How Hackney cuts

Updated 11 July 2010. Information on cuts lobbies and organising groups at the end of this blog.

Have started to spend time in Hackney, with people likely to be affected by public sector cuts. Will post interview extracts here while I work on a longer piece with video, and go back to people to see how they’re getting on:

Anthony Rhoden:

I meet Anthony Rhoden at a Saturday afternoon Hackney Unites clinic for people who need free workplace and employment advice. Two Russell Jones and Walker solicitors are there as advisors, as well a TUC and local union rep.

A longtime (now unemployed) chef and restaurant worker, Rhoden says that he is a Unite organiser for bar and restaurant employees -‘there’s a lot of problems in the catering industry – there were lots of problems even before the recession. It happened to me all the time – wouldn’t get paid, or wouldn’t get all my pay. People don’t know they have rights. You get bullied all the time.’

In a recession, though, people count themselves lucky to have a job, even if they’re abused in it. That’ll be nowhere more the case than in Hackney. Hackney’s unemployment figures are already the worst in London, with a June 2010 TUC analysis putting the ratio of people claiming jobseekers’ allowance to available jobs at 24:1.

‘There’s no work anywhere,’ says Rhoden. He looks at me oddly when I put to him the coalition’s idea of moving the unemployed to areas where there are jobs. Like me, he’s not sure such a place exists. It ain’t in an obvious vicinity, that’s for sure. Joblessness will be even worse in Hackney, and in places like Lewisham and Deptford, if the public sector is hit as badly as the coalition proposes to hit it. Councils and the NHS are the biggest employers in these areas – there’s almost nowhere else to go.

Rhoden says he wants to start his own catering business, but that he signs on for now. He lives in temporary accommodation in Wigan House (he’s lived there for three years, waiting for his old block to be rebuilt) and relies on a housing benefit to meet his rent of about £100 a week.

The conversation takes a turn for the disturbing when we get to the subject of this housing benefit and the government’s targeting of it: Rhoden refuses to believe that housing benefits will be cut. He doesn’t talk about campaigning against the cuts – he says that he never ‘gets involved in the politics. I’m not a political person. The politics never changes anything and it never helps us.’

Now I’m looking at Rhoden oddly. Very. I wasn’t expecting this – I was as primed as ever for anger and a tide of anti-Cameron obscenity, but had nothing up the sleeve for denial. I tell Rhoden that George Osborne has housing benefits very much in his sights, and that if Osborne wins, Rhoden may find his housing benefit entitlement takes a ten percent hit.

Rhoden shakes his head. He says again that ‘there’s no way that they’ll cut the housing benefit.’ I say I hope he’s right and that I hope he knows something I don’t. The truth is that I suspect that Rhoden is exactly the type of guy Osborne is after – and exactly the type of guy Osborne wants the everyone-on-welfare-is-a-scrounger brigade to get after – because he’s been collecting JSA for more than 12 months. If he continues to collect JSA, which he may have to if his catering business idea doesn’t fly, he could be looking at losing ten quid a week, even as a council tenant.

‘There’s no way that they’ll cut it,’ Rhoden says firmly. ‘There’s no way they will do that. They will leave housing benefit alone.’ I has absolutely no idea how to interpret this confidence. It could be innocence – if Rhoden doesn’t follow politics, he may not know that Osborne is after housing benefits. That’s hardly a happy thought – he’s unlikely to be the only one. I suppose it could be the misplaced hauteur the right forever bangs on about – Rhoden isn’t worried about benefit cuts, because he’s confident the state will forever pick up his various tabs.

Of course – he wouldn’t be the only one. There are plenty of people with high expectations of handouts. One of the Russell Jones and Walker solicitors makes this point when she tells me that her firm was involved in a lot of final deal negotiations for well-placed City staff when the banks crashed.

‘The reality is that it didn’t hit them very hard,’ she says. ‘They negotiated good deals to leave, and then not very long after they left, they were negotiating good deals into other jobs.’ She says that by comparison, it can be very difficult to negotiate reasonable deals for people leaving the public sector.

She and the other Russell Jones and Walker solicitor say that from their perspective, very little has changed in the banking industry. They say that people are still awarded bonuses, but they just have them deferred so that they appear to be collecting nothing, or a lot less right now. ‘They like it like that. It looks like they’re not taking very much now, but they will just collect it all in the future.’

I wonder if the grassroots is up for a fight for public services, though. I want it to be, but that’ll hardly make it happen. Who would lead such a fight? Public sector trade unions? Hah. The PCS may put up a geniune fight, but Unison won’t.

I attend a meeting of Hackney locals and trade union members which is led by Brian Debus – a man who is walking testimony to Unison’s hatred of popular pro-public service, leftwing activists. Debus is one of the four Socialist party activists Unison has banned from office for demanding that Unison stop funding the pro-privatising Labour party. There is a great deal of difference between what Unison does and what it says.

This meeting of about 50 people knows that. It agrees that unions are too weak and too slow to organise effectively against the coalition juggernaut.

Union membership is low. Strike action is notoriously difficult to organise. Solidarity strikes are illegal. Legal strike action is painfully hard to achieve: unions must ballot, then request permission to strike from industrial action committees that are made up of people who’d prefer to make history as negotiators, rather than pinkos. If strikes go ahead, they may backfire. The Murdoch media hates the public sector and strikers, and will doubtless happily publish coalition press releases that claim public services were easily delivered on days when half the public sector workforce was out.

The meeting decides that the fight for services has to be rooted in communities, like the poll tax resistance. I think of Rhoden at this point, and wonder what will happen when he works out that the money is about to go.

Lobbies and meetings this week:

Camden TUC meeting to organise against cuts on Monday 12 July

Lewisham council: lobby against council cuts at Lewisham council buildings, Catford, Wednesday 14 July 5.15pm. Organised by the NUT.

News of cuts at Lambeth, and proposals to try and keep local people in employment.

Southwark Unites will hold a meeting against the cuts on Monday 19 July.

More to come.