Notting Hill but not much trust
STRIKES are breaking out in what would once have seemed the least likely places. For instance, Notting Hill Housing Trust, founded in 1963, "aims to improve the lives of homeless, poorly housed and vulnerable people across London".
It's part of the voluntary sector, esteemed by the public to do good work. If you went to work there when people you knew were getting good money in the banks and property, you could probably tell yourself you'd derive job satisfaction as part of a team relieving some of the misery they caused.
But just because you work for a charity doesn't mean you can afford to be one. People working in the voluntary sector also have to worry about the cost of living and having somewhere to live. Caring for others, they may also have family members to care for. Meanwhile, as the voluntary sector takes on more of the functions that local government is shedding, and bids competitively for the contracts, those in charge seem to be awarding themselves bigger salaries, just like the private sector, while telling those beneath them they have got to do more for less, to compete. Dedication and team spirit start to wear thin.
It happened in Shelter, and now it seems to be happening in the Notting Hill Housing Trust. Last year staff voted overwhelmingly to have a ballot, so they could vote on whether to strike. Ballot papers went out last week, and nearly 57 per cent of the Unison members at Notting Hill Housing Group voted. More than 93 per cent of them voted for strike action. A date for the strike will be set in the next few weeks.
Mary Powell, Unison Housing Associations branch secretary, said: ‘Notting Hill is one of a number of London-based housing associations which has imposed cuts to terms and conditions on its staff, or is threatening to do so. Such cuts come at a time when the need for quality social housing is greater than ever. Staff are expected to deliver a high standard of customer service whist seeing their own conditions of employment eroded. Low morale will only increase staff turnover to the detriment of services.’
‘It is highly unusual for Unison members in London housing associations to take industrial action, however NHHT has left its staff with little choice. The ballot result is clear.’
‘The employer does still, however, have an opportunity to return to the negotiating table so long as they genuinely want to reach an agreement.’
A spokesperson for Notting Hill said it was sorry that ‘some people feel this way’ but that it respected their right to take action. She added that the majority of staff ‘have chosen to sign their contracts and move forward’.
‘We will do our absolute best to make sure that any form of industrial action does not disrupt our services to residents,’ she added. ‘It is essential that we transform our business to improve our customer service and change is an inevitable part of this process.’
The change which Notting Hill had proposed would abolish paid carers’ leave. The union also said the landlord was planning for staff redeployed to a lower-paid job to receive their original salary for six months rather than the current two years and relocation allowances would last for three months rather than a year. Flexitime, where staff have a contractual right to accrue overtime and take it as leave, would be replaced with flexible working, where staff must apply to managers to change their hours.
The association had considered extending working hours from 35 to 37 a week without extra pay but the board ruled out the idea. However it planned to implement the other changes without negotiating with the union, Unison said.
Unison said carers’ leave cost Notting Hill a total of £30,000 in 2008 and its abolition combined with the end of flexitime, would have a disproportionate impact on female staff with caring responsibilities. It said cuts in salary protection and relocation allowances were ‘a cynical attempt to cut employment protection measures in advance of likely restructures and office moves’.
A Notting Hill employee, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: ‘People are willing to make changes if it is necessary but there’s been no negotiation so it is demoralising. The way it has been put forward people feel they are being told they are not working hard enough. It seems the hardest hit are families and carers. Carers’ leave had such a small financial impact on the company that we cannot understand why they would want to get rid of it.’
Notting Hill chair Paul Hodgkinson is also a trustee of Parenting UK, a membership body for organisations which support parents.
Tenants and people in the labour movement in west London are concerned at what part voluntary sector charities may play in Tory-run Hammersmith and Fulham council's plans to get rid of some housing estates. A council representative has been abroad meeting property developers to offer them the advantages of "regeneration" in the west London borough.
As for Notting Hill Housing management's attitude to unions, John Gray, a fairly moderate member of Unison and the Labour Party, wrote to Notting Hill's Chief Executive Officer Kate Davies, who has also been a housing adviser to Blair and the Labour Party, expressing shock at the imposition of conditions, without negotiation with the union. "The refusal to agree to allow trade union representation to your board is even more utterly inexplicable. It makes people wonder what on earth you have got to hide? While the failure to agree to even trying to seek arbitration through ACAS is just utterly appalling and deeply damaging."
"Don't I know you?" (or what Katie did)
ONE of my old colleagues from Lambeth trade union council, who went to a meeting about housing, thought one of the speakers seemed strangely familiar from a while back. She was billed as Kate Davies, chief executive of Notting Hill Housing, and before that a Labour Party adviser on housing.
"Didn't you used to be Kate Marshall of the RCP?", he eventually managed to ask. Somehow he had the feeling that this discomforted her.
The Revolutionary Communist Party(RCP), originating in a split from the Socialist Workers' Party, and dubbed at one time "The SWP with hair gel", became a source of wonder on the Left for the ease with which it found ultra-radical sounding arguments to abandon left-wing positions, on issues like trade union political funds or privatisation during the Thatcher years, eventually discovering - ahead of, or at least parallel with Tony Blair - that the class struggle was finished. It's glossy magazine Living Marxism was re-titled LM , and started being sold in posher neighbourhoods, though eventually losing a libel action arising from its skepticism on Bosnian atrocities. The RCP officially dissolved itself, since when leading members seem to have found themselves quite nice jobs in academe and the media.
An ex-RCP comrade who did not get rid of his working class affinities to rise with the leaders remembers that Kate Davies did use to go by the name Kate Marshall, "though her actual name was Barlow, and she married a chap called John Davies, who was in the RCP. ...She became the General Secretary when the group decided to have such a position, but she drifted away from the RCP sometime in the mid-1980s, as far as I know out of politics altogether, as did her other half".
According to Craig Murray, Davies switched partners, to a chap called Nick Johnson, who works for the Commission on Racial Equality. They have a home in Sussex Gardens, and she earns more than him, about £113,000 a year plus benefits, a couple of years ago.
NB - Two readers contacted me to say the Nick Johnson upon whom we gave details is the wrong one. (see comments) Apparently Kate Davies' partner of that name works for Tory Hammersmith and Fulham council, and unusually for a full-time officer, has acted as a spokesman for council policy.
Because some of the other old RCPers still hang together and look after each for speaking engagements, interviews and so forth, there's a school of thought -particularly among Greens whom they have attacked - that the group is still pursuing its own peculiar "marxist" agenda,sans proletariat, but practising deep-level entryism. They also point to various alleged "front organisations" (such as the Institute of Ideas, whence came Mayor Boris Johnson's cultural adviser, Munira Mirza).
I very much doubt it, and I am sure Kate Davies is not part of any such strategy. In fact, contrary to suggestions that Notting Hill Housing Trust was even controlled by the Labour Party, I see that it has been praised by west London's Tory Boy himself, Harry Phibbs, once a wild man of the Federation of Conservative Students and now a Hammersmith and Fulham councillor and pillar of the Tory party's Home and Social Affairs Unit.
In return, Kate Davies has sung the praises of Boris Johnson for his dedication to home ownership, as the basis of housing policy.