Ryan Slaughter is an organiser for Community, a trade union formed from a merger of steel, ceramics and textile workers’ unions. He spoke to Solidarity about the union’s organisation campaign in betting shops.
We were traditionally a steel and manufacturing union, but we found a lot of workers who had manufacturing jobs have over the past few years gone into retail. We had a few members who went to work in betting shops, so we started organising there.
We currently have members across the whole of the sector — Ladbrokes, William Hill, Coral, Paddy Power. We also have membership in smaller independents as well, but their issues are slightly different.
There are some particular issues we campaign around. A campaign we launched in November 2008 focused on the issue of violence in the workplace. Alongside banks and post offices, betting shops are the most targeted workplaces on the high street for robbery, including violent robbery. We felt managers weren’t doing enough to protect workers against violence, and the after-care they were giving staff was really poor. Suffering that kind of violence was seen as just part of the industry that workers should accept.
General conditions in the sector are pretty bad. A lot of people are paid only just above minimum wage and are working long and extended hours.
The demographic of people who work in the shops is extremely diverse; like any retail sector we’ve got a lot of migrant workers, and jobs in sectors like ours are the only jobs they can find. It’s about 65% women working in shops.
One of our big campaigns was against lone working and single-staffing. You’d never see a lone person working in a bank or any other high-street workplace, so why is it okay in a betting shop, which can be quite an intimidating atmosphere?
There’s been a big rise in racist and sexist abuse from customers. Again there’s an attitude from management that this is something workers should just accept as being part of the job. Our campaign has been about letting people know that they have a voice and can deal with these issues collectively.
Over the last 18 months we’ve seen a race to the gutter in terms and conditions, with increased hours and attacks on pay. The companies compete with each other to see who can cut most. Ironically, betting is one of the only industries that’s done quite well through the recession, but managers are still on the offensive.
Levels of density and union membership in the sector were pretty much at zero when we started. It’s a very adversarial atmosphere — companies in the past have been extremely anti-union and people have been scared about joining. We’ve tried to break through some of that and build people’s confidence.
We’re fighting for 10 minimum standards on health and safety: on lone working, provisions on security, and demands for the installation of magnetic locks and proper protective screens for workers. We want to changing the culture of bosses trying to get workers to accept trouble as part of the job.