Reading these two pamphlets reminds me of a poem by Bertholt Brecht, Questions from a Worker who Reads. In it he points out that real history is made by the people at the bottom of society; in this case it is the catering and hotel workers who feature in this history of the TGWU 1/1647 International Catering Workers Branch 1972-2002 called “This Is Our Story” and Barbara Pokryszka’s Tale of Two Cities.
Both publications are set in London and the story of this TGWU branch reflects the history of the city; a place where many migrant workers arrive, hoping to find decent work, pay and conditions. They don’t – and that is one of the reasons why trade unions exist and why they are still necessary because of the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people in this society.
“This is Our Story” is about how a group of migrant workers in 1972, Portuguese to begin with, who went to the TGWU to get union support because of the exploitation they were facing at work. Like many other migrant workers, they had been politicised by events in their own country; the Portuguese had fled the dictatorship which was then ruling the country.
Over the years the International Catering Workers Branch 1/1647 has supported many diverse ethnic groups; from Portuguese to Turkish, Irish, Malaysian and Ethiopian. It is inspiring to read their stories in their words. It’s inspiring to read the way in which the TGWU got them justice; not just in terms of decent pay but in ensuring that they were not bullied but treated with respect at work.
Again and again these stories impressed me because they show the real power of workers and trade unions. And how this union branch offered hope to other vulnerable workers. In the 1980s they recognised that young people from northern areas of the UK with high unemployment were taking the jobs usually done by overseas migrant workers so the union stepped in stop them being exploited.
Last year a new publication by a hotel worker, Barbara Pokryszka’s Tale of Two Cities, was published by Unite. In it she brings the situation of hotel workers up to date but this time in the format of a graphic novel. Barbara spent four years working for the Hilton Hotel in London and became a shop steward to demand better pay and conditions. In the novel she explains why the big hotels want migrant workers- because they think they are easy to exploit. But she also shows how trade unions can organise workers to obtain not just a living wage but also enforce laws such as Health and Safety at work.
It has never been easy to organise workers in the hotel and catering trade and much of this history has never been recorded. That is why these publications are important. Knowing your own history can give workers confidence in demanding decent pay and conditions and of giving hope to migrant workers in particular who are often targeted by employers because they think that they can exploit them. Using the format of the graphic novel is also a good way of recruiting migrant workers whose first language is not English.
Trade unions are not good at promoting their own history and the copy I have of “This is Our Story” is a series of photocopied pages which have been stapled together. I suggest that Unite should republish it in the modern day format of a Tale of Two Cities and use it as a promotional tool to recruit and organise workers.
Contact Hotel Workers Branch at Unite see