Hospitality sector drives surge in trade union membership

The flood in trade union membership, especially within the hospitality sector, has been warmly welcomed by campaigners.

Unite the Union flag

Trade unions have reported a surge in membership throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unite – which represents over a million mostly private sector workers – has just reported that it’s membership among hospitality workers has swelled by 11.4% since the start of the pandemic.

Unite has been campaigning against the jobs cuts announced by companies such British Airways and Rolls-Royce – as well as organising workers in hospitality, where just 3% of workers are union members. The trade union cited members from construction, aviation, hospitality, and logistics joining in their “tens of thousands” because they “are very frightened.”

Unison, the largest trade union in the UK with almost 1.4 million members, had, in late May, seen a net increase of 16,000 since the start of the year. This was an 18% higher rise compared to the same period in 2019.

The rise in some union’ membership has been welcomed by progressives. Scottish Greens MSP Patrick Harvie, for example, saluted the rise in Unite membership among hospitality workers. Harvie has tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament highlighting reports from Unite of a significant rush in members from the hospitality sector since the start of the pandemic.

“Hospitality workers have been hit hard by Covid-19 with thousands of avoidable job losses alongside sharp practices like fire-and-rehire, refusals to furlough, and rewriting terms and conditions, so it’s not surprising many more are organising through trade unions to fight back,” said Harvie.

The Scottish Greens MSP went on to describe wider unfair practices facing the hospitality sector labour force that the pandemic has exposed and how trade union membership offers worker protection.

“The pandemic has also exposed issues of low pay and insecure work which were already rife in the sector. We know that increasing levels of trade union membership helps to improve pay and standards so this must be a focus of Government action to support the sector’s recovery. My advice to anyone working in the sector is to join a trade union,” said Harvie.

The treatment of workers in hospitality has been described as a “national disgrace.” Research reveals that an estimated one in five workers across the restaurant, pub, bar and fast-food sectors have lost their jobs since January.

In a press statement about hospitality workers driving the trade union surge, Bryan Simpson, Unite Hospitality organiser, said:

“Thousands of workers have lost their jobs unnecessarily at the hands of unscrupulous employers who would rather use Covid as a cover to offload experienced workers rather than using the Job Retention Scheme to *retain* them. Those who are “lucky” enough to still have a job have had their hours cut, their holidays removed and their contracts made even more insecure. Many more have had to live on 80% of poverty pay, with no tips.”

Teaching is another profession that has witnessed a surge in trade union membership. The National Education Union, which represents over 450,000 teachers and education professionals, report 20,000 new members since the start of lockdown

The rush to join unions coincides with recent triumphs by union leaders, who actively influenced the design of the government’s furlough scheme. Union leaders also won concessions in guidance that stipulates employers must publish risk assessments and consult with workers’ representatives before reopening.

Around 91,000 people joined trade unions in 2019, most of them women – the third year in a row trade union membership has gone up.

Gabrielle Pickard Whitehead is a freelance journalist.

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