Solidarity Begins at the Care Home

Today, workers at a Jewish care home begin three days of strike action for fair wages, sick pay, and annual leave. Jewish Solidarity Action is mobilising the community to stand right behind them.

Since November, activists in Jewish Solidarity Action (JSA) have been organising members of the Jewish community to support workers at Sage Care Home in their fight for better pay and working conditions. Sage—formally known as the Sidney and Ruza Last Foundation at the Yehoshua Freshwater Centre—is a Jewish nursing home in Golders Green. For several months, carers and cleaners there have been attempting to negotiate with senior management, who have refused to recognise their union, United Voices of the World (UVW), or put forward a settlement offer.

The workers, who are paid well below London Living Wage, are seeking £12 an hour, union recognition, and parity with NHS sick pay and annual leave. ACAS-mediated negotiations were due to take place on 4 December, but broke down after Sage trustees refused several union members access to meetings and stated they had no intention of making settlement offers. The unionised workers, who had already returned a unanimous vote in favour of industrial action, felt they had exhausted all options and announced their intention to strike on 15-17 January.

Prior to the pandemic, working conditions were dire for the UK’s half a million care home staff. The average care worker’s salary is £15,000—half the national average—despite some working gruelling 80-hour weeks. Around a quarter of the social care workforce are on zero-hour contracts, and a recent Court of Appeal decision means arduous ‘sleep-in shifts’ do not even count as working time.

Since Covid-19 struck, things have grown worse. Four in five social care workers in the UK report that working during the pandemic has damaged their mental health. Care home staff have watched first-hand as government failures rendered their residents ‘sitting ducks’ for infection. Staff live in fear of carrying the virus into care homes, or back to their own families. Some have been forced to pay for PPE with their own wages, or fashion aprons out of old bedsheets.

Proper sick pay for care home staff is more crucial than ever. One in ten care workers have been aware of colleagues continuing to work with Covid-19 symptoms; many literally cannot afford to stay home. The egregious refusal to grant basic employment rights plays Russian roulette with the lives of those most at risk by forcing workers on the breadline to make impossible choices.

Members of UVW were initially connected to JSA via Vashti, a new media platform for the British Jewish Left. Since then, we’ve mobilised our community to donate time, funds, and expertise to supporting the workers’ cause.

We were initially hesitant about how members of our community might react to the dispute. In the early twentieth century there was a flourishing Jewish labour movement, with unions such as the Jewish Bakers’ Union and Jewish Tailors’ Union representing a predominantly immigrant and working-class community in the East End of London, but community political attitudes became more conservative as more members assimilated into the middle classes. Issues around antisemitism and the Labour Party saw further tensions arise between the wider community and the Left; polling from 2017 put Jewish support for Labour at just 17 percent.

Fortunately, we received an extremely positive response from the Jewish community. Despite the challenges of Covid, we had a strong turnout from Jews across the religious spectrum to hand out leaflets in support of the strike in Golders Green. Several Rabbis have supported the striking workers, including student Rabbi Lev Taylor, who delivered a well-received sermon in support of the workers to the largest synagogue in Europe.

JSA started life as Jews Against Boris in November 2019, founded by a group of Jews concerned about Boris Johnson’s normalisation of far-right and nationalist rhetoric. During the 2019 election we canvassed in key marginals against candidates we felt bolstered racism and community division. Our guiding philosophy is that safety for Jews can only come about through solidarity with all marginalised groups.

One of our leading motivations in forming the group was challenging cynical attempts to exploit the real fears British Jews had over antisemitism to further a right-wing agenda. Sadly, it wasn’t long before similar dynamics emerged around the care home strike.

In a statement to Vashti, Sage expressed their disappointment that UVW had ‘chosen’ to target a ‘small Jewish charitable home’. Aside from the popular anti-union implication that this strike was initiated by the union rather than workers, Sage’s reference to the home’s religious nature implies that this is a factor in the action. Elsewhere, members of the Jewish community mentioned hearing rumours that the care home had been targeted due to antisemitic stereotypes about Jewish wealth and greed.

We are yet to witness any antisemitism from striking workers or union staff. From our perspective, the workers, who have spent the pandemic risking their health to care for elderly Jews, are more knowledgeable about and respectful of Jewish traditions than the average member of the public. Discussions regarding power relations between the strikers and the home’s trustees—two of whom are billionaires—are delicate given historical antisemitic tropes about wealth and power. In our experience, the union is aware of potential antisemitism and committed to preventing it.

We were motivated to support the strike for several reasons. Pragmatically, we’re uniquely well-positioned to assist UVW in mobilising support for the strike within the Jewish community, which we hope can be successfully brought to bear on the care home’s trustees. Care for the elderly is a pressing issue for British Jews: compared to the UK as a whole, we have double the number of over-60s and the highest proportion of 90-95 year-olds of any religious group.

JSA’s members range in their observance from secular to Orthodox, but we all believe that support for these workers is an imperative – not only on the basis of our shared left-wing politics of solidarity, but on the basis of our shared Jewish values. We’re inspired by the rich history of Jewish labour organising, from collective bargaining in the Talmud to East End Jewish immigrants taking in Irish dockworkers’ children during the 1912 dock strikes.

We’re also involved because we believe in building a world together with others, where everyone is valued and where Jews are an intrinsic part of a wider coalition against injustice. On a literal level, this strike shows how the safety of elderly Jews is bound up in the working conditions of a workforce consisting almost entirely of individuals from marginalised groups; on a broader level, it reflects how Jewish safety is tied up with the project of building a better world, formed on a bedrock of solidarity.

If the Sage staff are victorious, the triumph will belong to the carers who have worked and fought for it – and it could have far-reaching implications for working conditions in care homes across the country. For us, there is also a more humble victory to be found in how our community has shown up for these striking workers: a victory for finding Jewish safety through solidarity, and defeating the politics of division.