bar humbug: the new shape of work

Pete Wright went through the mill of precarious bar work

How does one go about describing the experience working at the Clapham Grand? Well I suppose it depends on who you ask. If you asked management they would tell it’s like being part of a giant family or a rainbow or something; which is somewhat disturbing when you consider that the floor manager changed a total of four times in the three months I worked there. A model family for the broken society I suppose.

Management would probably cite how everyone knows each other’s names (they don’t) and how they enjoy each other’s company so much they spend a certain premeasured but non-compulsory segment of their free time outside of work together as well. If however you were to ask a worker I’m sure their answer would be pretty short and along the lines of ‘it’s like working at most bars in London’.

My term of service at this particular nightclub was relatively short, just under three months, but left a definite impression on me just how bad the conditions and expectations of workers in this sector can be.  The working week was short, the club opening three days a week, but the shifts were relatively long, each shift being 10 hours plus a wildly varying time for closing the bar after each shift.

The workforce consisted almost exclusively of first generation immigrants who on the whole came from different parts of Eastern Europe though there was a large Turkish contingent and one or two others.  While this was nothing new to me, what was new and disturbing was the total acceptance of the lack of even the most basic rights.

It is no exaggeration to say that there were no breaks for anyone throughout each night.  When I inquired why this was I was given a laugh, a pat on the back and some sort of EU bashing platitude which went something like ‘we don’t follow any European directives or red-tape here, we’ll play it by ear’. By ear in this scenario meant when you finish you can rest, that is unless you were management in which case legal requirements were stoically practised to a tee. Another favoured practice of the management was to collect everyone’s clocking in/out keys when the bar stopped serving and clock everyone out before the cleaning had even begun, thus saving the company anywhere between one and two and half hours pay per worker. Keeping in mind there were about twenty-odd people on at any time that’s a lot of hours.

Workers were also expected to never stop moving, as in standing still for more than a few seconds was unproductive and offensive to management. What this basically meant was that on a slow night, if you were a customer, you would have observed the tragic/comedic farce of workers shuffling around in circles picking up and putting down various objects at break neck speed for no discernable reason; polishing already shiny surfaces, stocking and un-stocking shelves continuously. At some points I found myself laughing, when I had a moment, at the absurdity of it all.

For all the people who think solidarity between fellow workers just somehow just naturally comes out of these sorts of conditions, it doesn’t. Throughout this period whenever I talked to other workers about the conditions of their situation they would, at best, respond with a grim resignation or bewilderment at my obviously ridiculous ‘British’ complaints. At worst though, some workmates would respond with hostility and talk to management about any seeming negativity in attitude, which I am quite ready to accept could be partially caused by my status as an outsider to an already long established hierarchy at work. On the whole though workers at the Clapham Grand just seemed to accept that this particular job was pretty much the standard and while it was crap that’s just the way realistic attainable work is.

So now I guess now we can get to how it is I came to leave such a dream of a job. The short version of the story is that I took a five minute break after seven hours of continuously serving behind a packed bar. The slightly longer version is that after seven hours of working continuously behind the bar I told one of my workmates that I needed to step out from behind my station for a second to rest. He rightly advised me to tell the floor manager my plan at the time. Unfortunately for me he wasn’t anywhere to be seen nor had he been for the last hour, maybe he was having a nap, but I’ll never know either way.  So after not being able to find the aforementioned manager I decided to step outside to have a cigarette. Upon coming back through the front door I was instantly jumped upon by my manager who had suddenly found his way onto the actual club floor and asked me whose permission I had asked. This was followed by the question of what right did I think I had to abandon my station for few hundred seconds.

I was subsequently called in the next day to account for my actions on the pretext of justifying the continuation of my employment, which I argued the best I could. In response I was given a host of pretexts for their immediately letting me go which supposedly had nothing to with my taking a break. These included not smiling enough, standing still too much, and stealing from the company. Just for clarity, in this context ‘stealing’ refers giving too much drink when pouring for a customer… Finally I was told this was in fact only a show trial and that I had already been fired, the manager’s final words to me being ‘If somebody higher up tells me the situation on the floor stinks of shit, what do you think I should tell him huh?’ With that I felt it was time to leave.  In retrospect I probably should have demanded the outstanding money they owed me there and then as I never did see any money for my final shift. I received lots of correspondence promising it was in the works, but this petered out in the end into a dead silence.

So what, if any, is the importance of a story like this to communists?

Well for one I think it reflects certain archetypal aspects of any given person’s experience of fully casualised labour.  To be more specific though I think it’s important because it reflects an experience in the day to day reality of a growing proportion of the working class today.  A large tendency on the left of Britain today and among older British people in general is to think that that this sort of experience really isn’t that important as this particular section of the labour force is completely transitory, or to put it another way ‘it’s just extra money for students’. Or it’s just for X group who have no real economic dependency on their jobs, or similar bullshit. Yet the overwhelming majority of people in my workforce were full-time, whether students or not, having to work full-time but never being a full-timer at any one of their jobs.

Another way to understand it is an ocean of part-time work populated by islands of full-time workers. People spread thinly across multiple work/time obligations with no safety net or assurances to speak of. Where we stand now in economic terms I can only see this experience becoming more common and as such I think it’s increasingly important to think about how both how important this change is in terms of work and how we organise around it.

I can only see this section of the workforce expanding with the cuts now in full swing and if we want to even stand a chance of fighting back were going to need creative solutions to the restructuring of capital, itself largely driven by the need to make old tactics of resistance redundant. It seems to be working.

We will need original solutions to this, but what are they? To my mind I can’t think of any guaranteed strategy, which I find quite scary. For the moment I’ll keep thinking about and working with the syndicalist ‘one big union’ strategy as it seems the most relevant to the work situation I have to live with.  If I’m honest with myself though, I don’t think alone it will be enough to stand up to saving, let alone improving, the current economic situation we find ourselves fighting to keep afloat in right now.

We’re going to need to find a way to a way to establish our own communist argument within struggles over conditions, relevant to the current situation but separate from the current public discourse of the mainstream right and left. Angry old-hat abstractions such as ‘Abolish the logic of work’ don’t mean anything concrete and ‘we need to protect the same working conditions/fight for better ones’ alone doesn’t actually pose a challenge to our role as wage-slaves, power relations within work or even our situation as a worker. What’s the right middle course between these points? I’m not sure yet, but I’d like to find out: and soon.

2 thoughts on “bar humbug: the new shape of work

  1. Another great article.
    That’s my position too – both the political confusion and pessimism, and the work situation. Unemployed atm, but bar work’s just about all there is, so I’ll work there if I’m lucky.
    I would imagine in situations like that, the first step is to try and break down barriers with other workers, just talking to them and try develop some common perspective. But as you say this is very difficult with the informal hierarchies of the workplace friendship groups and always being made to keep moving, and constantly watched over (by a manager who is sometimes paid less per hour than you! My girlfriend’s manager is paid more than her manager, who is paid on a salary, rather than per hour – pub work).
    I’d recommend the excellent prole.info pamphlet, Abolish Restaurants (http://www.prole.info/) as a relevant reference point for a discussion of this kind of work.

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  2. I just read this again – fantastic piece and very funny too.

    We should have more ‘my life at work’ stuff for the paper.

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