Five Reasons Why The Fight Against Pret A Manger Really Matters

Update: Communications blockade TODAY 2 - 4pm - get involved.

Today Solidarity Federation (10/11/12), Bloomsbury Fightback and a number of other groups have called for a solidarity protest over the continued harrassment of two of their workers involved in union activity, Andrej and Rodrigo. These two workers established the Pret A Manger Staff Union and for their trouble have been subject to bullying by management and the cooking up of disciplinary charges against them. From 12 - 2 pm today the protest will be meeting at the enterance of St Pancras station. If you are around the area, please get down.

Outside of the immediate supression of union activity and the always neccessary extension of physical solidarity here are five reasons why a battle against Pret A Manger matters more broadly as a strategic moment against modern capitalism.

1. Pret A Manger, like Starbucks and any number of prominent highstreet food retailers is allegric to unionisation and worker solidarity. Its aggressive action against it reveals something - it is scared as hell that workers might get it together. While neoliberalism has atrophied traditional workers movements, it has also atrophied the institutional knowledge of corporations to know how to deal with even a tiny quantity of workplace organisation. Push them a little, and we could take a great deal.

2. Pret A Manger employs a large proportion of precarious economic migrant labour. It has therefore been the subject of “British jobs for British Workers” style campaigns by the London Evening Standard, noted by right-wing journal The Spectator.

Therefore the fight against Pret is one against the attempts to break solidarity with migrant workers and for internationalism, against the disgusting tactics of retro-nationalism profered by the likes of the Labour Party.

3. Theorists of modern capitalism have noted that modern work is perculiar in requiring certain attitudes of workers. While in the past work was only required to be done, work now increasingly has to marshall the whole person including their immediate emotional state in work. Workers are required to produce emotional responses, to feel a certain way and therefore reproduce this in their customers. This concept has been called affective labour by theorists. While this has always been an aspect of work, especially the work done outside the theoretically traditional “workplace” (domestic work, childcare, prostitution and so on - which counts ultimately for a huge quantity), in modern capitalism this generalises. Boring repetitive work has to be done and you have to smile about it. Indeed, smiling about it is part of the work itself. Its draining and humilating.

Pret is a great example of this. Workers at Pret are criticised for not smiling sufficiently, . Their boss observes “The authenticity of being happy is important”. Staff are instructed to “use personal phrases that you are comfortable with and treat customers as if they are guests in your own home”. Maintaining the “Pret Buzz” for customers, the happy emotional feeling customers get when dining at Pret has a direct effect on one’s wages. Impressing a mystery shopper gets your “team” £1 extra an hour, an amount that will cause your wages to remain just under the London living wage (Wages are £8.25 with this bonus, the London living wage is £8.55). Considering that the living wage is calculated on the minimum amount required to survive in London, your ability to sheerly live may be dependent of your ability to offer more than simple politeness and efficency at the till (though these are, of course, required), but to create a buzz by going the extra mile to sink money into the bosses pockets. Fighting against Pret means fighting against this bullshit - against affective labour that is so much work in capitalism.

3. Relatedly, Pret A Manger is at the forefront of embracing a throughly modern style of labour discipline. As well as requiring happy workers, Pret A Manger encourages workers to watch one another to ensure that this happens and report on one another when they do not. Workers only come onto the team when being voted on by the other workers in the store. Bonuses are provided not for the individual but for the team.

Pret A Manger therefore relies on marshalling a strong, emotionally bound team of workers, who in effect work well together because they look out for each other (while spying on one another). However, of course, Pret A Manger doesn’t want the workers to get too close, for example, forming unions or acting in solidarity with one another to force better wages. This obviously takes them to the point of a real contradiction. Moreover free time they provide for workers treats binds the team, but, hopefully, not too much. Pret therefore perhaps presents a great opportunity for unionisation broadly. They want worker combination, to the point of attempting to make it happen. But any time this does happen is an opportunity to push out. All capitalists want our power, what they have to carefully control is our collective strength that is the result of this power.

One can imagine some great tactics at Pret. The classic go-slow at the breakfast line, asking each customer robotically how they feel - working to rule making their sandwiches in the morning - getting a team bonus month on month and putting it towards a strike fund that is named “Christmas party” for public consumption. Fighting for unionisation is fighting for unionisation against and within Pret is vital insomuch as tactics developed here may well be applicable beyond it.

5. Because of the last two points, Pret A Manger is particularly sensitive to reputational damage. Direct attacks on it reputation of cuddly quirkly capitalists selling (admittedly actually quite good) coffee and sandwiches are direct attack on what Pret sell - yes, good coffee but the “buzz” is part of product also. The traditional tactics of blockade and strike are therefore more effective than in a traditional struggle, because they damage at a direct level the companies. This is more, in the case of Pret, than a bit of corporate social responsibility. The fact they are “ethical” is part of the product they sell. To show that they are not damages them uniquely, showing them to be rather flogging damaged goods.






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