Homeless Caseworkers in Glasgow have been on strike for ten weeks for decent pay. Austerity is forcing working-class people in the city out of their homes. But, as Christine Bird reports, Glasgow’s Labour council seems more concerned about imposing Tory cuts than providing services to homeless people.
Last Friday, after they had been on strike for nine weeks, the council made its first offer to the striking Homeless Caseworkers: two-thirds of the team to be regraded, the remaining third to be kept on the same grade and redeployed elsewhere within the council. The offer was unanimously rejected. John explained, “that offer really upset me. If they’d made that same offer a couple of weeks in, I could have understood better.”
Fellow striker Jenny agreed: “The council have made people competitively reapply for their own jobs in the past. Is that what they would do now? They didn’t even have the correct figures, didn’t know how many staff they’ve got! It’s outrageous that this Labour council says it is anti-austerity and yet they are using a democratically mandated strike to push through cuts to Homelessness Services. We need more resources, not less.”
The council is under great pressure. Glasgow City Council is Scotland’s largest local authority with 20,000 employees and a gross annual budget of more than £2.3 billion. In the year 2015-2016, the city is expected to make savings in the region of £30 million. The Tory government’s austerity measures place a heavy burden on local authorities. The proposed cuts to homeless services total £800,000 – disproportionate to the size of the department, strikers claim. There is a general feeling that low levels of funding for homeless services, including staff pay, reflect the low value placed on providing a quality service to Glasgow’s homeless citizens.
Meanwhile, demand for homeless services has grown. Jenny explains, “People used to present as homeless through addictions and relationship breakdown. A lot now lose their private lets through benefit sanctions.”
A Castlemilk Law Centre solicitor backed up this assertion: “I recently worked on the case of an immigrant woman, who had failed to fulfil her Job Seeker’s Agreement for 2 weeks in a row. She had phoned the centre to explain that her children were off school ill, and she needed to be at home to look after them. This information had not been correctly processed. Her benefits were therefore stopped.”
Jenny continues, “a lot of people don’t realise that they can appeal. Most times, the appeals are upheld, since the reasons for sanctioning can be so ridiculous. People think they can manage somehow for a week without benefits, but then the next time, the sanctions last longer. They lose their private lets and can’t find enough money for a deposit plus one month’s rent in advance. There isn’t enough social housing.”
Glasgow shares the issue of gentrification with other cities in the UK. Jenny outlined the case of a woman in the West End of Glasgow whose tenancy was brought to an end after several years because the landlord could get a higher rent with new tenants. The woman couldn’t find another flat in the West End for herself and her children at a price she could afford. Property prices have risen in the Gorbals and other areas of the city’s Southside too. People are being pushed to live ever further from the centre, in areas such as Castlemilk and Easterhouse.
Councillors insist they are doing their best in a difficult situation. There are thought to be hundreds of rough sleepers in Glasgow each night. Research by Glasgow Homelessness Network (GHN) has found that 65% of people who asked for help were told there were no beds left in the city. They estimate that 504 people “obtained an outcome of no accommodation available” last year. Councillor Malcolm Cunning dismissed concerns that homeless services are dysfunctional: “I think part of the causation is that those organisations are quite legitimately offering a service and the fact they are offering it is more and more widely known. That’s why there has been a rise in the use of their services. That’s a suspicion I’d strongly have.”
In the same interview, Cunning stated, “We as a council certainly continuously attempt to provide assistance to those who are in immediate crisis, as well as finding long term accommodation for individuals that is in an environment where our access to long term accommodation has been restricted because of what the registered social landlords are making available to us.”
Strikers reject Cunning’s arguments. The shortfall of beds for rough sleepers seems more likely to be connected to the Glasgow hostel closure programme, coupled with a failure to provide sufficient alternative emergency accommodation. In addition, blaming social landlords for failing to make accommodation available glosses over the fact that Glasgow City Council sold off all of its housing stock to housing associations, such as the GHA. Local authorities which have retained their own stock of council housing retain the right to place homeless people in whichever accommodation is available and deemed suitable. In any case, the Social Work department could have brought a more serious offer much sooner, in order to try and resolve this dispute, both for the sake of its employees, and for the homeless people affected by the dispute. “They take home their paycheck from Glasgow City Council the same as us,” John says of the Social Work department managers. “They’re there to serve the people of Glasgow, but they aren’t providing the service that they should. Gordon Matheson should show some leadership and tell the executive to settle our claim.”
This strike is, at heart, an act of resistance against austerity. It tests the mettle of politicians and councillors who claim to be against the cuts. So far, this Labour council has been found wanting. The SNP was elected on an anti-austerity ticket, and some of its newly elected MPs, such as Anne Mc Loughlin, have pledged the strikers their personal support. It remains to be seen to what extent they will fight Westminster budget cuts on Scottish local authorities.
The strikers have set up a Facebook page with regular news from the dispute.