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Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1124/32150

From The Socialist newspaper, 10 March 2021

Goodlord striker speaks out: 'workers have to fight for our skills to be appreciated'

Goodlord picket line 8 March, photo James Ivens

Goodlord picket line 8 March, photo James Ivens   (Click to enlarge)

Tenant referencing workers at tech company Goodlord, organised by general union Unite, are on all-out strike against 'fire and rehire' wage cuts. Striker Athena Parnell spoke to James Ivens, East London Socialist Party, about the issues facing tech workers and all workers fighting back.

What is Goodlord? What do you do?

Goodlord is a tech company, a platform for letting agents. They also offer referencing services to check on potential tenants, and insurance for letting agents. I work in the referencing team.

What is the strike demanding?

The London Living Wage - ideally for everyone, but at least for everyone in London. And permanent contracts.

How has management provoked it?

Until I joined in March, most of the referencing workers were employed through a temp agency. I was part of the first batch hired on fixed-term contracts, for six months.

We live in London and were hired because the office is in London. We were told that because we deal with confidential information we need to work from the office. When the first lockdown started, our group was the last allowed to leave the office.

In July, a group of us got together and asked management for a conversation. These jobs are not unskilled. They require two or three months' training.

So we felt we had something to offer them as workers; we wanted them to offer us permanent contracts. Due to the pandemic, we were afraid that at the end of six months we were going to lose our jobs.

They rudely refused to talk to us about that. This broke a lot of people's hearts. The company pushes the propaganda that we are a 'family'; we 'love each other'; free beer - you know what I mean. They pose as a start-up to avoid giving us normal conditions and wages.

We were told there would be a restructuring in the department. A consulting company was hired to make the referencing department more 'viable' for the business. Our contracts got extended until the end of January.

We heard nothing from the consulting company. Then management notified us of a big announcement at the end of October.

One day before our big announcement, the company announced that many management positions were getting a promotion or more money. So we were quite excited!

What was the big announcement?

They announced an offer of permanent contracts - with a 25% pay cut. I am on 24,000; they want to reduce my salary to 18,000.

They said that since the job can now be done from home, they are no longer going to pay the London Living Wage. This absolutely made us mad. Every single person there lives in London.

I accepted a contract extension until the end of April. The company offered us one week of pay if we quit.

What were you expecting?

There is no hierarchy in our department. No seniors, no leads. Everyone is responsible for training.

Logically we expected a restructure to be a restructure - assigning responsibilities. It turned out just to be pay cuts.

How did you respond?

At that point we wrote a letter to the company, from almost everybody in the referencing department. We asked for a collective consultation. Hear us out. Let's just be a bit more logical about the options.

They absolutely refused. There could be individual consultation, but no collective consultation.

My colleagues tell me that one of the managers said "we don't have to negotiate with you collectively, it's not like you're in a union." That's when some of us organised to join the union.

How did you organise?

It's quite hard to organise during the lockdown. We invited people to have personal conversations via Zoom and WhatsApp. We had a group working together.

By the middle of November, some of us were reaching out to colleagues, some of us were drafting letters, and some of us were reaching out to unions. The response from Unite the Union was overwhelmingly positive, so all of us decided to join Unite.

Unite said it was good we had written the collective letter and tried to negotiate first. Management couldn't say we hadn't tried to act reasonably.

We got help from the union on legal next steps and filed a collective grievance and at the same time, we discussed to start balloting for industrial action. The procedure can take a long time, and we've been assured we can call it off at any time we want.

Our grievance and letters were simply ignored until the ballot notice reached the company.

By the time they decided to hear our grievance out, it was January and we had voted for industrial action. Then the talks finally started. We even postponed the strike, hoping for a resolution. They didn't offer one.

Have you reached other departments?

Other workers in the company have joined Unite. But it is a challenge not being able to talk to people in person.

The wider company didn't know much beyond what management told them. In this age, when people are working from home, management can more easily control the narrative. We started to send emails informing colleagues about things.

I would say you need to try everything you can to reach out to people personally. Management has the resources to push their agenda in every meeting, in every one-on-one.

I think people need to feel the personal touch, something heartfelt. This issue is not just paper-pushing. There are real people involved whose lives are enormously affected.

A single mum has already had to give up this job. She left in January because she could not take care of her child on this salary.

I believe you have to find a way, through social media or whatever, to share these stories. As individual employees you can suffer repercussions for speaking out against the company on social media - so this is also where the union comes in.

What is management's attitude to your demands?

Absolutely negative. After we declared we had joined the union, management started attacking us in meetings.

There was a quite bad 'company-wide huddle', where management called us an "attack coming from inside." That had a negative effect on people all over the company, not just in the referencing department. So the next week management backed off.

They created something called the 'feedback group'. A separate meeting - for the whole department - excluding the union.

We had to vote for representatives on this group. They clearly forged the votes; even those who hadn't joined the union were still supportive of it. They use this group to pretend to listen.

The rest of the company gets three months' maternity leave. Referencing gets six weeks. Management pushed up the maternity leave. We said: are you kidding? Why aren't we already aligned with the rest of the company?

Management gave the rest of the company holidays and unlimited sick leave during the pandemic. We got three days' sick leave. We got them to increase this to ten days.

It's a joke. They don't lose money. They told us that on average, staff take 0.5 sick days a year. If that's true, why didn't you give us the same as the rest of the company?

At the 'huddle' on the last day before our strike, they attacked the strike. They said something like "we've faced problems before, but we're going to sort it out as a team. This is like a football match..." They named people who were forwards, people who were backs... "We're going to score, we're going to win this game!"

They asked for questions. One of my amazing colleagues told them: "We never took going on strike lightly. We never wanted it to come to this. Listening to you treating this situation as a game is horrific." Then there was silence!

More and more workers at tech companies are getting organised. Why do you think that is?

The tech industry is booming right now. Exploitation started right out of the gate. This is an industry that needs unions and sticking together as much as possible in future. We have to fight, for better salaries and being more appreciated.

I would even make a comparison to the industrial revolution to what's happened in the last 20 years. Especially since the recession, companies and people with power are on our backs exploiting us.

Think about how much of a wage gap there is between a programmer and a person who owns the company. Why is that?

I would like to reach out to the IT side, to the programmers and designers. How is it that you create all these things, yet you can barely buy your own place?

How is it that there is a gigantic ravine between you, who sell your skills, and people who own the property? You should stick together, from the entry-level to the most skilled!

For the past 20 years, we've just believed this bullshit that companies have to cut our salaries for economic reasons. I think everybody in the tech industry could earn more.

What would you say to other workers facing 'fire and rehire' tactics?

Unionise! Sticking together and fighting for our rights is crucial right now.

Other companies are going to use the pandemic in the same way as ours. They've already said to us: "You're working from home? I'm paying you less, then!" You have no right to decide what I spend my money on!

Everybody who sells their skills, and that's how you make your living - we have to stick together to negotiate against those who own stuff.

Wherever you came from, wherever you're going, whatever you do. We have to stick together and fight for our skills to be appreciated.

That's what Karl Marx said - and the Socialist Party agrees! So how can people support your strike?

We have a strike fund. We've had some donations, which is amazing and we really appreciate it.

But also what we would appreciate is people getting in touch with Goodlord and telling them what you think of them. They pretend they are not, but they are proud of their reputation.

Supporting our picket lines would also be amazing.

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