As a performer and promoter in London’s live music scene you never know what life might throw at you. This week I found myself in a pretty unexpected position. As both artist and label, Vanishing Point @ The Ivy House in Nunhead is currently the centrepiece of my musical activities. I put on and play at a gig there on the first Thursday of every other month.
There are a number of good reasons for choosing the Ivy House. It’s a beautiful venue with a decent stage, a great PA system and a cool lighting rig. The staff and punters are friendly, chilled and mostly love music. And of course it is London’s only communally-owned bar and music venue with a reputation for upholding high ethical standards and a sign on the window that boasts that they pay the London Living Wage. Even Fresh On The Net’s founder Tom Robinson played a Pride event there last summer. What’s not to like?
Bearing all this in mind I was somewhat surprised when my close friend and recent Fresh Fave Paul F Cook, whose duo is on the bill for our next gig, contacted me on Monday morning to warn that a friend of his had been due to promote an event there on Sunday and it had been cancelled due to strike action. However at this stage we both thought it was probably a series of one-off targeted strikes and probably would not affect a Thursday night gig. All the same I contacted the Events Manager to enquire about the situation.
By Tuesday however, events had moved on apace. I had now been contacted by another friend Dan Ross, promoter of Noizmaschin!! and owner of the SEEM newsletter and website which is the home of all listings to do with experimental music in the Capital. Dan wanted to warn me that there was ‘ongoing’ strike action and that my next gig might be in jeopardy. I emailed the Events Manager again and this time he replied immediately asking me to call him. It was then that he explained why he and all the staff were on strike and were now into their third day of action.
In short the management committee that runs the Ivy House had taken a decision to dismiss four members of staff despite the General Manager refusing to carry out the sackings when ordered to by the committee. They had also stated that these staff were on Zero Hours Contracts and therefore were not legally entitled to notice or an explanation as to why they had been fired. And while they acknowledged the right of staff to join a trade union (a moot point since it is illegal to deny that right), they had not granted official recognition rights which, as us experienced trade unionists know, means the requirement for the employer to negotiate pay, terms and conditions with the recognised union representing their staff. When Blair’s Labour Government adopted the Social Chapter in 1997 and implemented a raft of progressive legislation, they made it law that if 50% + 1 of a workforce are in union membership, management have no option but to grant those recognition rights.
Now at this point I should make it clear that it would be both unfair and inaccurate to portray the entire management committee of the Ivy House as some union-busting hardline employer intent on doing down its workers. The problem seemed to be twofold. Firstly there was a basic lack of understanding of how employment law actually works, coupled with a naivety about the unacceptable nature of their approach (which they acknowledged in two separate communications with the staff as being ‘a difficult situation’). Secondly there needed to be but seemed not to be that one individual on the committee who is able to grasp the gravity of the ensuing scenario and take decisive action to bring about a resolution. There was also, as the General Manager explained, a third problem which was that no-one on the management committee appeared to appreciate what the operational impact of sacking 25% of the workforce would be on the venue’s ability to meet its responsibilities to promoters and punters alike.
As a consequence, while the management committee published statements such as the one on their Facebook page which suggested both a willingness to engage and actual progress being made, the staff reported that there had been no meaningful dialogue and the committee appeared to be unable to agree how to move forward in settling the dispute. The staff, by contrast, were united behind three key demands – reinstate the four sacked workers and follow due process if there was genuine evidence of misconduct; scrap Zero Hours Contracts and put all staff on proper employment contracts and sign up to full union recognition. For this they had also enlisted the support and advice of their union the Bakers Food and Allied Workers’ Union. I then wrote a detailed reply to the management committee’s statement on Facebook calling on them to recognise how it looks to the community when they behave in such an unethical manner and suggesting they meet the staff’s demands.
The Events Manager had also asked me if I would come up and join their picket line. I was quite clear that, while I faced the real possibility of losing all the money I had invested in promoting the forthcoming gig, I did not in any way blame the staff for that predicament. Within two hours I was on the picket line with them, explaining the reasons for action to passers by just like I had done for years in my days as a full time trade unionist and before as an activist too. Old habits die hard!
While I was there a promoter turned up who was meant to have an event on that same night and one for which he had clearly both spent a large sum of money and drummed up a considerable crowd. He was not at all happy but he listened to the staff’s side of the story and then got on the phone to members of the management committee who he knew personally. He was on the phone for a long time! He later told us that one committee member had suggested rescuing his event by drafting in an entire new workforce. Fortunately he had made it abundantly clear that he would not be promoting his event with a workforce brought in to undermine the staff and their action.
His persistence paid off. The majority of the management committee had clearly decided they too wanted the situation resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. A message was relayed to the staff that they would meet them in just over an hour’s time.
I had to leave shortly afterwards and hoped that this meeting would not only happen but that management would come with something meaningful to say. I could not have imagined what I would hear just over an hour later. An excited Events Manager rang me to announce that management had turned up and handed the staff reps a letter agreeing to reinstate the sacked staff and continue to pay them while a proper investigation was conducted, agreeing to scrap Zero Hours Contracts and get all staff onto permanent contracts and agreeing to full union recognition rights. It is very rare, especially in today’s hostile environment, for industrial action to yield significant successes but to win on every demand is almost unheard of. It was a magnificent result.
It is, at this point, important to point out that the management committee deserve great credit for quickly realising that what they had done was wrong and taking decisive action to rectify the damage. A lesser employer would have dug its heels in if only out of pride or at the very least dragged its feet about agreeing anything concrete. The communal ownership project is still young and it is perhaps inevitable that there will be mistakes made. The committee must be judged on how it handles those mistake and crises and, on this occasion, they have done the right thing regardless of what criticisms they may face for taking so long to get to that point. In the eyes of staff who have been on strike without pay for three days, it must have seemed like an eternity. To us experienced union hacks, three days is a rapid turnaround!
So a great short story and one which, for once, has a happy ending. Happy, that is, not just because of the agreeable outcome but because, going forward, all the staff will have better employment rights and the added protection of a recognised union negotiating their pay and contractual rights. Actually, believe it or not, that should benefit management too. The vast majority of employers I negotiated with in my PCS years, both in the public and private sectors, consistently echoed the view that it was much easier for them to get business done if they dealt with experienced professional unions. It is a much more efficient way of managing industrial relations.
At the time of writing my temporarily-threatened gig is two nights away (4th October). All of a sudden we are looking at it being a proper celebratory party. I can’t wait. We had also been discussing the possibility of my promoting a summer festival there in 2019. Let’s hope this week’s spat won’t scupper that loftier ambition.