BANG BANG BANG. “ Fucking prick, open up the door!”
We’re stood in the grimey rear car-park of a Pizza Hut takeaway in South London with 6 pissed off former workers. They’re taking turns to pound on the metal door, sometimes using their fists, sometimes using a metal dough mixer. Inside the takeaway is the flat of the ATEAM franchise owner, a guy who owes a lot of workers a lot of money.
It’s mid-April, the coronavirus death rate is hitting its peak and the lockdown is maxed out. These workers are part of a group of close to 100 former ATEAM franchise workers, stretched across 6 stores from Norbury, South London to Tunbridge Wells. They’ve been out of work since March 23rd, when the franchise owner, Simon Byrne, unilaterally chose to close the stores and lay off the whole workforce. But now it’s a week since they were meant to have received their last paycheck, and they’ve realised that something is up.
After about an hour of pounding on the door, Simon emerges and he’s clearly in a state. He’s intoxicated, and from what the workers have said, it’s more than just alcohol. The workers say this is nothing new, and they have seen him in worse states in the store previously. But we’re faced with the first question. How do you get the money you’re owed from an uncommunicative boss who’s in some kind of collapse, with no easy enforcement mechanism, despite a seemingly clear case of wage theft?
This is a reflection on the Pizza Hut campaign that Croydon Solidarity Network supported between mid-April and the start of June. It’s based on a few in-depth interviews with the Pizza Hut workers, as well as our experiences on the picket lines, visiting the franchise owner, speaking with workers in impromptu roadside meetings, phonecalls and from being part of a large WhatsApp group.
We hope that it gives a sense of the novel situation that a medium-size group of workers faced in the midst of a pandemic, the actions that they took with our support and the successes and limitations of the campaign. We also try to raise some wider questions about fighting under the pandemic and our organisational model as the solidarity network.
We feel that in-depth reports into moments of struggle are essential to revolutionary practice, because they give us an insight into the complex, messy dynamics that exist in the class, and opportunities to learn from our successes, and more importantly our failures. Part of the reason for launching the Lets Get Rooted collective is that we feel there is a serious lack of honest reflection amongst the left. A big part of the reason for this is the tribal nature of political sects and unions which encourages people to play up their victories and brush away their defeats. This may serve membership numbers and fees (and it may not), but it certainly does not serve the class. Here we try to give an honest account of what happened and what we learned with this Pizza Hut dispute during Covid 19 and lockdown.
First off though, some background info about the work , workplaces and composition of the workforce.
Chaos and self-organisation at Pizza Hut
ATEAM franchise covers 6 Pizza Hut takeaways stores across South London and nearby towns (South Croydon, West Croydon, Norbury, Carshalton, Horsham and Tunbridge Wells). It’s been under the same ownership for at least the last 7 years. Pizza Hut’s corporate structure means that all takeaways are part of franchises, while the restaurants are owned by head office. ATEAM is a comparatively small franchise, with others in the area apparently much bigger.
Overall, Pizza Hut has been making multi-million pound losses for the last decade in the UK, and it’s multinational profit struggles have recently been impacting the share price of its parent company, Yum Brands (who also when KFC, Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill). However, Yum remains a multi-billion pound company with 50,000 restaurants across 50 countries.
Estimates from the longer-term workers were that the franchise took in around £85,000 per week, with the smallest store taking about £9k and the bigger ones taking around £18k. Stores at other South London franchises seem to take a similar amount.
Workers were each paid around £8.21 per hour, regardless of whether they were drivers or had an in-store role. Shift managers were paid a virtually identical wage with increased responsibilities and hours. As far as we can tell, the main advantage was the increase in hours. In theory, each store then had a manager, and there was an area manager for the franchise. The workers only worked at their specific store, but shift managers and managers would occasionally go elsewhere and knew each other. This would later prove important to coordinating together.
The franchise employed around 80-100 workers, but we haven’t been able to get a firm estimate. On a typical shift there would be around 5 in-store staff and 10 drivers. The work in-store was divided into a receptionist who took orders from customers or over the phone, one person making the pizzas, two people cooking them and one person slicing them. On busier shifts, like Friday and Saturday nights this number could double. Goods-in deliveries were made twice a week through a company called Bidvest, and then later Best Food Logistics.
Workers reported very limited use of technology in the stores beyond a basic measure of sales and the last year’s sales. There were no targets or more advanced software to either track regular customers and their preferences or the performance of workers. There was however a driver delivery app introduced called Dragontail Drive, from Dragontail systems, a globally expanding company for fast food delivery apps.
The workers themselves were all very local to the area. The franchise specifically recruited young people to work, who were paid less than over 25s, but there were also older workers across the franchises. The workforce was overwhelmingly male, and heavily first or second-generation migrant, with many workers from Middle Eastern, South Asian and African family backgrounds, as well as some Eastern Europeans. There was a variety of living situations with some renting with friends and others living with family. Most workers had only been at the franchise for a number of months, though some had worked there for some years.
Workers had previously worked in retail, for supermarkets, other food chains, restaurants and the other pizza delivery places (Pappa John’s, Dominoes) and some were in college or had been to university. There was also a significant overlap between Pizza Hut drivers and Deliveroo/UberEats drivers, and it was mentioned by some of the workers that Pizza Hut tended to attract a similar type of worker who enjoyed the independence of driving and had some of the militant attitude seen amongst the couriers. Due to the overlap, the drivers were also aware of the courier strikes that happened in 2018-2019. In conversation, it was also mentioned that due to immigration statuses and criminal records, Pizza Hut was for some workers a bit of last resort job, due to other options being closed to them. It raises an interesting question here where you have workers in potentially vulnerable situations with limited alternatives who nevertheless have a degree of militancy. This is different to the situation in many other types of work where workers are in a similar structural situation.
Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, the ATEAM franchise had been run chaotically by the owner for a long time. Mass late payments of wages were a fairly regular occurrence. There were reports of racism from the franchise owner, as well as alcohol and drug use. Some workers were not on the tax books, and the owner would often pay through a direct bank transfer, rather than a payroll system. This later created a lot of problems for the workers trying to claim their wages and furlough. There were also often shortages of uniform and various safety issues with the delivery scooters. Unsurprisingly, there was a high turnover of staff. The chaos was increasingly worse in the run up to the lockdown, with repeated sackings of managers and area managers. One store went through 5 managers in the space of a month.
This situation gave rise to resistance by the workforce beyond the individual disputes that workers were constantly having to try and solve with the owner. On a number of occasions, workers threatened not to come in to work unless late payments were sorted. When the delivery app was introduced, drivers basically ignored it, switching off the systems. Most interestingly, the lack of managers also meant that workers basically had to run stores themselves for months at a time. No training was provided, so they had to teach themselves and new starters to take the orders and make the food and deliveries. This allowed a significant level of control over the business. When people were underpaid by the owner, as a group the workers would clock each other out at later times in order to make up for the hours they were missing.
Into this already chaotic situation came Covid-19 and the lockdown. On March 23rd, Simon Byrnes took the unilateral decision to close the stores whilst other franchises stayed open. The entire workforce, including managers, were made redundant, but told they’d be paid for the last month as normal on the 14th of April. Many workers were also owed wages for previous months and holiday, but Simon seemed to do enough to prevent any collective protest, perhaps due to the unprecedented and rapidly changing pandemic situation.
The payday in April came and went. Some workers were told individually that there was a slight delay due to the bank holiday, but there were repeated excuses. It quickly became clear that something was up. At this point, the shift managers and managers used their contacts to place everyone together in a WhatsApp to discuss the situation. As is often the case with these situations, this was a messy and busy group, with a lot of ideas for action, anger and also rumours quickly swirling around. The rage continued to increase as workers exchanged screenshots of the lies and insults that Simon was sending them. In one message, he told the workers that the money was gone, but that he was happy to pay them in grease cutter, olives and napkins. This did not go down well…
This is the point where we made contact with the workers. One of them had posted in a Croydon Covid-19 ‘workers’ support group’ that had been set up by a local Labour councillor. We had dismissed this as being of no value, so we were impressed to see this thing turn up there! The councillor assured them that he had contacted the local MP, the council and written to journalists. So we piped up and offered to do things slightly differently. A rapid series of phone calls and messages followed, and we began to speak with the workers about what they might want to do to try get their money, or at least some revenge.
This was a situation characterised by intense anger, desperation and a sense of nothing to lose. Together, it was a powerful mix for militant action. Speaking with the workers, we outlined some ‘direct action’ type approaches, legal options and social media/media tactics, advising them to go ahead with all three. The workers agreed and participated in all, more of which below. But they also added a fourth and most militant approach – the shakedown.
In the first days of this whole thing boiling over, the workers went each day and held a vigil outside the main Pizza Hut store where the owner also lived. This was organised on a very ad hoc basis, with anger a clear factor in who came down and when. Once at the store, the workers would pound on the door and shout through the keyholes, trying to force Simon to open up. Sometimes this was done at night and often, it was successful. Simon would come out and the workers would challenge him and demand that he pay. The problem was that he would often come out intoxicated, make promises that everyone would be paid ‘in the next hour’ or ‘tonight,’ and then nothing would happen. The stores were closed, so the workers couldn’t strike to hit him in the pocket further, and any legal enforcement mechanisms would take many months. Other things happened though: Someone broke into one of the stores and trashed the place. Someone else destroyed CCTV cameras and someone apparently cut the internet cables. There was also talk of stealing the motorbikes and selling them to recoup the money. People were increasingly talking about physically forcing the owner to login and transfer the money owed.
At the shakedown, we have to hold up our hands and say that the level of militancy, speed and anger caught us off guard. This was new territory. We were happy to go along and support, but it was a lesson that even though we were careful throughout to listen to the workers and make it very clear they were calling the shots, our level of imagination was not as militant as theirs!
There were also problems, however. At one point, with Simon increasingly isolated, possibly bankrupt, and certainly intoxicated, we began to have a level of concern for what he might do to himself. He was after all human, however pathetic and despicable, and importantly, something happening to him would have a massively negative impact on the workers’ attempts to get their money.
A separate issue was the police. Simon regularly called them to come and protect his shop, which they did, harassing the workers and protecting a boss clearly guilty of wage theft totaling tens of thousands of pounds. The police also pursued individuals for suspected theft and damage. In simple terms, this was an unequal balance of forces, and so while the shakedown was very effective at putting pressure on Simon, it wasn’t necessarily effective in getting the money back. So it was worth looking at other options.
We launched an online social media campaign, naming and shaming ATEAM, but also Pizza Hut head office. We outlined all the messed up things that Simon had done, and made good use of his text about olives and napkin pay. We played the ‘key workers’ angle hard and tried to embarrass Pizza Hut as much as possible. The tweets went viral thanks to help from some unions and supporters and Pizza Hut quickly began to take notice, saying they were investigating, trying to speak with the workers and speaking with Simon.https://c0.pubmine.com/sf/0.0.3/html/safeframe.htmlREPORT THIS AD
We also agreed to go ahead with picketing a Pizza Hut store in nearby Penge, which was part of a different franchise and still open. We weren’t aware of any lockdown protests at this point in the UK, and the government had just passed its authoritarian powers act. So we advertised a ‘socially distanced exercise’ online and amongst contacts, spoke with Green and Black Cross for some advice, made our peace and went down.
Around 8 workers turned up, there were 6 or so from the solidarity network and 12-15 local supporters who came down having seen the online campaign. The picket was pretty impromptu, but loud enough and we used it to further fuel the social media campaign, which really was far bigger leverage than any hit to the orders of that franchise store. Interestingly, the cops turned up, but said they would leave us to it and then left. Weird!. We also had people come down from some unions, and while most were reasonably respectful and didn’t try to poach these workers (at least not too obviously), one loudmouth who said he was a teacher started shouting that they should all join the Baker’s union. We had already briefed the workers that this would happen, and the pros and cons of different unions that they could speak to, but it was also necessary to challenge this behaviour on the picket, which led to some awkward arguments. Come on, do us a favour people!
The workers felt the first picket was successful and so we agreed to call a few more. This time we held concurrent pickets at a Pizza Hut in Lewisham and one in Wandsworth, and one later that week by our friends in Greenford. Here we have to give credit to people coming down from IWW, AWL and BAFWU to support, which was decent during lockdown as people attached to other unions had refused on the basis of their union advising against protests during the pandemic… The pickets and campaign received some local media coverage and a bit of national press, with the workers agreeing to interviews. Again we used this to keep pushing the social media campaign.
Meanwhile, we were in communication with the Pizza Hut UK’s head of legal, through friends at the IWW union. We put the worker’s 4 demands to Pizza Hut – 1) That they paid what they’re owed. 2) That they furlough the workers. 3) That they investigate Simon and guarantee no repeats. 4) That they find jobs in other franchises for the workers.
Soon after the first picket and around the time of the later ones, Pizza Hut head office coughed up some of the wages the workers were owed for March. Almost all the workers we were in contact with were paid, though some were significantly underpaid. Still, the fact that Pizza Hut was both engaging with a random union claiming to be representing its workers, and that it agreed to pay wages that they had no legal obligation to cover (due to the franchised structure of the business), shows the fear that the social media campaign generated in the context of the pandemic. Pizza Hut also stated that Simon would no longer be allowed to run Pizza Hut franchises and they were looking for a new owner. It then began to get other nearby franchises to offer jobs to the ATEAM staff, which was another one of the demands that the workers had made. At the same time, Simon began to pay people individually, possibly due to individual letters being sent to him, or in the hope of buying off workers to return and work for him in future.https://c0.pubmine.com/sf/0.0.3/html/safeframe.htmlREPORT THIS AD
As expected, this, together with time passing, took the wind out of the sails of the workers. People dropped off after receiving their pay or stayed if they were underpaid or not paid. People took jobs elsewhere. Only a couple of workers went to ACAS and pursued that some of the way. Then in mid-May, Simon began getting in touch with people to say they would all be furloughed and asking them to sign an agreement. This had some dodgy clauses, like workers agreeing not to work for anyone else, and agreeing to waive all ‘fees, commission and bonuses’ owed to them. We advised the workers on this and urged them to act collectively. But at this point it was a couple of months into the crisis, resources were very tight and the workers were very much taking individual decisions. This was effectively the end of the dispute – though a caveat. If Simon does somehow reopen the Pizza Hut stores, or other stores, the workers will likely be back. And if so, so will we.
In terms of outcome, Pizza Hut did actually act on all four of the workers’ demand. Part of the wages were paid back despite no legal obligation on the parent company. Simon was investigated on some level and has apparently been blacklisted from running PH franchises. Some workers were offered Pizza Hut jobs elsewhere and some workers were eventually furloughed. In the context of the pandemic and its initial disorientation, this is not a bad material result.
As with all our work though, the real objective is to try and glean lessons that will somehow help revolutionary work in other, hopefully bigger struggles down the line. There a few things thrown up by this experience that we think it’s worth pointing out.
Crises are messy.
This was a situation with a hell of a lot going on and in pretty unprecedented circumstances. There was a lot of rage, contradictory action and plenty of strain. People got in trouble with the police, there was family breakdown, mental health issues and people needing to leave London due to their financial situations.
The desperate situation, with no jobs, no income support, a deadly pandemic and a dickhead owner all added up to people being willing to do much more than they might normally in fast-food organising. The normality had been ruptured, which created space for honest conversations about wider political and economic issues, working-class organising and creating bonds.https://c0.pubmine.com/sf/0.0.3/html/safeframe.htmlREPORT THIS AD
As mentioned before in regards to the shakedown, the situation evolved very quickly, in a chaotic, militant manner. We did our best to keep up with things and to support the workers without accidentally containing their militancy, but there are still learnings, as mentioned previously. This was a microcosm of the global upturn in workers’ action. It was brilliant, ambitious, imperfect and contradictory all at the same time. It was too rapid even for us to fully keep up, let alone some lumbering union bureaucracy.
‘Join a union’
Hopefully we have already made clear why a situation like this does not sit easily with either traditional trade union approaches, or the methods of the more radical, smaller unions. It was necessary for people to get their hands dirty, and while it’s true that a protracted legal process could have been seen through with a dedicated team, we’re not sure of the wider political gains to workers’ self-organisation from such an action. We repeatedly encouraged workers to take out ACAS applications, sending them how-to info and offering to do it with them and to see out the tribunal/small claims court process with them. We feel that if this isn’t led by the workers themselves then it’s a form of action that is quickly professionalised and removed from the workers’ direct experiences.
The other thing worth adding here is we approached the workers and said to them we weren’t after their money and didn’t have any perfect solutions. We knew a thing or two and would be honest about their options and what they could do. Had we required them to first join a union before we then tried to look at things, it would have been a non-starter, and too late even if they did join. Any professionalisation of this struggle would have also taken away the important raw experiences in militancy that these local workers lived through. Here we need to give a shout out to the IWW who were happy to assist us without requiring any membership of these workers. This is a level of flexibility that we appreciate and think is important in continuing to experiment with class organising.
Because Simon laid off his entire workforce, this also included managers and shift managers. This made a slightly weird dynamic, with people retaining posts of authority, with some shouting down others in the group conversations on WhatsApp. This is far from ideal, but on the other hand, the ex-managers were key to getting everyone into the WhatsApp groups and acting together on some basic level. We also return to the point that shift managers were paid virtually the same as normal workers, and some of the most militant people happened to be shift managers. Refusing to work with managers, as some radical unions may do, would have been a non-starter in this situation. There’s no neat conclusions that we can see here, other than you have to go from where the workers are and make the most of it from an emancipatory perspective.https://c0.pubmine.com/sf/0.0.3/html/safeframe.htmlREPORT THIS AD
Virtual organising during Lockdown.
Obviously, social media and WhatsApp was critical to this dispute, and it would have looked completely different 10 or 15 years ago. It was possible to organise pickets, protests and the impromptu vigils with workers who had never even met each other in person. We were able to survey the 50 workers we were in touch with to find out who was owed what and what people’s preferences were going forward.
However, much has been made of Zoom meetings and participation during lockdown, and it’s worth exploring the limits of that. Whilst it’s good that you can get mass inclusion, how deep does that commitment go? In this case, it became clear over time that the relationships between the workers and between the workers and us, did not run very deeply at all, unsurprisingly. This has important implications for organising collective action and unity.
At the height of the dispute, the workers were very vocal about how pleased they were that we had gotten involved and supported them. We had plenty of them vowing to be there for future solnet activity like flyer distribution or to help participate in research that we were doing. One worker even wanted to join our group. Over time though, this faded considerably. Apart from the three in-depth interviews we conducted for this article, there have not been more concrete commitments. This was pretty much what we expected, and going forward we’ve decided to try and keep up some contact individually with all the workers as we feel this would be a more meaningful measure of our ‘rootedness’ in the area and local class, than say paper membership of some organisation. The main thing is that these people experienced this dispute, saw what it was possible to do and that there were people who would support them.
We anticipate a criticism here that without formal membership of an organisation, collective organisation quickly dies out. Apart from the issues with asking for up-front membership pointed out above, and the sudden nature of this dispute which made long-term organising questions irrelevant for the time being, we’d add a couple other things. Firstly the standard point about paper membership vs actual empowerment and involvement. We individually surveyed all 50 workers we were in touch with about their personal circumstances and opinions and repeatedly followed up with them. We experimented with different forms of decision making for this group of workers connected together through only a whatsapp. We have made a decision to keep in touch with individually, plus through the main whatsapp going forwards. We feel that this largely fulfills the meaningful function of an organisation in this situation – but we’re of course open to debate!
Secondly, a wider point about organisational models. The practical point of our project with CSN, is that we are flexible so that we can begin from the particular circumstances and positions of the workers we deal with and go from there, without tying ourselves to too many preconceived ideas. This means that if the workers want to get militant, we will be advising them from a political standpoint and without our own organisational concerns getting in the way, which is something we’ve seen happen even with the small unions. There is also a theoretical consideration here – we approach local struggles by examining how they fit in to the totality of working-class experience and existence in the area, and by looking at the potentials and limitations within that. We feel that this is the core of building workers’ power. We have mixed feelings about the bureaucracies that represent workers and the impact this has on that most essential revolutionary focus. This is a complex issue though, with much more to be discussed on organisation, workers’ control and mediation of struggle.
Around the time that this dispute broke out, there were reports of ex-Macdonald’s workers taking over their closed-down store in Marseille and using it as a base to distribute food parcels. We circulated these reports to the workers, but they didn’t receive too much traction and obviously the action itself was not followed up.
On the one hand, there are clear reasons for the difference in these two situations. The Marseille MacDonald’s has a distinct history of worker activity and occupation dating back to 2018. When the crisis hit, there was already a foundation for some sort of emancipatory action. This was not the case in the Croydon Pizza Huts.
On the other hand, it’s still worth looking at why workers’ action didn’t go further. Some of these stores had essentially been self-run by workers for months in the lead up to the pandemic. The workers explicitly recognised that there was no real need for managers or the owner and they had a pride in their ability to run the business. When the stores were closed, why didn’t they think to take over? What would have made the difference between materially self-running the store (though still on a capitalist basis), and taking it over to manage its function cooperatively, and perhaps outside of capitalist processes? We’re not really sure. Perhaps a sustained core of support from the local area, as in Marseille, would have made the difference. Worth thinking about though!
Whilst this dispute only involved some 80 or so workers, it was interesting seeing how its impact reverberated outwards through the local class. The workers’ families became involved in the struggle – tweeting at Pizza Hut, coming down to picket lines and of course supporting the laid-off workers. One manager had family working in other franchises and he brought some of them down to a picket, even speaking of trying to get them to walk off the job.https://c0.pubmine.com/sf/0.0.3/html/safeframe.htmlREPORT THIS AD
We had a sudden influx of Crystal Palace (the local Premier League football team) fans following and retweeting us. Some locals came down to pickets and there was even a local Residents Association, who normally retweet their local Conservative MP, that offered to support some of the workers. There was some interest from the local mutual aid groups, but this translated into frustratingly little on the ground support. (This is an issue that will be explored in a separate article we are preparing on mutual aid and social reproduction in Croydon during lockdown.)
Most importantly, we had several instances on our regular workplace flyering trips of workers having heard of the dispute. This included a Royal Mail warehouse worker, an Amazon driver and former Pizza Hut worker at another franchise, and a separate Pizza Hut worker at a different franchise. This is the significant point for us in terms of our organisational model and political project as Croydon Solidarity Network. Our aim is to get stuck into and study the local working class, learning about their conditions, disputes, ideas, potentials and limitations. We are very realistic about what we can and cannot do as a small group of people in an area with tens of thousands of workers across hundreds of businesses. Therefore we try to look at issues and struggles that have the potential for a greater relevance and consequences for the wider local class. Our role in those situations is to engage, support, advise (without dampening workers’ initiative), learn and to report to the wider revolutionary network. The larger project that we are plugged into – Let’s Get Rooted, will try to do this on a UK wide level. We throw this out there for others to take on this strategic perspective and to help with this work.