Julia Veros Gonzalez (below) is a worker at the Sage nursing home in Barnet, North London, where members of United Voices of the World (UVW) have been striking and campaigning over pay, sick pay and holiday parity with NHS workers, and union recognition (see their campaign website here). She spoke to Sacha Ismail.
Key workers – care workers, people sweeping the streets, drivers – getting up early in the morning or working at night, doing long shifts – sometimes as care workers we do twelve hours – we don’t mind doing it, we want to help people, we’re doing it the best we can, but we should be treated differently.
I’ve been at Sage for two and a half years now. I’ve only worked there part-time, but I quickly noticed different workers being treated differently, given different rights.
Once the pandemic started, some people didn’t have access to masks and things like that. As things went on, I started to have more and more issues with management, including over refusing to take visitors to task if they came without masks or even were rude to staff.
Before you go on, where are you from? How long have you been in the UK?
I’m from Spain. I’ve been in the UK for seven years, but I was also here before, 1973 to 81.
Ah, that is interesting. If it's ok, I'll come back to that. But sorry, please go on.
I knew another worker called Bella, who had been in UVW for a while, and she talked about the union and we started to join, quite quickly about 25 of us. We held a meeting and decided there were some basic things we needed to have some dignity at work – better treatment from management, but also better sick pay, holiday pay, better wage rates and other demands [see the demands of the strike here].
As a carer my salary is £9.10 an hour. The ones who have been there for longer, I think they get £9.60 – so it’s not even the London Living Wage. So we decided to call for £12.
How did you decide on £12? I’m interested because CaSWO [the Care and Support Workers Organise network] and now GMB have called for £15.
We felt we needed to ask for something which was a good step forward but immediately winnable. They responded that this was not possible because they’re a charity. Let’s be clear: several of their trustees are billionaires and the Freshwaters [brothers Benzion and Solomon] are some of the biggest landlords in London. It quickly became clear that the management of the organisation did not even consistently claim it is a charity themselves. Sometimes they openly admit it is a private company. Meanwhile they charge people many of thousands of pounds in fees!
We are increasingly understaffed, progressively worse and worse, to the point where it is very difficult to carry out our basic work. They are making increasing use of agency staff, which is a real problem because agency workers typically don’t know what to do. The jobs have to be done, and we do them, but it it is much more difficult, much more stressful and everything takes longer. It is an issue for the welfare of the residents too. This is a specific problem which we are now campaigning about, and we are going to raise it with the Care Quality Commission.
I attended some of our meetings with management and felt that some of my colleagues were too gentle with them, so I made the effort to ask them some difficult questions and really push them!
Who works at Sage?
It’s mostly women. Mostly early middle-aged: 30s, 40s, 50s. It’s mostly migrants, from many different places – Filipinos, Africans, Indians, South Americans, Eastern Europeans… Quite a lot of second-generation people. Ethnically a mix. There are some issues with managers trying to show favouritism to people who are from their own community.
So your membership grew quite fast? What proportion of people are in the union now?
It must be about half. There is an issue of turnover, of people leaving the job, but we have done ok at keeping membership up.
How do you as the Sage workers in UVW organise?
We talk pretty much constantly on Whatsapp; we have quite regular Zoom meetings, extremely regular around the time of the strike days; and we also find opportunities to speak in the workplace.
Obviously there are some people who tend to take a lead. I do quite a lot as I have more time than most people. It is important to keep pushing for as many people as possible to be as active as possible. I think there is always a problem in unions of not enough members being active.
I’m also now on the wider executive for UVW. Our contacts in the union have obviously been limited by the pandemic but more should be possible now with physical meetings.
Has UVW organised in any other care workplaces?
No – UVW has various things going on, but we are the only care workers. Of course we would like to develop that. However we are connected to other care workers, in other unions, through CaSWO. That is good for exchanging information and supporting each other. I hope we can inspire others. I believe at Sage we are to some extent pioneers of care workers taking strike action, certainly in the private sector.
Ok, so you went on strike in January and February? How was it?
Well, it is was a positive experience. The first time we had only one day and we had more limited numbers on the picket lines. We did things like chalking the pavements. On the second strike we did more days and had more people with us and we weren’t so to speak so strict. However we still had masks and hand sanitiser and everything; we were responsible. Overall we did quite well.
Quickly the management started to make noises about things changing, about talking to us, about “good will”. They set up a sort of staff forum. I wasn’t keen but the general feeling was that we should engage with it. We elected our representatives, but then quickly found management wanted to drag things out. It got to summer this year and they still hadn’t held the first meeting. They kept coming up with new excuses.
Meanwhile they have started victimising some workers who are members of the union [see here].
Now we are building our campaign again. It’s clear to more workers now that management are not going to do anything without more struggle. We are restarting our campaigning in the community – I’m going to a leafleting session in Hendon this afternoon. We are getting posters up in local shops. I should say we have great support in the Jewish community, which is particularly important because Sage is very much linked to that community.
We’re looking at striking at the start of October.
They’ve not many any real concessions at all, have they? So what kind of action do you think it will take to shift them?
The one concession is they’ve improved sick pay a bit, which is something – better than “good will” – but not much. So we will need more strike days and we will need more campaigning, including direct action to put pressure on the trustees. Any help is welcome – publicity and donations for the strike fund are very important. Come to our picket lines and demonstrations.
We are building links with other workers, for instance the Apthorp care workers who fighting against their facility being shut. We have links with other unions in the area. I have spoken at quite a lot of meetings in different places now. I spoke for UVW at the London May Day demo and . Some other workers have also spoken at things, mainly online meetings, and that has been a good experience for them.
What would you advocate to transform social care more widely?
Very simple: it should be part of the NHS and it should public. Everyone should be able to go to a public care home or have a public service helping them. If anyone wants to run private care homes, or a private agency, ok. But they need to pay good wages and give workers good conditions. We can’t say the NHS will pay everyone over £15, but in the private sector you can pay less than £10. If you establish that, I don’t think they will bother to set up private organisations. And for people who need care it should be free. You could have some small fee, but not like it is at the moment. Ideally, everything should be free.
Many care campaigners would not agree with the idea of care being part of the NHS, though?
If you want it to be public, but separate from the NHS, that’s ok too.
Do other workers at Sage discuss these wider issues?
Yes, absolutely. This is something people want. Most of us don’t want to work for the private sector!
Going back to the minimum wage, at TUC Congress the GMB just proposed a campaign for £15 for all care workers. In your strike you’ve asked for £12. Is there a danger that £15 will seem too big a jump to most care workers and so undermine rather than help organising?
I understand what you mean, we had similar discussions. When we discussed, we thought, really we should be demanding £15 at least. Particularly in London. In a decent society, caring would be properly valued. What does it say that a lawyer can be paid £100 an hour but care workers get £9 or £10? However, for a campaign by a small group of workers we wanted to find a first step. For a wider campaign I think £15 is good. It will make many workers think, yes, let’s go for it. We need to demand more and raise the whole debate to a higher level. Perhaps now we should revisit our Sage demands!
Returning to your story, you mentioned you were in the UK in the 1970s, which was really at the high point of the British workers’ movement’s strength and militancy. Were you engaged with it then?
I am a socialist. I’m left-wing – but you know, really left-wing. When I was back in Spain I was always involved in going to protests and things like that, though I never joined anything officially. The Sage campaign is the first time I've been on strike.
In the UK in the 70s I did notice how strong the unions were and how much struggle there was. I went on demonstrations and yes, it was incredible. There were many, many thousands of people. I’ve never seen anything like that since.
I want to point out that when I speak at things, I don’t just speak about Sage. I talk about the wider fight to change society.
Looking back at the 70s and everything since, how do you think we can revive workers’ struggle on a bigger scale?
That’s a big question. In Britain you had so many defeats in the 1980s. Unions are so bureaucratised. These are big organisations but you ask the question what are they doing. They should be in the streets every day. If you look at Unison for instance you have branches that are doing good things but the union as a whole does not encourage this. You have lots of people who are very comfortable in their positions and do not want to encourage any kind of movement.
Unions, and political parties too, have to be there to do things, to try to change things, or what is the point? It’s a major problem that left-wing or so-called left-wing political parties are so conservative. What is the difference between Labour and the Tories now? Jeremy Corbyn wanted to change it and look at what happened to him. I don't even know that I would vote Labour now.
But of course the unions have major influence in the Labour Party, but often don’t use it?
Yes, sure, that’s true.
We need to encourage a movement. Two workers can’t do much, but two hundred thousand can do a lot. I would like to see the labour movement organise a big demonstration to start to really change things.
I think there is a serious problem with young people being disengaged and individualised and not seeing the value of a collective movement. This creates very good material for bosses to exploit. So we have a responsibility to engage young people.
In the context of migrant workers’ struggles, can I ask your personal view on what has happened recently, with Brexit and so on?
Brexit was a very bad decision. There are lot of conservative people who have bad ideas about Britain. People who think this is still an empire. They talk about independence. Independence from what? Before you got meat from Europe, and at least it had some standards. Now you will get your meat from America, without any of these standards. Yes, the way the European Union is set up is unfair. It's not equal for all countries. But it is strange to hear anti-European stuff from a country like Britain which actually benefited.
Now I think this country is like people who resign from a club but still want to use the facilities.
From my experience, I don’t think the government actually wants to stop workers coming here, but I think they want to charge us more money for coming here and having the right to stay!
Would you like to add anything else?
Yes, please. I am against charity! Charities are run by powerful people, they are a way of avoiding paying taxes. Look at Bill Gates, who gives so much to charity. As a result of his “philanthropy” he is actually paying less taxes and has more money.
If anyone wants to give money to a good cause, there should be a national, public charity they can donate to, instead of giving money to these private organisations. We could have charity shops run by the government too – this could be a thing that was set up in every high street.
The things society needs, researching into cancer, everything else, should be funded publicly. If you have justice in a country, you don’t need charity.
Lots of countries talk about human rights. But do any countries really practice human rights?
The reality is that workers are not free. We don’t have dignity. If you can’t say no to the person who demands you work in bad conditions, for low wages, so you can pay your rent, so you can feed your family, then you are not free. We are not tied physically but we are certainly tied economically. I am also against a system where people can stay on benefits for a long time but be given no real encouragement or opportunities to live differently. I am not blaming the people, I am blaming the system.
Those who work create the wealth, we pay the taxes, but the people who run society make the rules for themselves. All the media is in their hands. They can dictate everything to us. They bring in more and more restrictions on our lives and our rights, and more restrictions for us means more freedom for them.
To change this we need to stand together. It doesn’t matter what background you’re from, what religion you are. It doesn’t even matter if you like each other! The important thing is to understand the situation you have in common and make demands and campaign to change it.