Friday, January 29, 2016

ACTIVISM AND THE UNDER-FIVES Meeting Report

Radical History Network (RaHN)

ACTIVISM AND THE UNDER-FIVES

Notes of meeting

There were 11 adults and two infants in attendance. We started with a brief discussion at the beginning about the suitability of the venue (the meeting room had a notice on the door saying that children were not allowed!) and time of the meeting (perhaps a Sunday afternoon would be better for people with kids?).

After a brief introduction to RAHN, the first speaker was Gail Chester:

Gail Chester – “The struggle for council and community nurseries
in Hackney from the 1970s onwards”
The focus of Gail's talk was on institutional struggles (defending childcare provision by the state, workplaces etc.) but she noted that there also exists a parallel history of alternative childcare provision – for example non-traditional crèches.

Hackney has a long tradition of radicalism and feminism stretching back [at least?] to the 18th Century. It has been an ethnically diverse borough for a long time with various ups and downs with the local council. Central government always saw Hackney as a laboratory to try out new ideas, including a disastrous attempt to outsource housing benefit via a company called IT-net [which resulted in huge backlogs – see http://www.hackneyindependent.org/category/it-net/. Provision for children under five years old has always been subject to local and national political whims.

Gail's son started at nursery in 1992. Shortly after this the council's right wing and male dominated Labour leadership threatened to close a number of nurseries across the borough. A campaign to resist the closures began, which resulted in nursery staff being told off by the council bigwigs because they didn't believe that parents were capable of self-organisation! The campaign was lots of people's first experience of direct action, including invading the council chamber with kids.

Gail also noticed that community nurseries were addressing council meetings with their grievances – indicating that there is a need for unity.

Council nurseries were funded by Hackney Council, under social services. Community nurseries were set up activists (some as part of radical squatting movements in the 1970s). Some of these became registered charities and more official in the 1980s – the illusion of independence remained, but ultimately they also relied on the council for funding.

In the eighties the Greater London Council had a policy of funding childcare, which lead to Turkish and Orthodox Jewish nurseries being founded. Hackney also had a policy on private nurseries. In the 1990s the borough had one of the best ratios of childcare in the country (still not brilliant though!).

Community campaigns:

Hackney Under Fives started in the 1970s, demanding 1,000 more nursery places.

Hackney Community Nurseries Association – campaigned to get the same pay and conditions as council nursery workers.

Both of these got submerged by bureaucracy/funding issues and did not survive the 1980s.

Hackney Flashers (an 80s feminist photography collective – see http://hackneyflashers.com/history/ ) campaigned around childcare and documented the women and children at the Market Nursery near Broadway Market, which was originally set up in a derelict house. Broadway Market was a very deprived area in the early 80s! (The first women's refuges were also set up in squatted houses). The group's “Who's Holding The Baby” exhibition included quotes from Market Nursery users and highlighted the general lack of childcare provision.

The Market Nursery eventually received a short term licence from Hackney, but was run by the community, under parents' control. The nursery still exists today but is funded by the Learning Trust and the wealthy parents who have moved to the area recently. Despite the huge increase in wealth in the area, the nursery staff have had no pay rise for 11 years.

Other community nurseries:

The 136 Nursery started in Centerprise, a radical bookshop/centre.

Beatty Nursery, Beatty Road N16

Rainbow nursery still exists, as does a Turkish nursery.

Hackney Council's direct childcare provision

The council ran its own nursery and various nurseries were available to school staff.

1992-2002 was the heyday of Friends of Hackney Nurseries

There were demos on the town hall steps. Orthodox Jewish nursery staff got dispensations from Rabbis to join in a picket of Whitehall.

In 2001 Atherden Nursery was threatened with closure by the council, so local parents occupied it for several months until the decision was reversed. The council lied to get the occupiers out and then closed the nursery. The building was then reoccupied for 3 months as a community centre before being evicted and sold off.

Fountayne Nursery was also occupied and remained open.

But ultimately many of the victories were short lived – only surviving until the next round of funding cuts.

The early noughties saw the closure of a few community nurseries and new council structures (including the Learning Trust – another Hackney pilot experiment in outsourcing) meaning that there was less scope for community control.

In mainstream politics the noughties has seen a shift away from universal childcare towards a “safety net” for the worse off, or emphasis on getting parents back to work. The focus for kids is now on learning rather than play.

The 2012 cuts put many of the gains achieved by Friends of Hackney Nurseries in jeopardy, but also saw a brief resurgence of the group. An election hustings was invaded at the North London Muslim Centre and protestors were assured that there would be no cuts to nurseries before the election. And indeed many of the nurseries who challenged the cuts did manage to retain their grants. A successful campaign but with less community involvement – it was quite middle class.

Ivor Kallin – “When Islington nursery workers shared a platform with the miners”
Ivor has been a nursery worker since 1979 – based in Islington from the eighties and most of the nineties. He was involved with a four month strike in 1984 and still has his “Islington Workers Bite Back” t-shirt from that era.
The strike was interesting as it wasn't about pay, but the ratio of staff to children. The workers were fighting for better protection for children and their families. In the pre-internet era, one of the strikers would cycle down to Fleet Street with hand-typed press releases about the campaign.
Nursery workers were some of the poorest paid workers in Islington. They were mainly women (from diverse ethnic backgrounds). The workers were up against Margaret Hodge (who went on to become Minister for Children for the New Labour government in 2003 – she allegedly employed a nanny for her own children at the time of the strike) and the champagne socialist Labour council. The workers also had to lobby NALGO (National Association of Local Government Officers) to get strike pay. On the plus side they had good support from council workers including sympathetic strike action.
The strikers were demanding a minimum ratio of 1 staff member to 4 kids. They were initially offered 1:5. After a series of strikes, pickets, occupations and good coverage in the local press they achieved a ratio of 1 staff member to 4.3 kids.
The nursery workers strike took place at the same time as the Miners' Strike. Nursery workers marched through Islington with striking miners and representatives of both groups spoke at the town hall. Joint collections were organised to raise funds and a delegation from Islington was sent to a pit village in South Wales.
This was a long strike against a supposedly “radical” council. (Islington Town Hall had a bust of Lenin on display at the time!). For most participants this was their first experience of industrial action. Another strike followed on a similar theme in 1989.
Subsequent legislation has made the issue of staff/child ratios less subject to negotiation at a local level. In 2015 you can see ratios of as low as 1:8!
Ivor's focus has always been on working with families as well as individual children.
Andrea Francke who was due to talk on “the History of nursery campaigns at the Royal College of Art and London College of Communication” but wasn't able to attend. She sent a message to the meeting stressing how quickly knowledge of past struggles disappears – and how important it is to remember successes.


Discussion

·         One participant noted that we still do not have 24 hour free childcare.

·         A question was asked about current alternatives to state run childcare. An example was given of parent run crèches, where parents each worked one day a week alongside a paid worker. The example of radical community nurseries was also raised (such as 123 Dartmouth Park Hill and one in Greenwood Road in Dalston). These were originally set up on women's lib principles. “We had it relatively easy then – there were empty properties to squat and it was possible to live on low wages or the dole.” - Gail.

·         One attendee had tried to set up a free/collective feminist nursery six years ago, but found it hard to get people to commit to involvement. Perhaps childcare is not seen as a community responsibility – rather as a private/personal one? The various legal/bureaucratic difficulties in setting up alternative childcare in the current climate were noted – CRB checks, insurance, not being able to use the facility for your own kids, etc.

·         General agreement that being a parent can radicalise you. Even taking a child to a meeting can make people feel excluded from feminist events (at which crèches are still the exception rather than the rule). This creates problems of who can actually attend political meetings – issues of class privilege?

·         A couple of years ago the London Radical Childcare Collective was active – setting up family friendly blocs on demos and other events. But it eventually wound up as there was a feeling that the collective was just being called in to do kids’ spaces – parents consuming their services rather than working collectively.

·         The development of the kids’ space at the London Anarchist Bookfair was also discussed. One participant felt that the old system of stallholders volunteering to do slots looking after children was extremely problematic (he had ended up doing this without any experience of skills in childcare and found it mildly terrifying). The professionalisation of the kids’ spaces at the bookfair should now mean that they are safer and more fun for the children – which means that parents can be more confident about attending the event.

·         The example of Hackney Independent's Kids' Cinema was given as an example of a small way that community politics can help with childcare issues. Hackney Independent were active in the noughties in Haggerston and Hoxton. During most half term holidays they would organise a cinema show for kids in estate community centres. These were usually well attended. “For me it was a crucial way of demonstrating that we were serious about community empowerment in working class areas. For a couple of hours parents could have a bit of breathing space, whilst their kids got to hang around with people their own age and maybe make new friends. To do this over a few years showed that we were about more than sticking a newsletter through people's doors and saying the right things. I think people were more likely to listen to what we had to say because of it.” - John

·         Christine Pratt's book on the history of midwives in Haringey was recommended.

·         It was suggested that mutual aid does still take place in families (and to some extent in communities) but we need to build up strong communities to make this happen on a wider scale. Dave noted the huge support he had had during the McLibel case. A group from Nottingham set up a rota for 18 months to help him out, including childcare.

·         Claimants’ Unions in the 1970s organised camps for kids in the countryside. The Big Green Gathering and Earth First camps are quite good for kids too.

·         When a lot of park playground equipment fell into disrepair in the 1980s, community organised Friends Groups worked to get it repaired or replaced.

·         A brief discussion of blue/pink gender stereotypes for kids – counteracted by the “Let Toys Be Toys” and “Pink Stinks” campaigns. And the Barbie Liberation Organisation who exchanged the voice boxes in Barbie and GI Joe dolls to amusing subversive effect.


This stereotyping is all seen in recent media coverage of neuroscience that argues there is a “male brain” and a “female brain” - debunked by the book “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine.

·         Childcare workers are still underpaid and undervalued. 24 hour free childcare sounds like a crazy demand, but we have already won 24 hour healthcare funded by the tax payer (although this needs defending!).

·         Perhaps 24 hour free childcare isn't possible whilst the idea of the sanctity of motherhood is still prevalent. Mothers are supposed to be self-sacrificing.

·         Tax credits – are they an example of the state atomising people? Individual families given rebates to spend as consumers in the market of childcare... The focus now is on “getting women back to work”.

·         “In And Against The State” recommended. (A book from 1979 discussing the experience of working class people, mostly socialists, in working within the public sector in the late 1970s, or relying upon it as service provider; and the contradictions that reveals.) https://libcom.org/library/against-state-1979

·         Lordship Rec regeneration – now includes Polish Mums' group, drop-ins for parents.

·         Where can you fit 10 mothers with prams? Corporate spaces unwelcoming.

·         Does internet culture mean that we are closer to people around the world but less likely to interact with people across the street? Is it harder these days to feel safe when meeting strangers? A split between activist groups and community groups was noted. The latter are much more likely to publicise members' home addresses. It wasn't always like this – radical newsletters and bookshops in the 70s/80s often included home addresses for groups, contacts.


Children of the 1970s:
not in a nursery and not in London.
(These three were all right really.)

No comments:

Post a Comment