Over the past few months, life in the UK has felt like an episode of The Thick of It. The man who began the year as our Prime Minister has now completely removed himself from politics; we had an EU referendum that's led to much hand-wringing over what "Brexit means Brexit" in fact means; Andrea Leadsom thought she could be PM.
But the implosion of Britain didn't happen overnight – it's taken years to screw the non-wealthy so royally. Young people in the capital can now spend up to 81 percent of their income on rent and George Osborne's beloved national living wage may not be enough to keep people from poverty. But it's not all horrendous news. We chatted to some of the people who've put their jobs on the line to fight for higher wages and more rights, to try and find some hope in all this bleakness.
We were a team of 39 full-time and part-time staff. One day they announced they were cutting half the team. It was really quick; there was no pre-empt. They held this meeting with all the staff and gave us three weeks to assign union reps to speak for the staff at meetings before the redundancies hit. Apparently they were working at a massive deficit, of hundreds of thousands of pounds – and they're a charity, so this really needed to be addressed.
But their approach was just to get rid of the front-of-house staff because they're on zero-hours contracts and everyone else is properly contracted. I thought, what the fuck? They can't do this, and organised a meeting, getting everyone to join the union. Most people didn't even know what one was – why would you if you've never needed one?
I wanted us to put forward a counter proposal on dealing with the deficit while protecting our jobs and management were like, "well, you look at the financial and fiscal documents then,"; so I did, and we came up with a better solution. I wasn't about to stand by and let people just be walked over like that. On the eve of our first strike the redundancies were called off and we came to a deal – and saved everyone's jobs.
Maria Susanna Benavidez Guaman
Cleaner in a high street shop
I've been working as a cleaner for several years, throughout which I've felt exploited; working double or triple amounts of work than I expect, or not receiving fair holiday or sick pay as I am on a two and a half hours per week contract – but basically work full-time. Joining the campaign for a Living Wage was about fighting for a sense of independence, as well as being treated like a human being. It shouldn't matter if you are of a different nationality, or size or colour or speak a different language. We all need the same things to survive and I felt like a number, disposable. I wanted to feel valued for the work I do.
After going on protests, I was suspended from work. I wasn't surprised that they punished me for speaking up, but the hardest thing has been losing my hours. Financially it affected me, my family and my dignity.
But, I am continuing the fight, because we're human beings and deserve to be treated with respect and consideration. We aren't asking for anything extraordinary – only to work with dignity – and will keep fighting until someone listens and we feel there is justice in our workplace.
Cinema customer services assistant
I'm a union rep and I run a start-up called Living Staff Living Wage. Something snapped when I saw the trend in Brixton of working people being unable to afford their rent, and realised the disparity between my wages and the people running the multi-million pound profit making company I work for. I needed to make a difference for my colleagues, and for my own self-worth.
In 2014 we organised, and put in a pay claim for the London Living Wage, which was rejected. We ended up going on strike 13 times, with national news coverage. Eventually, through exhaustion, we accepted a 26 percent pay rise. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, we'd been through something so emotional, we'd even led Pride 2014. Then management announced mass redundancies. What they were doing was so transparent and our public support was so strong at this point that, purely using social media, we forced them to overturn it.
*Since Nia was interviewed for this piece, the Ritzy Living Wage campaign called a strike, for Saturday the 24th of September, after they say Picturehouse refused to negotiate this summer on the London Living Wage and other improvements.
Chief theatre steward
I was working in catering at The National theatre when I went to my first union meeting about wages. There wasn't anyone there to represent us and it concerned me that we didn't have a voice in our department, so I decided to become a union rep. The company and the union have learnt to work together in the best interests of the staff, and there hasn't been a strike at the theatre since the 1970s.
A couple of years ago, however, there was a de-recognition attempt. By this point I was the chief steward, and they announced the changes while I was on holiday. Management said they wanted to spend more time directly communicating with the staff, rather than through the union, which I disagree with. I know that if staff have a meeting with management and they're asked for input, they're unlikely to speak up – for fear of being seen as a troublemaker, stirring the pot or asking a seemingly obvious question. But when I go into those meetings, I know I'm there to represent people. It's invaluable, because it gives staff a sense of security.
I met a woman from Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners last year and she said, "Someone once asked why I campaigned with the miners. Was I scared? Yeah, I was scared. But the most important thing is that you feel the fear, and you do it anyway." I thought that was nice.
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