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Covid-19 crisis: Protect the right to strike!

Already in the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen examples of workers taking industrial action, often to improve workplace safety. Outsourced cleaners, caterers, and porters at Lewisham Hospital walked out to demand the payment unpaid wages. Workers in Lambeth libraries took action to demand the closure of their workplaces. Postal workers in Bridgend struck, after bosses refuse to revise shift patterns and staffing levels to ensure safe distancing in the workplace.

Continue reading “Covid-19 crisis: Protect the right to strike!”
Featured

Resist the Tories’ new anti-strike law!

In his government’s first Queen’s Speech, Boris Johnson has announced that he plans to introduce new laws to restrict strikes. There could be little clearer indication of the class loyalties of his government than this.

Continue reading “Resist the Tories’ new anti-strike law!”

Labour MPs, union leaders, and grassroots activists say: free our unions!

Our new campaign statement was launched on LabourList today, bringing together Labour MPs, union officials, and rank-and-file activists to demand trade union freedom and the right to strike.

Explaining the motivation for organising the statement, Free Our Unions co-organiser Daniel Randall said: “The pandemic has reinforced how much of a barrier Britain’s anti-union and anti-strike laws are to defending and improving workplace health and safety.

“The lengthy notice periods and bureaucratic hurdles placed in front of unions are designed to slow us down and prevent us from using industrial action as an immediate response to workplace issues, and from asserting our own demands.

“That’s why much of the workers’ action to defend rights, safety, and conditions we’ve seen around pandemic-related issues has been ‘unofficial’, such as the Glasgow refuse workers’ walkout on 8 September.

“At the same time, workers’ ability to leverage our power over the production process as part of political and democratic self-expression is radically restricted by the ban on strikes over “political” issues.

“This ban is one of the most significant brakes on democratic action in Britain today. How much more powerful would the Black Lives Matter struggle and movements against climate change be if they could call on the power of strikes and other industrial action as well as marches and rallies?”

The text of the statement and initial signatories are below. To add your support and stay in touch with Free Our Unions, use this Google Form.

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From Covid-19 to climate change and Black Lives Matter, the multiple crises we are facing highlight the urgency of fighting the anti-trade union laws.

Workers’ rights, particularly the right to strike, are key to protecting and promoting our collective health and welfare and enforcing social change. By taking action together, workers create power to win their demands. Faced with so many injustices – deaths of key workers like Belly Mujinga, millions forced to work in unsafe conditions, the lack of action to prevent mass unemployment – it is vital that unions can be vehicles to right these wrongs.

Successive Tory governments have legislated to restrict union and strike activity; the last Labour government did nothing to repeal them. The coronavirus crisis, which has made postal ballots difficult and demanded swift and decisive action unrestricted by arduous legal procedures, has highlighted the damaging effect of these restrictions.

The Tories already have policy to further restrict rights by imposing “minimum service requirements” during transport workers’ strikes. As we move forward, they will seek to make workers pay the price for the pandemic, obstruct the demands of the anti-racism movement, and block the path out of catastrophic climate change. We will need the maximum legal and effective freedom for our movement to resist, including an unimpeded right to strike.

Both the Black Lives Matter struggle and the ongoing climate crisis are highlighting the need for a right to take action over wider issues than only wages, terms and conditions. Workers need the right to strike as an instrument of political protest and social solidarity.

We therefore commit to fighting for repeal of all the anti-union laws and their replacement with strong legal rights for workers and unions, including strong rights to strike and picket.

We welcome the policy to this effect passed at TUC Congress last year and at multiple Labour Party conferences, and will campaign actively to achieve it.

Signed (all in a personal capacity):

Nadia Whittome MP
Apsana Begum MP
Clive Lewis MP
Claudie Webbe MP
Ian Byrne MP
Mick Whitley MP
Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP

Michelle Rodgers (President, RMT)
Roger McKenzie (Assistant General Secretary, UNISON)
Hugo Pierre (National Executive Committee, UNISON)
Paul Holmes (National Executive Committee, UNISON)
Ruth Cashman (Joint Branch Secretary, Lambeth UNISON)
Simon Hannah (Joint Branch Secretary, Lambeth UNISON)
Jo Grady (General Secretary, UCU)
Henry Lopez (President, IWGB)
Sarah Woolley (General Secretary, BFAWU)
Ian Hodson (President, BFAWU)
John Moloney (Assistant General Secretary, PCS)
Chris Marks (National Executive Committee, PCS)
Bev Laidlaw (National Executive Committee, PCS)
Phil Dickens (National Executive Committee, PCS)
Riccardo La Torre (National Officer, FBU)
Ben Selby (National Executive Committee, FBU)
Hazel Danson (National Treasurer, NEU)
Patrick Murphy (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Tracey McGuire (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Rob Illingworth (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Kirstie Paton (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Nicky Downes (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Annette Pryce (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Nick Wigmore (National Executive Committee, NEU)
Daniel Randall (Assistant Chair, RMT Bakerloo branch and Free Our Unions co-organiser)

Solidarity with Glasgow bin workers!

Free Our Unions sends our solidarity to refuse workers in Glasgow, who struck on 8 September in defiance of draconian balloting restrictions.

The action was sparked by an attempt by council bosses to unilaterally increase workers’ hours. Like many workers across the country, Glasgow bin workers have been working reduced hours during the pandemic to maximise distancing in the workplace. Workers, who are members of the GMB, felt the unilateral increase would compromise distancing and was therefore a safety risk.

Following official procedures would have meant waiting weeks before any action could be taken, due to the required notice periods and the time necessary to conduct an individual postal ballot. Instead, the workers voted with their feet. To its credit, GMB did not disavow the unofficial action. The union reached an agreement with the council for a phased return to full hours over the next six weeks, which saw workers return to work on 9 September.

The council provoked a backlash by describing the strike as “illegal”, in a tweet it later deleted. Critics rightly pointed out that the strike being unofficial did not make it “illegal” as such; it simply meant that workers participating in it did not have the same legal protections from disciplinary action that they would if the strike had been official.

Anti-strike laws exist precisely to prevent action of this type: strikes that respond immediately and effectively to issues arising in the workplace. By forcing us to jump over endless bureaucratic hurdles, the UK’s legislative regime aims to render strikes after-the-fact protests rather than actions which leverage workers’ power to wrest concessions from employers. But the Glasgow workers’ action shows that it is possible to defy such laws.

There may yet be recriminations from the council, who said in their initial statement that: “Anyone involved in this illegal industrial strike leaves themselves open to disciplinary measures.” If disciplinary action is taken against any worker, the entire labour movement, not just in Scotland but throughout the UK, must rally to their defence.

Labour NEC elections: fight for free trade unions and the right to strike!

The Labour left organisation Momentum recently emailed its membership to canvas ideas for policies that Momentum-backed candidates in the elections for Labour’s National Executive Committee, standing as part of the “Grassroots Voice” slate, should advocate.

We publish a response, below, from Labour Party member and Momentum supporter Riccardo la Torre, National Officer of the Fire Brigades Union and supporter of Free Our Unions, arguing that NEC candidates should speak up for the right to strike.

Dear comrades,

In response to your call for discussion around what policies Labour should advocate and fight for, I am writing as a Labour and Momentum member, trade unionist and an organiser for the Free Our Unions campaign, to urge making the right to strike central to our campaigning.

This must include demanding repeal of all anti-strike/anti-trade union laws – not just the 2016 Trade Union Act, but all of them, including those introduced under Thatcher from 1980. We also need the introduction of positive legal rights for workers and unions, including strong rights to strike and picket. But talking about these rights without committing to fight for repeal of the anti-union laws is contradictory and empty. Our approach must be to repeal and replace.

Achieving this vital demand for our movement would only be strengthened by our candidates and campaign publicly committing to support workers who take action in defiance of the anti-union laws, as many have during the pandemic and lockdown.

Creating the legal and political space for workers to take action free of the restrictions the anti-union laws currently impose is essential.

It is essential to help workers defend and extend their rights; and also to effectively fight for and win many other left and labour movement demands. Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter struggle and the climate crisis have all highlighted this in particular ways.

There is a question of Labour Party democracy here. In recent years Labour conference has voted repeatedly for a strong stand on this – in 2015, 2017, 2018 and last year. (For a summary, see here.)

The 2019 conference was particularly clear, calling in two separate motions for “repeal of all anti-union laws”, specifically demanding the right to strike for political demands, and voting to reference back a section of the National Policy Forum report specifically on the grounds that it ignored conference policy on this.

TUC Congress 2019 also passed very clear policy from the Fire Brigades Union (see p18, here).

Even under the Corbyn leadership, there was a certain reticence about making these demands. The 2019 manifesto was a step forward, but still ambiguous. Under Starmer, we seem to be in full reverse. This despite repeated polling showing Labour members strongly support the policy passed by conference.

We have a great opportunity to recreate momentum for these crucial demands. Please feel free to get in touch to discuss further.

For free trade unions and the right to strike,

Riccardo la Torre, 
Free Our Unions 

The Tories still plan new anti-strike laws

In May, Bloomberg journalist Alex Morales asked Business Secretary Alok Sharma at the Downing Street press briefing whether, in light of government rhetoric about “working with unions” and valuing essential workers, the government still planned to bring forward new laws to restrict transport workers’ right to strike.

We can only assume Sharma’s non-answer means “yes.” The trade union movement must resist the coming attack.

Sign the solidarity statement: no to strike-breaking in Tower Hamlets!

TO ADD YOUR NAME, COMPLETE THE GOOGLE FORM HERE.

On 3, 6 and 7 July, thousands of Tower Hamlets council workers are striking to stop the council’s “Tower Rewards” plan to sack its entire workforce and re-employ them on worse terms and conditions.

This attack on the workers is bad enough. But on 3 July the council called the police on bin workers, members of Unite, who refused to cross a Unison picket line. Then on 6 July the police were called again, harassed pickets and supporters and arrested one.

Earlier in the dispute the council tried to use anti-union legislation to stop the National Education Union balloting on striking alongside Unison.

It is utterly shameful that a Labour council is using the Tory anti-union laws to try to prevent workers from striking. With the arrest on 6 July, things are spiralling. Tower Hamlets council must stop such behaviour, publicly ask the police to get out of the dispute, withdraw Tower Rewards and come to an agreement with its workers instead of attacking them.

(GDPR statement: This statement was launched by Free Our Unions, the grassroots campaign against anti-union laws. Your data will only be retained if you consent to being added to the Free Our Unions mailing list, and will not be passed on to any third party.)

TO ADD YOUR NAME, COMPLETE THE GOOGLE FORM HERE.

Initial Signatories (all in a personal capacity):

Alena Ivanova, Bethnal Green and Bow CLP; IWGB
Ruth Cashman, Joint Branch Secretary, Lambeth Unison
Ana Oppenheim, National Coordinating Group, Momentum
Riccardo La Torre, National Officer, FBU
John Moloney, Assistant General PCS
Alex Heslop, Bethnal Green and Bow CLP; Labour Link Officer, Southwark Unison
Andrew Berry, Unison National Labour Link Committee; Islington North CLP
Philip Lewis, Health and Safety Officer, Camden Unison; Hornsey and Wood Green CLP
Pete Firmin, Chair, Hampstead and Kilburn CLP; CWU (retired member)
Dan Jeffery, Chair, Lambeth Unison; Streatham CLP
Gina Hayden, Ealing and Southall CLP; Unison Labour Link
Liam Cooper, Chair, Wandsworth Unison; Camberwell and Peckham CLP
Martha Levi Smythe, Unison steward; Hackney North CLP
Elaine Etim, Lambeth Unison
Erin Healy, Unison; Streatham CLP
Jeremy Drinkall, Schools Convenor, Lambeth Unison; Camberwell and Peckham CLP
Yousaf Hassan, Unison; West Ham CLP
Daniel Randall, Assistant Chair, RMT Bakerloo branch

Police called on striking Tower Hamlets workers?

As Tower Hamlets council workers begin a three-day strike to resist mass sackings, reports are coming in suggesting bosses from the Labour-run council have called the police on one of the picket lines.


This disgraceful action seems to have been a response to bin workers in Unite refusing to cross the Unison picket line, an elementary act of class solidarity which bosses will no doubt claim constitutes secondary action and breaches anti-union laws.

If these reports are accurate, they heap further shame on the Labour council – not content with attempting to sack its entire workforce and re-engage them on worse terms and conditions, it apparently wants to collude with the police to use Tory anti-union laws to break strikes, too.

Labour Party members: vote for this policy submission!

Free Our Unions is encouraging supporters who are members of the Labour Party to vote for this submission to its Policy Forum. Please share the link in your local Labour Party and union networks.

https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/repeal-all-anti-union-laws

Although successive Labour Party conferences have passed policy calling for the repeal of all anti-union laws, Labour leadership figures routinely focus only on repealing the most recent, the 2016 Trade Union Act.

Ensuring a strong vote for this policy submission will help keep the pressure on the Labour leadership to respect conference policy and fight for the abolition of all laws restricting workers’ and unions’ ability to organise and take action.

Tower Hamlets council workers to strike against sackings

Council workers in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets will strike on the 3, 6, and 7 July. They are fighting to stop the Labour-run council sacking its workforce and re-engaging them on worse terms and conditions. At an earlier stage of the dispute, the council had sought an injunction against one of the unions involved to stop it from balloting.

Visit the website of the local Unison branch for details of picket lines, and to see what you can do to support the dispute.

Please sign and circulate this open letter, launched by local labour movement activists, in support of the strike.

Labour Party Policy Forum proposal: repeal all anti-union laws

Supporters of Free Our Unions active in the Labour Party and in Labour-affiliated unions have been promoting the below text as the basis for a submission to Labour’s ongoing Policy Forum policy submission process.

We encourage anyone who wants to see Labour take a strong stand against all anti-union legislation to adapt and use our text.

The process closes on 30 June. For more information, see here.

REPEAL ALL ANTI-UNION LAWS: FOR FREE TRADE UNIONS!

The Covid-19 crisis has reinforced why our party must campaign for repeal of all anti-trade nion laws – not just the 2016 Trade Union Act, but right back to the Thatcher government’s first one in 1980 – and their replacement with strong legal rights for workers and unions, including a strong and unrestricted right to strike.

Particularly faced with urgent issues like safety (but more generally too), we cannot and should not have to go through an elaborate and time-consuming process in order to take industrial action. We must insist that going on strike should be at least as easy as it was in 1979.

The anti-union laws – all of them, not just the 2016 Act – suppress the right to strike, suppress workers’ organisation, and prevent workers for standing up for their rights and for safety. While they remain, our movement is fighting with its hands tied behind its back.

We must begin by working with the unions to launch a stepped-up campaign to defeat the Tories’ proposed attack on transport workers and unions through the introduction of “minimum service” requirements, which involves abolishing even a residual right to strike for a huge swathe of workers.

Conference policy is very clear:

• Conference 2005 defied the Blair leadership to pass a motion calling for legalisation of solidarity action.
• Conference 2015 unanimously passed a motion calling for the next Labour government to “legislate for strong rights to unionise, win recognition and collective bargaining, strike, picket and take solidarity action”.
• Conference 2017 unanimously passed a motion calling for repeal of the 2016 Act and “anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s”; and a “strong legal charter of workers’ rights”. (It also said: “the most effective way to maintain good rights at work is collectively through a union. Strong unions, freed from legal shackles and bolstered by positive legal rights, will be key to tackling poverty, insecurity and inequality… For unions to be effective, workers need an effective right to strike…”)
• Conference 2018 overwhelmingly passed a motion calling for a “radical government” committed to “abolishing anti-union laws”.
• Conference 2019 overwhelmingly passed a motion calling for “repeal of all anti-union laws”, specifically mentioning the right to take strike action for political reasons: “so that workers can freely take action over the climate”.
• Conference 2019 also voted to reference back the part of the NPF report on this issue, on the basis that it was not strong enough on the right to strike and repealing the anti-union laws.

The following Eastern Region FBU policy elaborates the position we believe Labour should adopt and campaign for, based both on conference decisions and what is necessary and right:
• Complete and speedy repeal of all anti-union laws.
• Strong legal rights for workers to join, recruit to and be represented by a union; strike/take industrial action by a process, at a time and for demands of their own choosing, including in solidarity with any other workers and for broader social and political goals; and picket freely.
• The right to reinstatement for workers found to have been sacked unfairly. A complete ban on dismissal for industrial action, however long it lasts. Full rights from day one of a job.
• Strong rights for unions to access workplaces, win recognition, and establish collective bargaining, including sector-wide bargaining.
• Unions’ right to decide their own policies and activities, determine their own structures and rules, and spend their funds as they choose, free from state and employer interference, in line with ILO Conventions and the European Convention on Human Rights.

We would like to conclude by quoting from a pamphlet written by Bob Crow, then RMT Assistant General Secretary, and John Hendy QC (in 1998):

“In order for the unions to fulfil the purpose of maintaining and improving the conditions of their members’ working lives, unions have to have the legal freedom to operate. That means they must demand that the anti-union laws are repealed.

“No doubt the demand for repeal will draw contempt, criticism and scare stories from the press. But the arguments in favour of repeal and replacement are formidable and irrefutable. Furthermore, the movement has its own culture, history, images and analysis which are as persuasive as anything the media can create.

“More importantly still, if the movement does not go on the offensive with its ideas and vision, there is left a void which is filled only by the ideas and vision of its enemies.”

Support Goldsmiths workers’ action

Education workers at Goldsmiths university in south London have launched a marking boycott, as part of a fight to resist job cuts. Workers in the Associate Lecturer and Graduate Trainee Tutor roles launched the boycott, and have since been joined by fixed-term teaching staff.

Their action has been taken “unofficially”, in confrontation with the anti-union laws. Free Our Unions sends our full solidarity to the workers. We reproduce their statement, from the website Precarious@Gold, below. A link to donate to their support fund can be found at the bottom of the article.

Overview:

Goldsmiths senior management team (SMT) is laying off 163 academics on fixed term contracts, along with 309 Associate Lecturers (ALs) and Graduate Trainee Tutors (GTTs). Having refused all of our requests to have our contracts extended until the autumn and be furloughed for that period (a solution which would have allowed Goldsmiths to retain its staff at low cost until student recruitment figures made clear whether we could be kept on longer term), the University is now simply allowing fixed term contracts to expire. 

These are redundancies on a huge scale: they will leave hundreds of academics unemployed during a recession and a pandemic, significantly increase workload for remaining staff and threaten the viability of undergraduate and postgraduate courses across the university. Furthermore, figures we have collected suggest around 75% of those being laid off are from a black and minority ethnic background: if these job cuts go ahead, Goldsmiths will lose a large proportion of its BAME teaching staff, leaving students with fewer nonwhite role models and a significantly narrower curriculum.  

We, Goldsmiths academics on fixed term contracts, will not accept this treatment. From today, Monday June 15th, we will join the marking boycott begun by our AL and GTT colleagues. In addition, we will work to rule until further notice. Our demands are for an extension of our contracts until October 31st, for SMT immediately to provide each of us with details on the timescale and process for review of our contracts, and for the University to meet and negotiate with us as a group. Further details, including a full list of demands, are below.

We do not want to take this course of action. We are deeply committed to working hard for our students and have no desire to cause them disruption. However, each time we have attempted, as individuals, to discuss our contractual situation with SMT, we have been ignored, told that no decision can yet be taken or given other unsatisfactory answers. We therefore have no choice but collectively to withdraw part of our labour. We also feel that our action, if successful in persuading SMT to renew contracts, will protect rather than undermine the Goldsmiths student experience in the long term.

Our demands:

  • Contract extensions All casualised contracts, including AL, GTT and FTCs, should be extended until the end of October, when it will be clearer from student recruitment figures and other financial indicators whether contracts can be renewed for a longer period. Given that the University has refused to furlough its casualised academic staff, it is up to SMT to investigate and offer financially viable ways to extend our contracts.
  • Clarity SMT must immediately contact all casualised workers whose contracts are due to expire this summer / autumn, including ALs, GTTs and fractional and full time workers on fixed term contracts, to give them a timetable for the review of whether their contract should be renewed, to arrange review meetings, and to make clear the criteria for the review process. Since arranging these meetings is well overdue, SMT should contact workers by June 19th.
  • Negotiation The University must  arrange to meet, at the earliest possible opportunity, representatives of University and College Union (UCU), along with elected representatives of those fixed term and casualised workers due to be laid off, to discuss with them planned levels of staffing, workload and student provision for the next academic year
  • Workload impact The University must publish estimates of the impact on workload for remaining staff of cutting 472 teaching roles.
  • Equality, diversity and racial justice The University must provide figures, where available, on the ethnic, gender and disability characteristics of the 472 staff to be laid off, and publish, by the end of June 2020, an equalities impact assessment of the plans to lay off 472 casualised workers.
  • Redundancy The University must  publish details of a system of enhanced redundancy payments to be offered in the event that any job cuts go ahead
  • AL hours The University must honour additional hours worked by ALs/GTTs during the lockdown: HR must ensure that Departmental Business Managers contact all ALs/GTTs and request pay claims for all hours worked in addition to contracted hours during the lockdown. 
  • Reduce pay inequality The University should enact temporary salary cuts to Senior Management, explicitly ringfenced to fund the contract extensions of ALs and GTTs (approx £2.1 million per year budget for ALs/GTTs). This should include the Warden’s Office, Executive and Governance Services, Finance Services, Goldsmiths Strategic Venture, Strategic Planning & Projects, Organisation and Strategic Services and Planning).

Our action:

From June 15th, academics on fixed term contracts will join the marking boycott begun by ALs and GTTs, and will continue this action until our demands are met.

  • We will boycott any outstanding assessment responsibilities, including marking and moderation, until the University meets our demands.
  • If called upon to mark work that has not been marked as a result of the AL/GTT marking boycott, we will refuse.
  • We will work to rule, i.e. perform only our contractual duties, until further notice.

Background:

The University has produced figures showing that 472 casualised workers, made up of 309 Associate Lecturers and Graduate Trainee Tutors and 163 academics on full time or fractional fixed term contracts, will be laid off during the summer and autumn of 2020.

Though SMT has refused to provide a demographic breakdown of those whose contracts will be terminated, figures we have collected suggest that 75% of those to be laid off are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and an overwhelming majority are women. This confirms the findings of other reports that show BAME people and women are heavily overrepresented among casualised academics. Goldsmiths has claimed it wishes to “address the BME degree attainment gap and wider racial justice issues”, but sacking hundreds of BAME teaching staff will leave all students, and particularly the 45% of Goldsmiths’ student body that is BAME, with fewer role models, a narrower curriculum and an impoverished all round educational experience. 

Communication from the University has been very poor over this issue, and academics on fixed term contracts feel they have been treated callously and with disrespect. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us had been told verbally by our heads of department that we would likely have our contracts renewed. Since then, the University has instead announced that all hiring was on hold and that SMT would “review” whether each fixed term contract should be renewed. None of our contracts have thus far been reviewed, however, and nor have any of us been given a timescale or process for this review. Our contracts end in a matter of weeks and we still have no clarity on whether we will be unemployed next academic year.

In order to offer a cheap solution that would allow the University to retain its staff, many fixed term workers requested to have our contracts extended for a short period, until October, and be furloughed for that period under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. The Associate Lecturers campaign similarly requested that ALs be furloughed for the same time frame. All requests were refused, with the HR Director Carol Ford, in an email to all staff sent June 8th, wrongly claiming that academic staff are not eligible for furlough, despite the fact that other universities including the University of the Arts London has furloughed casualised academics and the Universities Minister confirmed on April 8th that university staff could be furloughed.

The university seems intent on allowing our contracts, most of which end between June and September, to expire. This suspicion is reinforced by Carol Ford’s suggestion in her June 8th all-staff email that the University would “not be able to confirm AL/GTT requirements for the next academic year until student numbers and choices for the 20/21 academic year are clear”. We cannot wait until the autumn, well after most of our contracts expire, to find out if we will have a job at Goldsmiths next academic year. 

The University is not being open about the fact these layoffs constitute redundancy for a huge proportion (perhaps around half) of academic staff, which will surely mean significant increases in workload for remaining staff and/or cutting courses and reducing the teaching time to which students are entitled. As such, the University’s plans should be the subject of collective consultation with the unions – including the Student Union. 

Please donate to our solidarity fund for causalised staff facing job losses: https://opencollective.com/goldsmithsmutualaid