23 November 2011

USA 1994: Disillusioned in Dublin

Ireland’s victory against Estonia in the football last week has taken me back to one of the formative experiences in my adult life, and with all the talk this week of strikes and days of action, it’s a story I’d like to share.

Pubs were different then...
Years ago, before I became a teacher, I worked in a pub in Dublin, doing four or five nights a week and often working in the daytime too, at least on holidays and over weekends. I worked there for about five years all told, and then in subsequent years would often help out on the odd night or during the holidays. A typical suburban local, the pub was built on a generous scale: it had three lounges, each of which could hold well over three hundred customers, and a public bar, capable of squeezing in more than another hundred, and a function room, which could itself take the best part of a hundred too. Despite its size it wasn’t a pub many of my university friends knew; the nondescript suburbs of west Dublin were a world apart for the one they’d grown up in.

In the summer of 1994, I wasn’t yet a barman. I was, technically, a loungeboy. Loungeboys and loungegirls were the footsoldiers of our system. Paid the magnificent sum of £2.10 an hour, we mainly worked on the floor of the lounges and the bar, serving customers by taking their orders, paying the barmen, and bringing drinks and cigarettes and whatever back to the customers. The core of the job was saving customers the hassle of breaking their conversations with their mates by going to the bar and queuing for them. Loungestaff cleared tables too, of course, and kept the floor tidy, and checked the toilets were okay, and did loads of other jobs, the lads especially helping out in the storerooms and cellar. There were usually around thirty-five of us. Our roster filled a lined A4 page, each of us having a line to ourselves, save for newer ones who might have to share a line, their names written in cramped letters, separated by biro-ruled lines.

I rarely worked on the floor. I did what was later referred to on a reference as ‘counter support work’, working behind the bar with the barmen, making it possible for them to do their jobs. The likes of me were the unheralded hinges of the system, making sure the shelves were always full, that kegs and gas cylinders were speedily replaced, that the till always had change, and that there was always a constant supply of clean, cold glasses. And, on top of that, we tended to serve the customers directly.

It started innocuously enough, with a request to pass a customer a Coke or to make a Dressed Orange – don’t ask – and then progressed to making Irish coffees at last orders, because they took time and time was one thing barmen didn’t have when the customers were four deep at the bar and they were juggling half a dozen orders. Eventually we’d be asked to hold a pint at the tap when the barman grabbed something else, and then we’d be allowed pull our own. And then a time would come when we would be allowed to use the till.

By that point we’d basically made the leap from being loungestaff to being supplementary barstaff. Promotion wasn’t always on the cards, though. This was Ireland in the early 1990s, after all. The Celtic Tiger hadn’t happened, unemployment was still really high, and job mobility was unheard of. So you did your time, and you waited.

Italia 1990 Redux?
The summer of 1994 saw Ireland in the World Cup Finals for the second time. We’d been in the 1990 finals in Italy, and it had been an absolute bonanza for the pub, such that everyone was geared up with excitement. The older loungestaff all looked back on Italia 1990 as the best time ever working there, and we were all sure this was to be great craic, even if we were underwhelmed by the rubbish official World Cup T-shirts we were all given.

(To get a handle on what Italia 1990 was like, you should read The Van, Roddy Doyle’s brilliant conclusion to his so-called 'Barrytown Trilogy'. You could watch the film too, of course, but just as The Van’s the best of the original three Barrytown books, so The Van’s the weakest of the three films by some way.)

When most Irish people think of the 1994 World Cup, they think mainly of the first glorious win against Italy and a campaign that ran out of steam. They think of Steve Staunton struggling in the heat, Jack Charlton rowing with a linesman and throwing bottles of water on to the pitch for the lads, Jason McAteer nutmegging the greatest footballer in the world, and they probably don’t remember a lot else. Sporting nerds may cherish memories of Ireland having been in the only World Cup group ever where all teams ended up on the same points. Anyone who was away might read Joe O’Connor’s The Irish Male at Home and Abroad to revive memories of the experience of being in America with the team, but for those at home it sticks in the mind mainly as the beginning of the end of the Charlton Era.

But for me the 1994 World Cup is memorable for just one thing. The Strike.

Time is Relative...
In the early nineties it was common practice for pubs not to pay their staff for all the hours they worked. In our pub, for instance, we were paid up to thirty minutes after last orders, and that was it. The thinking, I suppose, is that the customers were meant to have gone home by then. In practice, of course, we were still serving fifteen or twenty – sometimes even twenty-five or more – minutes after the bar supposedly shut, such that ‘last orders’ was a ritual that could last for half an hour, and the customers wouldn’t go home once they’d stocked up. No, if last orders was notionally at half eleven, you’d be very lucky to get the place clear by one o'clock. You certainly wouldn’t be finished cleaning and locking up by twelve, which is when you’d stop being paid.

This must have irked the barstaff no end; it certainly bothered those of us on the floor, and in early 1994 a big group of us decided that we’d have to look into joining the union. I’m not sure why I was the man who did the legwork, but into town I went, up to Parnell Square to meet Jim Moloney, who was then the main man for whatever the barmen’s union was called at the time. I don’t think it was ‘Mandate’ at that point. We talked, and he gave me lots of paperwork, and I came back, and people got nervous, and a handful backed out when they realised we weren’t just talking, and so it all came to nothing.

On the eve of the World Cup, barmen across Dublin realised they had a huge opportunity to press home their demands, and so they began to agitate for a better deal on pay and conditions. We on the floor didn’t think they’d go ahead with a strike, so we didn’t pay a lot of attention, though we all knew on the day the World Cup was due to start – with the champions Germany playing Bolivia in Chicago – there was to be a ballot. The more level-headed of our barmen assured us there’d not be a strike. Nobody would be that stupid. There was too much at stake. A deal would be struck.

Friday 17 June
I’d stayed up late drawing into the early hours on the Thursday night, so I woke late on Friday and quickly showered, dressed, and ran, slowing down as I reached the pub and saw the lads all standing outside.
‘You didn’t...?’ I said to a couple of the younger barmen, friends who I’d go out for drinks with once or twice a week.
They looked down at their feet.
‘We did.’

Some of the other loungestaff had already arrived, and so we clustered together, worrying and wondering. What had happened? Why had they voted to go out? What should we do? The lads told us that we should go across the road, to the pizza place in the shopping centre: some of the others were already there, having gathered in advance at the house of one of the girls, and we could figure things out with them. Before we went, though, they stopped us.
‘Youse have to go in. You’re not in the Union. You’re not protected. Don’t go losing your jobs for our sake.’

Over the road the others talked of what’d happened. ‘Pumped up young lads’ were behind it, they said they’d been told. One story was that the deal had been recommended and then a young barman from a neighbouring pub – a cousin of one of our loungegirls – had leapt up on the stage and shouted that the deal was crap, and that they should strike. We didn’t know. It all seemed crazy. We talked and argued for maybe half an hour. In the end we decided that the lads were right, and that we had no real choice. None of us wanted to break their line, but the fact was that they were telling us to do so. As it happened, it was those who’d spoken up most loudly in favour of our joining the Union – including me – who were most pragmatic about our having to go in.

With bleak faces we headed back over the road, and before we went in we stopped and talked to our friends on the line. I pulled back the other staff – both girls – who did counter support work like me.
‘There’s one thing, though,’ I said.
‘What’s that?’
‘We can’t serve.’
‘We can’t serve. Us three. We know how to serve behind the bar. We’ve done it for ages. But we can’t do it now. It’s one thing us going in to do our job, but that’s not really our job – we’re not paid to pull pints – and it’d not be fair on the lads out here.’
One nodded immediately, and the other frowned, and then said, ‘Yeah. Okay.’

And we went in.

It was horrible.

There were hardly any customers, for starters, as it was daytime, and in a solidly working-class area, crossing a picket line was anathema. We ghostwalked through our jobs, filling the ice buckets, checking the cream machines, gathering fresh cloths, setting tables, all too embarrassed even to look at each other. The manager and his brothers – the owner’s family, basically – didn’t say a word of criticism about us all being nearly an hour late. This was horrible for everyone, and they knew it. Besides, they’d phone calls to make. They needed to find barmen, somehow. Our regular part-time barmen, though not part of the Union, obviously weren’t going to cross the line.

Going out the back to get a clean mop bucket, I came across one of my friends wiping tears from her face, and another trying to comfort her. Her boyfriend – a good friend of mine – was one of our apprentice barmen, and she’d had to walk past a picket he was on. She shook her head and looked at me with red eyes. ‘This is shit,’ she said.
‘I know,’ I grimaced.
Back inside, and seeing the manager away from the phone for the first time, I asked could I have a word.
‘Of course,’ he said, walking into the little kitchen that doubled as an informal office from time to time, ‘what’s up?’
‘Conor,’ I said, and paused. ‘I’ve spoken to Lucy and Niamh, and although we’ve come in, we’re not happy about serving behind the bar. It’s not really our job, after all, and we only do it –’
‘That’s alright,’ he said, ‘I understand. We wouldn’t ask you to. And we’re grateful you’ve come in.’
This surprised me.
‘Thank you,’ I paused again. ‘Will this get fixed, do you think?’
He looked away.
'I hope so,' he said. 'We’re trying.'

As the day wore on more loungestaff arrived, appearing in dribs and drabs, the girls all dressed in shorts and our special World Cup T-shirts. The longest-serving of us wasn’t among them. Like a mother to us, she was older than most of the barmen, and there was no way she’d pass their line.
‘She hasn’t come in,’ said one of the other lounge girls. ‘Maybe we should have stayed out too?’
‘Nah,’ said another, ‘she’s here too long. They’d never sack her. We’re different. They could replace us tomorrow.’

Barstaff started to appear too. We had no idea who they were, but they came in, and pulled on bright yellow polo shirts given them by management. They were hardly in the door before we called them Yellow-packers, after the Quinnsworth cheap range, muttering about them when they were out of earshot. Upstairs we had a podgy one named Jim serving us, squeezed into his bright yellow shirt. ‘Slim Jim’, we called him. It seemed inevitable.

In truth, it was obvious that we hardly needed the yellow-packers, just as we’d hardly needed the manager’s assurance that the likes of myself wouldn’t be asked to pull pints. Hardly any customers came in.

I went home for my break, and when I came back up the road it was obvious from what was going on outside that something had happened. There’d been a meeting, I learned, during which the pub’s owners had broken away from their own organization, the Licensed Vintner’s Association, in order to offer the barstaff a better deal and get the show back on the road. The barstaff had gotten together and decided that they’d take a vote, but that it had to be unanimous. If even one person wanted to stay with the Union, then they’d all with it and would remain on strike.

Only one person had done so. They were still on strike.

I’m not clear now on the sequence of events – memory fades, after all – but as far as I can remember it was that night, while Germany played Bolivia and Spain played South Korea, that our head barman finally quit, walking away after decades of working for the same people. He wouldn’t let the others down by breaking the line, but he felt he was letting his employers down by striking in such a situation. I think it was that night too that four of the barstaff decided that they too weren’t going to remain on strike, and that they were going to come in.

Saturday 18 June
In the morning I cleaned shelves and restocked them with Mark, the senior barman from upstairs, and someone who I’d worked with for years. We worked in silence for a while, and then I stopped.
‘Mark, can I ask you a question?’
‘Go on.’
‘Why did you come in?’
He frowned.
‘I know it’s not really my business,’ I said, ‘but I don’t understand. I understand why Rob came in, because he was worried about the cellars getting out of hand without him to look after them, and Susan was probably worried about not getting kept on after her apprenticeship, but I don’t understand why Bernie and you came in.’
‘No, it’s a fair question,’ he said. ‘There were a few reasons, really. Rob and I got talking last night, because we weren’t happy about how the meeting with Conor had gone. That was stupid. He’d gone out on a limb, and made a decent offer, and we should have taken it. The thing is, the strike makes no sense. It’s mainly over two things, and we shouldn’t be taking advantage of our employers like this.’
‘One of them’s not being paid for cleaning up?’
‘Yeah, and that’s obviously bollix, but that’ll get sorted at the Labour Court one way or another. You can’t have people working for nothing in this day and age. We don’t need to strike to fix that.’
‘And the other thing?’
‘More money, really. But we can’t strike for that. There’s a national wage agreement that we’ve signed up to. And everybody needs to stick to that. It’s the only way to get the country on its feet. This strike? It’s stupid. It’s cutting off our nose to spite our face.’

Ireland was due to play Italy on the Saturday night, a fitting rematch really, given how Italy had knocked us out of the last World Cup at the quarter final stage. It should have been the biggest day of the year, Christmas and New Year’s Eves, St Stephen’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, and the Blessing of the Graves all rolled into one. Instead the place was like a cemetery. Only a handful of regulars had come in, and what few customers we had were almost all people we’d never seen before, or people who’d have been turned away in the past.

It didn’t look to be getting any busier when I went home for my dinner, chatting on the way home with some of our regulars who I bumped into the street – people who’d stayed away, and decided to watch the match at their own houses.
‘This is important,’ they’d said. ‘You know about Larkin and Connolly. Ordinary people like us – we have to stick together. If we don’t, who’ll look out for us?’
'I know, but –'
'There's no "but". You'd have nothing if your father and his father hadn't stood up with their mates for their rights. It's the same thing.'

Things didn’t look that much busier that night, when I returned to be on hand for the Ireland match. A few of the other loungegirls had turned up with a flask of soup and some sandwiches for the lads outside, and I stopped to talk. There was a bitterness there this time – not towards us, as we’d just done as they’d said, but towards their co-workers who’d gone in. It was obvious they felt betrayed, and though I could understand why the four who’d come in had done so, I didn’t blame the ones who stayed out for feeling the way they did.

It was a quiet night for the few of us working upstairs – Mark, Slim Jim, me, and Louise and a couple of other loungegirls – but the reality is that there wasn’t a whole lot of work being done. We’d a few regulars in one end of the lounge, while the rest was empty. We could have taken three hundred with ease, and we’d fewer than thirty customers. Fewer than twenty, probably, now I think of it.

Downstairs was a different matter, though, as people had come from miles away, unwilling to cross the lines at their own pub, but happy to do so elsewhere. Our cabaret lounge, with its big screen, had a respectable crowd. It wasn’t what the owners would have hoped for, but there was a bit of a buzz there.

Those of us upstairs chatted most of the night away together, sitting at the far end, down by the toilets, watching the match on a small screen, and occasionally strolling down to see if anyone wanted a drink, or getting up whenever we heard a distant cough.

Ireland won. 1-0. Houghton’s goal was a bit of a out of nowhere, but the result wasn’t, as we’d been the dominant team throughout. It was one of our best ever performances – certainly one of the best two or three of the Charlton era, even if the one moment that really sticks in the mind about the match, though, was that comedy instant when Jason McAteer nutmegged Roberto Baggio.

Endgame and Aftermath
Things kind of petered out after that, as the strike’s momentum was broken. The LVA carried on haggling with the Union, and eventually a deal was struck on Monday or Tuesday, and the lads came back in to work.

It wasn’t nice. The ones who’d stayed out couldn’t forgive the ones who’d gone in, and things got worse in the following weeks, as it seemed the ones who’d came in were treated better than others. The apprentice who came in was kept on when her time was up, as we’d expected she would, but one who stayed outside – a fine barman by any standard – was let go. The Union, most importantly, was broken: with a third of the permanent barstaff no longer being members, it was only a matter of time before the whole thing faded out. It’s still there, as far as I know, but it’s a shadow of what it was. And sometimes, to this day, I hear of those who stepped off the lines and came in being referred to as scabs.

You’ll be glad to know that the loungestaff were rewarded for their loyalty. We were told we’d be paid for a further quarter of an hour’s cleaning up. 55p a night, that worked out at. Enough for a bag of crisps and a dash of lemonade.

A year later I became a part-time barman myself; Lucy and Niamh followed me within a week or so.

I think this sort of thing happened in pubs across Dublin, such that the old structured system of apprenticeships – the system that made Irish barmen so remarkably good – is a thing of the past. In the long run, I don’t think anyone gained from this.

What’s my point? I’m not sure I have one, really, save that I’ve often thought about the rights and wrongs of this over the years. If it taught me anything it’s that strikes are horrible, and that unions are vitally important, but they need to believe sensibly. They are important, after all: they’re often the only way ordinary people can protect themselves and their families from being exploited, and they can play a crucial role in building a successful society, as the German economic model shows us.

This is one of the reasons I get annoyed when people talk of how disgraceful it is that Labour – in the UK – is so heavily influenced by the Unions. Yeah, they are. They receive funding from unions, each union representing hundreds of thousands of members. The unions ballot their members every few years to see if they still want to contribute to support the Labour party, and even if the majority decide to arrange to support Labour financially, individual members are always free to withhold that part of their subscription. Collectively, this means that millions of ordinary people contribute towards the Labour party – and I’m always intrigued by the agenda of anybody who holds that those millions of ordinary people should be blocked from financially supporting their political party of choice.

Anyway, as you’ll know, Britain’s unions have called a national day of strike action on 30 November. In a nutshell, it’s over changes to pension arrangements that have already been agreed, and that the Government wants to renege on. Yes, I know there’s more to it than that, and that the Government’s in a nasty place financially, but that’s at the core of things: the Government’s trying to change things so that teachers and nurses and binmen and all manner of other people who dedicate their lives to serving the public will have less money to retire on in their old age than had previously been agreed on.

A friend of mine has, with other members of the TUC, just put out a single under the banner of ‘The Workers’. It’s in solidarity with all those involved in 30 November’s Day of Action for Pension Justice. The video’s fun to watch – and not just because of the pretty blonde gazing wistfully at the 2:45 mark – and the single’s certainly worth the downloading. It’s for a good cause, after all.


RLS said...

I agree it's awful to cross a picket line. Our branch actually isn't on strike on Wednesday (because of the stage of the negotiations for the particular pension scheme most of its members are on) but the other unions are, so I have taken the day as leave so I can support the strike. Anyone who doesn't come into work in our union will be disciplined, and they're now refusing any requests for working from home or leave (fortunately I'd already booked mine). The College is basically forcing people to cross a picket line, which I feel is unfair.

Incidentally, I haven't had time to write anything detailed about the strike, but the media coverage and in particular David Cameron's snidey remarks on the news yesterday have worried me. A lot of people don't understand what the strike is about and are ready to believe the government's propaganda that the unions are basically troublemakers. The government would have you believe that public sector workers are all well-remunerated with marvellous work conditions and we should just count ourselves lucky to be working in a cushy, over-staffed sector. This probably is true in some areas, just as it is in the private sector, but not for the vast majority of public sector workers, many who have had pay freezes, seen their workload increase due to redundancies, and had the goalposts moved as regards their pensions at what is a really difficult time financially, i.e. we are now paying more out of our salaries, and will get back less in the long run. Public sector workers have real grievances, and I completely support the decision to strike. I've no doubt private sector workers have many of the same grievances, but this does not mean we SHOULDN'T complain, and all be mutually disadvantaged. Actually, our private sector colleagues should join us. Though I suspect, thanks to Dave Cameron and his cronies, they won't.

There is a briefer, more chirpy summary at www.rocketleafsalad.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Wow! Excellent. That's sure one from the heart. I was working & living in Dublin at that time... and definitely drinking... but yet the fact of the strike has entirely faded from my mind. Maybe it's because the pubs I went to then were all "family" houses and the few non-family barstaff would not have been in Unions (whether by choice or pressure I can't say but I can certainly suspect which).

Wasn't the barstaffs' Union in those days IDATU? I'm sure it was. It was mainly a Dublin-based phenomenon as far as barstaff were concerned, since outside Dublin the small or family pub is/was the dominant model and Union membership would not have been encouraged.

Barstaff are still being treated badly. In my (non-union) local there has just been a change of ownership and the only 2 full-time barmen have been let go by the new owner, who has declared that he has no need of full-time staff since part-timers are adequate. One of them is still owed 3 weeks' wages by the previous owner, who is not exactly on the breadline since he holds the franchise for a number of grocery outlets locally which have not been observed to be in decline.

One of those guys has been there for over 12 years and is in his early 40s. To say that his prospects are not good, in a town where there is an oversupply of under-patronised bars, is putting it mildly.

Your point about the professionalism of barstaff who served their time under the old apprenticeship scheme is certainly true. I've often been driven to distraction by the new type of barman (yes, they mainly still are men) who seems to be unable to handle more than one order at a time. One guy I recently asked for a "half-one" of Powers hadn't a clue what I meant. I explained the difference between a glass and a half-one. He said "Why didn't you just ask for a shot?" "Well, maybe because I'm not in America and also, I don't want one of those little glasses for kiddy-drinks" I said. I think he's still scratching his head.