert in their bar as a fundraiser for the fired workers. ‘They were fundraising too between themselves,’ Bianka notes. ‘It was amazing, like they were really open to change in unionising in hospitality.’ 13th Note are organised with Unite Hospitality. The union density in the bar is 95 percent, far higher than Saramago workers had. Even so, after the 13th Note workers presented a letter of collective grievance, management stalled for 11 weeks without replying. Inspired directly by the tactics at Saramago, on Friday 12 May the workers organised a sit-in at 13th Note as well as a demonstration outside the premises. Within a day, they had won several of their demands.

Colm says: ‘I hope they continue to push and take more action and take the struggle into their hands rather than the paid organisers leading it.’

Ellis: ‘We heard from the Unite paid organisers that they felt that once the Saramago dispute went public, a lot of their long-standing campaigns started seeing results from the bosses, because they were so scared of what was happening.’

Colm: ‘It’s just a really clear example that membership alone, or union density alone isn’t really worth much, it has to be backed up by action, or at the very least a threat of action. Because if the boss thinks you’re not gonna do anything, it’s very easy to ignore you. Power is derived from taking action.’

What’s next for the Saramago workers?

Ellis:In our organiser trainings we do discuss anti-capitalism. I think that helps people to understand the forces inside the workplace. When trade unions talk about “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” or whatever, it’s like, no, you should be in control of this work. You shouldn’t just be exchanging your life for -‘

Colm: ‘- better begging conditions. No bosses.’

Bianka: ‘Hierarchical owner-and-workers division is not the only way to operate in this system, it could be different and could be more. For me it was hard to even imagine an alternative. And that’s a big thing too. Just kind of, there are other options, other ways to work.’ 

The CCA will soon be opening bids for a new bar-restaurant in their space. Some of the ex-Saramago workers will be placing a bid to run the space as a workers’ cooperative. 

You can learn more about the IWW and join the union here:

For more rank-and-file organising tactics, whatever union you’re in, Troublemakers Conference will be held for all troublemakers at work in Manchester on 29 July. 

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