Wage theft, union-busting and fighting back at the pizza chain in France, Spain and the United Kingdom
By Monika Vykoukal
Industrial Worker #1738 – September 2011
“The pizzas are better, and they’ve got newer scooters,” observes David as we hang out just outside a Pizza Hut store on a hot, sticky July night in Paris. A fellow worker who is organizing at Pizza Hut in Sheffield, U.K., David is here for a couple of days to connect with local Pizza Hut workers, who have been on strike for over nine weeks at press time.
July 11 was the employment tribunal hearing for two workers who contend, with the support of their union Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques (SUD), that they have been sacked in connection with their strike and union activities. As the entire city seems to wind down for the holiday period, the ruling will not be out until early September, and our comrades have decided it’s best to pause their struggle for now as well.
David, an IWW member since February, has gotten 25 of his 30 colleagues on board for concerted action and to join the IWW. They are just gearing up to get properly started in Sheffield. The Britain and Ireland Regional Administration (BIRA) of the IWW received their “Certificate of Independence,” which puts the IWW on equal footing with other unions in terms of labor law, allowing for legal strike action. Once we had the certificate, David and his colleagues would really get going. Meanwhile, as we had learned earlier that same day, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) at Pizza Hut in Cáceres, Spain—who had been protesting since February—had won the reinstatement and back pay for three workers who were found to have been unfairly dismissed because of their union activity.
As I join David in conversations with the workers in Paris, I learn how much their struggle is a shared experience, yet again, of low pay, lack of pay for hours worked, unsafe working conditions, lack of health coverage and other protections, food safety issues at the stores, lack of support from business unions, and unionbusting efforts when workers get together to ask not even for improvements, but merely for the adherence to existing rights and protections.
Workers’ Struggles At Pizza Hut
Pizza Hut, a U.S.-based global fast food chain, is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands—the world’s largest restaurant company. Pizza Hut and Yum! Brands are, under different guises, attacking their workers across Europe once more, apparently going just as far as they can under the different legal frameworks of each country. In France this backlash might be particularly bitter, as numerous earlier struggles at the chain had fought hard for and won the very same demands that now have to be fought for once more.
Strike action has taken place almost yearly since 2000, in the early years significantly led by the business union Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), and largely by its militant organizer and longtime Pizza Hut worker Abdel Mabrouki. Around 2003, concerted action by CGT organizers across the fast food sector also included a major strike in a McDonald’s store that lasted for almost a year. Abdel, who worked at Pizza Hut from the late 1980s until 2009, went on to become a co-founder of Paris-based network Stop Précarité (http://www.stop-precarite.fr), which remains central in supporting struggles like those at Pizza Hut, and wrote the book “Génération Précaire” (Le Cherche Midi, 2004) about union organizing in the casualized retail sector in France, at companies such as Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Disneyland. In 2005, Pizza Hut also saw strike action in New Zealand as part of the organizing campaign “Supersize My Pay” of the Unite Union (http://www. unite.org.nz), who remain active there and at other fast food chains, such as KFC and McDonald’s.
Changing ownership of Pizza Hut in France, as well as the gradual franchising of previously directly held stores—a process which forms part of Yum!’s business strategy—have caused the loss of the hard-won gains made in those multiple struggles and have had a negative impact on the Pizza Hut workers’ ability to organize. In France, the company tends to retain direct ownership of more profitable locations, while benefiting from the fixed rates it gets from less successful, franchised locations. A watershed moment here appears to be the 2009 sale of its French operations by Yum! to a new “master franchise” holder: the Belgian company Top Brands, which was already running Belgium’s Pizza Huts.
Most Pizza Hut workers are in their early- to mid- 20s, but some of them have worked for the company for many years. Many workers are also students, and everyone I meet works part time, making just a couple hundred euros a month, while living in a very costly city with a long-term housing crisis. Keeping up with both a fast food job and studies can be tricky, and some of the workers here in Paris are from North African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria, so they also depend on their student status to allow them to stay in Paris. This vulnerability to such double pressure was one of the triggers for the renewed action at Pizza Hut stores in Paris.
“This strike started when a migrant worker, who had been doing a manager’s job for an employee’s pay, was suspended when the company claimed to ‘suddenly acdiscover this, although they had records that showed they were aware of his circumstances long before, just a few months before he could get legal,” explains Hichem Aktouche, the SUD delegate at Pizza Hut. “Not only did Pizza Hut fail to inform him of the situation previously, he also had no other immediate means to support himself.”
Additional grievances included the firing of the manager of a store who had been “too nice to his employees.” A few days into the protest, organizers also checked out the workers’ paychecks, and, to Hichem, “it was obvious that some hours were ‘forgotten’ every month, from August 2009 on.” The demand for the back payment of all hours worked became a key focus of the following strike, in addition to the “usual” demands of timely payment of wages, paid sick leave, complete coverage of work accidents, and the payment of the 13th month salary (Editor’s note: In France and other countries, a “13th month salary” is a common form of a bonus that is not mandatory, but can be negotiated).
The fight began on May 13, with strikes on weekends at alternating take-out and delivery store locations across the city. This strategy lends an element of surprise and hits the stores in some of their busiest periods of the week. Strikers have been hard-hit financially, and the company appears unlikely to be willing to compensate them for any of their strike days. To raise funds, donations were solicited during the pickets, at the presidential campaign launch rally of the Front de Gauche (“Left Front”), at the “Indignant Assembly” and from other sympathetic political organizations.
Pizza Hut, refusing to negotiate with the strikers, instead asked the representative of the majority union Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) to end the strike, which they attempted without success. Subsequently, management also wrote to a leader of SUD to contend that the strike action was illegal. The result: the contacted union leader appeared at the next picket himself and yelled into his megaphone: “I demand to see Chapalain [the director of Pizza Hut France] now!”
Pizza Hut’s next move was to contact Inspection du Travail, a body of civil servants who surveil employment and labor law—yet again backfired when workers provided the inspector with their evidence, who then asked the company to pay workers for their unpaid hours. With a renewed flaring up of support in late June, workers decided to continue their weekend pickets until the day before their employment tribunal on July 11.
While it’s impossible to predict the results of this specific tribunal, past tribunals of this kind were won. During the 2009 Pizza Hut strike, one of the workers eventually won his reinstatement and back pay after an 18-month trial. Pizza Hut then gave the worker a substantial additional payment on the condition that he did not return to work.
On July 11, the day of the tribunal hearing, the Communist Group and the elected representatives of the Left Party presented a resolution in support of the striking workers at The Council of Paris, which passed, asking the mayor to write to Pizza Hut demanding they respect employment legislation. However, despite their determined and fierce fight, and after nine weeks of struggle at press time, the company is still unwilling to negotiate, and the workers have not won any concessions. Most notably, the company still owes the workers full payment of all hours they have worked in the last year. Yet at least, they hope, they have shown their anger and willingness to stick together and fight for their rights.
Struggles in Spain and the U.K.
Union busting, meanwhile, has been rebuffed in the CNT’s struggle in Spain, where they have organized stores in Cáceres and Badajoz. In February, several workers posted a list of demands— including weekends off, holiday pay and transportation contributions—on a notice board at their store. The company, despite its recognition of the union, promptly sacked three of the unionized workers. In addition to regular pickets on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as a demonstration in Cáceres in April, the union filed a complaint with the labor court and eventually won the reinstatement with full back pay of all three workers. Beyond this initial victory, the struggle for better conditions is set to continue.
Workers’ demands in Sheffield are not dissimilar to those elsewhere, but they respond to the slightly different circumstances of the U.K. labor situation and its exploitation by Pizza Hut. Unlike in France, where the CFDT—who opposed the recent strike action, as well as the smaller radical union SUD—had been active at Pizza Hut for some time, there was no previous union presence in Sheffield, as is characteristic of the commercial and services sector in general. Since organizing with the IWW earlier this summer, fellow workers have begun to start their union activity for safety in maintaining the scooters they use for delivery and to support workers individually. Their main demands are focused on the working conditions of delivery drivers and on wage increases.
“Working conditions at the company are very bad, the hourly rate is £5.83,” David went on to explain in an interview with activists from the youth section of the left-political New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA), who covered the strike in their newspaper Tout Est À Nous:
“Delivery drivers who have no license for the scooters have to use their own vehicle, but they are only reimbursed £0.6 per delivery. It’s a total rip off! We have filed a collective grievance against this situation.”
In late July, due to pressure from IWW members, management at Pizza Hut admitted that the IWW’s demand for better commission for delivery drivers was justified. However, as David writes, this review does not in any way guarantee an adequate outcome, and it could be used to justify further reduction of the delivery drivers’ pay. IWW organizing is expanding to other Pizza Hut stores in Sheffield and elsewhere.
A few days after David leaves to return to Sheffield, I am chatting with Hichem, who is getting ready for his own summer break. I think this is the first time I’ve seen him sit still since I came to their picket for the first time a few weeks ago. Having been at Pizza Hut since he was 20, he’s seen past strikes, past wins and the losses that followed. He tells me, somewhat wryly, that we can’t know yet whether workers will be in a position to renew their strike in the fall. Too many new hires will still be in their trial period. The bosses have also changed shifts, so more militant workers are now surrounded by those new hires. And, perhaps, by the fall, too many people will be desperate to earn a bit of money, or they will need to return to their studies.
Yet, with David’s visit, we have given each other a better insight into our shared situation than any abstract analysis of “precarious labor” could have provided. We have also seen each other’s determination to keep fighting, and to find ways to not only oppose the attacks of management, but to make demands for—and win—better working conditions. Since the employment tribunal hearing here in Paris on July 11, it looks like our fellow workers in France face even more attacks on their union rights. Meanwhile, Wobblies in Sheffield have now presented their demands and are awaiting the company’s response. In September, the heat might be on.
For updates from Pizza Hut Sheffield, see the IWW Sheffield Blog at http://www.iwwgmbsheffield.wordpress.com.
The SUD Pizza Hut Strike Fund is still in need of donations: SYND SUD COMMERCES SERVICES IDF; BIC: CCOPFRPP; IBAN: FR 76 4255 9000 0121 0264 5370 690.