Care workers at Sage nursing home lead the way for trade union activism

During last week’s #HeartUnions event, Chair of the Green Party Trade Union Group Matthew Hull explains how care workers at the Sage nursing home in Barnet led the way.

Care home resident
Matthew Hull

This week is #HeartUnions week, a Trades Union Congress (TUC) initiative to celebrate trade unions, trade unionism, and the vital role they play in society. These are seven days in which to celebrate the impact and role of unions in our politics, both historically and in the present; they represent a fine opportunity for Greens to reflect on our relationships with the labour movement.

More than that, however, it is an opportunity for us all to reflect on where militant, organised workers figure in our own political strategies and campaigning work. Recent disputes, and the role Green campaigners have played in them, offer a blueprint for Green campaigning that uplifts and materially supports workers’ struggles.

But most importantly, they reveal that workers are not merely beneficiaries, but in fact agents of the change we desperately need in society. A Green politics that is serious about bringing that change about will engage working people not as a constituency, but as a force to be reckoned with.

Care workers in a time of Covid

At Sage nursing home, care, maintenance, and cleaning workers have worked through the pandemic to deliver vital services to the elderly and infirm of Barnet in North London. Earning between £8.72 and £9.60 per hour (£8.72 is the legal minimum for a worker over 25 years old), these workers are currently among the worst-paid in the capital.

In a city as hostile to low-paid workers as London, these are poverty wages. But speaking to the workers in December, as they prepared to take strike action if necessary, this was just the one among many interlocking problems caused by the way their employer treated them. I and a group of Green candidates for the London Assembly heard how the workers only had recourse to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) of less than £96 per month in the event of sickness; without substantial savings they are forced to use their annual leave to recover from serious illness or surgery. We heard how the care workers felt used and at risk, as their employer was slow to provide PPE during the first wave of Covid.

But we also heard how the workers at Sage had combined as members of United Voices of the World – their trade union – collectively to demand more from their employer. We also saw with our own eyes the determination and strength of the workers, largely women from migrant backgrounds, as they prepared to take the difficult step of going on strike not once but twice.

In so many ways their struggle is emblematic of the best of resistance to a health and care system that so often reduces its people to mere numbers on a spreadsheet or cogs in a machine. Supporting and further empowering these working people to act together and win something better is undoubtedly Green politics in principle and in action.

Supporting Sage’s workers

From the start, Green candidates offered their support to the union. In particular, London Assembly candidate Zack Polanski has gone the extra mile to offer practical support: whether by joining the workers on the picket line, encouraging donations to their strike fund, writing to the home’s trustees, and even speaking to ITV News in London.

But others contributed too, with Greens of Colour, the Young Greens, and the Green Party Trade Union Group signing an open letter alongside 150 other organisations and campaigns. Co-leader Sian Berry sent a message of support to be played at the first virtual picket line in January. And one of the strike leaders, Bile, wrote to London Green Party members and supporters to ask them to show their support too.

Matthew Hull leafletting around the dispute, December 2019

 

It is fair to say that this struggle captured the attention and emotions of many Greens in a way we had not anticipated. But it has attracted a wide array of support – of which Greens were only one part. Left luminaries addressing the virtual picket in January included John McDonnell and Nadia Whittome, as well as a host of trade unionists from across the UK.

A blueprint

During the Covid pandemic the work of social reproduction – the work that keeps society running but is so often degraded, unrecognised, and unrewarded – has become an increasingly fraught site of struggle. The action taken by Greens alongside allies from other parties and organisations is a brilliant example of how Greens can offer practical solidarity to workers in their fight.

Workers like those at Sage nursing home are, in so many ways, the people who we believe would benefit most from Green politics in action. And yet, the way we do politics in our local parties and communities can often neglect to engage directly with working people and their organisations – not least their trade unions. Greens do not always enjoy the institutional links and relationships that other parties with deeper working class roots take for granted. But that is not the end of the story.

These links and relationships are not naturally-occurring or accidental - they are built. And if we want to organise working people behind our political programme and vision it is up to us to build them. It starts with offering support, taking campaign actions, raising money for a strike fund, and rallying a community behind a workers’ campaign.

The work done in support of the Sage nursing home dispute stands as one small example of Green worker solidarity in the time of Covid. But it inspires me, and hopefully many others, to continue to work ever more closely with organised working people.