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“We are not ‘bullies’, we are care-workers.” This is the slogan adopted by bewildered and shocked Birmingham homecare workers – who are currently in dispute with their local Labour-run council over plans to cut their already low wages by a staggering £4,000 a year – in response to a hugely inflammatory Facebook post by one of their city’s very own Labour MPs, Steve McCabe.
McCabe is now the only Labour MP in the area refusing to back the strike, which aims to save jobs and a vital council service relied upon by some of the cities most vulnerable and their families, describing it as “a highly personalised campaign of bullying” and its members of conducting “abusive behaviour”.
The situation began when Birmingham City Council was implementing a fresh wave of Tory austerity cuts and wanted to drastically reduce the number of staff and contracted hours for the remaining homecare workers who hadn’t already been pressurised into taking voluntary redundancy in the enablement service – the service that administers the rehabilitation and aftercare of individuals recently discharged from hospital in the dignity of their own home.
Birmingham Council’s proposals will see the homecare workers, who are primarily women and already low-paid, face a drastic cut of their contracted hours, losing up to £4,000 in wages a year. From the start of the dispute, the homecare workers stated their case very clearly, through their union Unison, to the Labour-run council. They said that their members would not be able to survive and support their families on the proposed reduced wages: people will default on their mortgages and lose their homes; it will ruin the lives of so many working-class people.
The union went into dispute with the council and has since been locked in a bitter dispute, now lasting over 15 months with over 50 days of strike action to date.
Broken promises, underhanded manoeuvres and no serious attitude from the council to work with the union, as well as the dedicated staff’s livelihoods and vocations, led Unison to escalate their political tactics and produce material calling out individual council members. This included leafleting their constituents to inform them what their councillors are doing to low-paid workers and asking the question: do these councillors ‘remember their Labour values’?
This prompted Labour MPs for Birmingham to issue an arms-distance intervention – but an intervention nonetheless – in the form of an open letter calling on the head of the council, Ian Ward, to solve the dispute quickly and ‘get around the table’ with Unison.
All Birmingham Labour MPs signed the letter, bar one – Steve McCabe.
When challenged on his refusal to sign the letter by the union, he released a train wreck of a Facebook post where he claimed the home-carers were acting as intimidating bullies for doing this:
It seems Mr McCabe doesn’t like being democratically held to account for his actions, an attitude he has most likely built during his long spell in a Labour safe-seat. When challenged by the labour movement over his lack of support for workers in struggle in his own city he reverts to making childish and embarrassing statements of being bullied.
However, a quick breakdown of his Facebook post reveals even more what he thinks about these low-paid women and the union fighting for people’s livelihoods:
- He states that he has been a “Trade unionist since the first day I started work” but then goes on to refer to the open letter his fellow Labour MP colleagues signed as a ‘propaganda tool of the union’. Bear in mind the wording of the letter was extremely uncontroversial. For him to reduce it down to just a “propaganda tool” is extremely belittling for an action that many of the homecare workers saw as a sign of solidarity during a time of great stress for many of their members.
- He takes the time to refer to his “poor constituents, many of them elderly, who need a proper functioning service.” But does he seriously think the homecare workers do not know this? For him to pull this card is extremely disingenuous. The most fervent advocates of a well-funded and accessible enablement service are, surprise-surprise, those that actually do the work. It’s revealing that not a single service user has come out against the strike action. In fact, many, including McCabe’s own constituents, have come out in support of the strike, including the campaign group ‘Disabled People Against Cuts’ – Birmingham branch who are service user’s themselves.
Perhaps none of this should be surprising given Steve McCabe’s voting record. Maybe he doesn’t like people trying to hold him to account for his actions. His parliamentary record confirms this and is littered with examples of him voting against laws of transparency.
Case in point: he consistently voted against investigations into the Iraq war, a brutal conflict he voted for alongside Tony Blair. In addition, he voted against the expenses of MPs being revealed under Freedom of Information requests and against a statutory register of lobbyists.
Accountability and transparency should be at the heart of the labour movement, especially for those democratically elected into positions of power.
Maybe instead the reasons behind McCabe’s ‘out of touch’ comments are due to his out of touch salary. £4,000 is probably not a big loss for someone like him considering last year he earned £89,221 and claimed £157,046 in expenses. If he was on the same wage as a homecare worker, he might better understand the reality of what these cuts mean.
The only real victims here are the service users and low-paid homecare workers who have had a right-wing Labour council attack their terms and conditions, a valued service and future security. Let’s not distract from that due to those who cry wolf.
Labour MPs should follow the example of Dave Nellist and Terry Fields who, in the 1980s, only accepted a workers’ wage – donating the lion’s share of their salary to socialist causes. This will ensure that they truly understand the struggles of the working class.
Meanwhile, Birmingham Labour activists should certainly be asking questions about the continued role of MPs like McCabe in a future Corbyn-led socialist government.
Kristian Sucilla O’Sullivan is a member of the Birmingham Trade Unionist/National Shop Stewards Network and a Former Support Worker/Carer