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9 June 2021

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Goodlord striker speaks out: How we unionised and fought the bosses

A section of workers at property services company Goodlord have been on indefinite strike since 22 February, and were sacked by the company on 19 May. The workers were striking against an imposed pay cut, and the company has now ignored the legal protection against dismissal for strikers in the 12 weeks after a ballot. One of the striking workers, Scott Hunter, who joined the Socialist Party during the dispute gives an overview of the struggle.

Jeremy Corbyn and Howard Beckett join the Goodlord picket, photo James Ivens

Jeremy Corbyn and Howard Beckett join the Goodlord picket, photo James Ivens   (Click to enlarge)

My colleagues and I were employed at a company called Goodlord (Oh Goodlord Limited). In organising terms, it was a non-traditional workplace: we were all young workers at a tech start-up, most of us using the work to support ourselves while we studied or pursued other careers.

Many of us, including myself, had an interest in left-wing politics - rising with the Corbyn movement - but little practical experience in workplace organising. Late 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, with another four years of Conservative government looming and a right-wing Labour leader, was an isolating and demoralising time.

Up until January 2021, my colleagues and I had been employed on rolling six-month fixed-term contracts, at or above the London Living Wage. In November 2020, the company announced that it would not be renewing our fixed-term contracts but, instead, offering permanent contracts at a significant pay reduction - a 20% loss on average.

The company also wanted to impose other, inferior, terms and conditions: cutting hours from 40 to 35 per week (so a net 35% reduction in pay with cuts to wages and hours), reducing our paid sick leave to just three days a year, and the introduction of mandatory shift work on evenings and weekends.

We were given just two weeks to sign the new contacts, or risk becoming unemployed once our fixed-term contracts expired in January. We were also given the option of a three-month extension to our existing contracts, taking us to March or April 2021 but, once again, after that we would be unemployed. And in the middle of possibly the largest recession ever the company knew that our options were limited.

Remote working

The company's justification for these cuts was that, because we had been successfully working remotely since March 2020, these new contracts would be remote-only and, therefore, none of us needed to live in London, so the company would not pay a London Living Wage.

This behaviour should be a concern for anyone in a job that could be done remotely: with many office workers successfully working from home over the pandemic, employers are likely to use the success of workers against them. This is particularly concerning in under-unionised industries like the digital and technology sector.

Unfortunately, at first, we were caught on the back foot. We had no trade union in our workplace and, with many of us being young workers, we had little idea of the practical realities of union activity. My first step was to reach out to several colleagues who I knew would be sympathetic to the idea of an organised resistance.

From there, we began reaching out to more people until we had covered everyone affected. Stuck at home during lockdown, our major tool was WhatsApp and simple email lists. At the same time, we reached out to several trade unions for advice.

Our first action was to compose a letter to management and deliver it collectively. This letter appealed to management on an emotional basis, not yet revealing the extent to which we were willing to fight, and demonstrate our solidarity with each other. Management's response to this letter was essentially to say: "Thanks, but no thanks," and brush us off.

Unionisation

By this time we were in regular contact with Unite the Union, which offered to represent us. Democratically, we chose to join with Unite to further our fight. Next, we attempted to raise a collective grievance with our company. The company refused to recognise the collective nature of our grievance, instead telling us to submit grievances individually. This was unacceptable to us and so we chose to ballot for strike action.

Through this time we were losing members to attrition. Several of our colleagues understandably found new jobs or simply left their positions, unwilling to endure the increasingly-hostile company atmosphere. After it became aware of the ballot for strike action, the company also stepped up its anti-union intimidation effort, frequently ambushing staff members with one-to-one meetings with management where they were quizzed about union involvement and spreading anti-union messages during company-wide meetings.

At the same time, the company was also on a recruitment drive, and the new hires - hired on the new, lower wages and living mostly outside of London - were much less sympathetic to our cause.

Looking back, online organising has been a double-edged sword: while it is easy to get in contact with people, the lack of face-to-face interaction makes it more difficult to establish a sense of camaraderie with new colleagues. I feel now that our recruitment efforts among the new hires may have been more successful if we had put more emphasis on phone conversations and video calls rather than pure text messaging.

Despite these issues, our cause has surged forward. As we prepared for strike action in early 2021, we attempted some talks with the company. The company ultimately refused to move on the issue of pay; however, during this time, we were able to get the company to go back on its intended cuts to hours, sick pay, and mandatory shift work. However, pay remained our major issue and we proceeded on that basis.

We began our indefinite strike in late February 2021, as well as launching a leverage campaign. That involved targeting the company's clients to generate pressure, and a student solidarity campaign aimed at the student lettings industry. We were awed throughout this by the level of support we received by socialist groups across London and the country. Regular picket lines helped sustain the strikers' morale and act as a pressure on management.

We also had the Living Wage Foundation revoke Goodlord's accreditation. After eleven weeks of strike action, we proposed that we go through mediation service Acas to mediate with the company. Though the company did not initially know what Acas was, they eventually agreed and we went through arbitration. This process ended in the company offering us between six to ten weeks' pay each in lieu of notice. This offer was not acceptable to us as it did not lead to permanent jobs at good wages.

We pointed out to the company that bringing us up to the London Living Wage (which was our compromise position) would cost the company about 2,000 a year for each of us, but the company was willing to pay us approximately 4,000 each as a lump sum. The company declined to explain why they were willing to pay us the lump sum but not increase our salaries.

Sacked

After we rejected this last offer, the company sent us termination notices. This was the thirteenth week of strike action and we had concluded a second ballot to further our legal protection, based on the new issues that had arisen during the strike, including anti-union intimidation and bullying from the company. Despite our valid strike ballot - passed unanimously - the company knowingly broke the law and sacked us.

This is where we currently are. We are pursuing legal options while remaining open to negotiations if the company wants to come to the table. We are focused on securing the best possible outcome for our members, and sending a message to other employers that these practices are not acceptable.

Our current strategy aims to put pressure on the company by targeting its clients and related businesses; already, we have staged demos outside of several of Goodlord's clients as well as the head offices of Nutmeg.com, of which Goodlord's CEO William Reeve is chair of the board. We are also working with Socialist Students and others to target Goodlord and their clients during the peak season for student lettings.

For myself, this experience led me to join the Socialist Party and overall moved me to put my beliefs into action by involving myself in party activities and supporting other strikes over London and the country. While I do not want to speak for all my colleagues in their absence, I feel that this experience has made lifelong socialists and trade unionists out of many of us.

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In The Socialist 9 June 2021:


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Readers' Opinion


 

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