The GMB union is holding a road show to drum up support for potential industrial action by disgruntled pub licensees. Neil Gerrard sat in on the London meeting.
There are probably few more appropriate places to foment a mass pub rebellion than in the Bread & Roses pub in London's Clapham Common, home of the Workers' Beer Company.
But you can forgive the major pubcos - object of so many licensees' anger - if they don't man the barricades just yet.
A GMB-sponsored meeting last week at the famous watering hole saw only 15-20 licensees from across the capital turn up to discuss the pros and cons of potential industrial action. That action could include switching off the Brulines flow-monitoring system and buying beer off-tie in a move that the GMB estimates could cost the pubcos £10m.
That said, there was little doubting the enthusiasm of those who had attended, and their genuine sense of injustice at the way they feel they have been treated.
Licensees shared stories of frequent, high rent rises, chronic lack of investment in pubs, and an unwillingness of their business retail managers to listen seriously to their problems, to name just a few grievances.
Another added: "The fact that we are all here shows that we are willing to do something."
And an Enterprise licensee said they were "comforted" by seeing so many other licensees who were sharing concerns over the same issues as they had. "This is the best thing that has happened to the pub trade since I have been involved with it," another said.
It was that sense of something finally changing that GMB senior organiser Paul Maloney was keen to emphasise. Rarely short of a colourful phrase, Maloney has become something of a bête noire for the pubcos over recent months, with frequent media appearances denouncing their behaviour towards their licensees in the strongest possible terms.
"Let's stand together for once because you've been standing out there for the best part of 20 years, and you've been standing alone," was just one of Maloney's repeated rallying cries to the meeting.
The GMB wants pubcos to address all their licensees' grievances, and in particular to redress the £12,000 difference that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) estimated there was between running a tied pub costs and running a free house. The aim of pubs going off tie as part of industrial action is to pass the cost saving on to consumers and gain the support of the public in the dispute.
"If we stand as publicans up and down the country and we say ‘no more beer from you pub companies', it might be too late for them to turn the clock back," he said. "If we can get the price right, then the public will be on our side."
But there were concerns among the licensees of taking such direct action. While willing to make a stand, they were fearful of the consequences of breaching the terms of their contracts with the pubcos.
Maloney admitted that the pubcos would indeed be breaching their contracts, but said: "We at the GMB have many people up and down the country who are self-employed and have taken action and won."
He argued that it was unrealistic to expect that pubcos would undertake court action against individual licensees if enough of them took a stand. "How long will it take them to get through 6,000 or 7,000 court cases? They won't. They'll get through the first half a dozen and then they'll have egg on their faces," he said.
One licensee agreed: "If we do this together then they can't pick us off," she said.
But another asked why the GMB couldn't offer licensees assurance in the form of a legal opinion that taking action would not result in the forfeiture of their lease. "The underlying fear factor for tenants is losing their pubs because it is their home too," he said.
And a third told Caterer after the meeting: "People are scared. One of the ways in which the big pub companies operate is by ‘divide and conquer'. They treat everything on a case-by case basis. And there's a lot of apathy out there because people are working 60-70 hours a week just to try to keep their pub running."
One of the clear aims of the GMB on the evening was to get more licensees to sign up. A show of hands revealed that fewer than half of the licensees that evening were members. The union also claimed that if every licensee who is currently a member could sign up just two more, then they would have a solid base from which to mount a stand against the pubcos.
"These people don't like being challenged," Maloney said. "It's something that they thought they would never see, and something the trade thought it would never see."
Of course, whether the industry sees any more is a different matter. At the moment it seems that the campaign is stuck in a classic catch-22 situation. There are clearly plenty of licensees in favour of industrial action, at least in principle. But they want to know that there are enough supporters on board that they don't look as if they are going it alone.
A clearer picture of whether or not the GMB has managed to persuade them of that should emerge by 16 March when the union plans a licensees' rally in Parliament, with the ballot set to follow shortly after that.
As one licensee pleaded: "It's not apathy. It's apprehension. And we can't help that."
By Neil Gerrard
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