Hotel workers grow active branch

London Hotels branch unites hundreds of sometimes isolated members, says Dave Turnbull

While most members are able to elect workplace stewards, for a minority this is simply not possible. That might be because the employer does not recognise unions, or simply because there are only a handful of members in the workplace.

Within the London Hotels branch, we have developed a way of working which involves branch committee members functioning like stewards.

The London Hotels branch is known as a “sector branch” covering hotels within the central London area, ranging from five-star places like the Dorchester to budget brands. It has grown from 90 members to around 900 and has developed a track-record for activism.

The branch committee do much more than control finances and organise socials. They are the key to the branch’s success.

The branch officials take on the role of a shop stewards’ committee and support members without workplace representation.

Rather than looking after just one workplace these “stewards” support members working for any of the employers 100 or more covered by the branch. It is the branch committee who do the bulk of the disciplinary cases, grievances and often see things through to the appeal stage.

If they need guidance on a legal issue, they will chat it through with me. I don’t regard them any differently to the way I regard any group of shop stewards I deal with in the Food, Drink and Tobacco sector.

What makes it possible for the branch committee to function in this way is that the members are all from the same industry and so have common cause.

In a sector-based branch like London Hotels, chefs are chefs no matter which hotel they work in. They share the same problems and see the solutions are the same for everybody in the branch – and in the sector. 

One of the consequences of this hands-on approach to members’ issues has been an increasing number of members attending branch meetings to get individual advice.

So now we have two branch officers available on Mondays for a couple of hours to listen to members and give advice on individual problems. It supports the members better and it allows the meetings to focus on wider collective issues.

This activity of the branch committee has been very positive. Members look to their branch in the same way members in a large workplace look to a shop stewards’ committee or a convenor to resolve their issues.

Just like any stewards in a workplace, the committee members have built up a good working relationship with HR managers except that this is across the sector. All-in-all branch officials effectively acting as shop stewards has made a positive difference in the way people are treated in many hotels.

The branch officers also ensure the branch has some ongoing activity for members to participate in. So when members come to a branch meeting they are not just being given information, they are asked to get involved in something, whether it’s a survey, a protest outside a hotel or helping to put together a newsletter.

For example, if the branch is doing a mail-shot, when members come along to a meeting, they are asked to stuff envelopes during the meeting. Members turning up to their first meeting are often surprised they are being asked to do something, but they are quick to learn.

It’s not just one-way traffic - we are trying to engage them in the whole process – getting members to understand that the union is a collective organisation.

The message is consistently being put across that this is their union branch and if they want to change or challenge things, then they have to be prepared to get involved.

The fact that we do not have recognition in many hotels means that if a collective issue with an employer comes up, we are very unlikely to be able to mount industrial action. But this does not mean we are powerless.

If we organise a protest outside the hotel at a suitable time when members from other hotels are free, we can always guarantee that a respectable number of them will turn up. We have done this at several London hotels and quite often we get a positive result.

Members are beginning to understand that taking direct action can succeed, especially at a West End hotel – they are vulnerable to bad publicity. As well as coming to meetings and stuffing envelopes, members understand they are expected to be a bit vocal, active and in-your-face.

Dave Turnbull, L&E regional officer for the Food, Drinks and Tobacco sector

For more information, contact Dave Turnbull