The helplessness of the redundant

Before letting rip at HMV staff, remember that while you have lost your £10 gift card, the person you are screaming at has lost their livelihood.

On Christmas Eve 2008, I found out I would be losing my job. There is no day of the year to find out something like that, but it seems that Christmas Eve is a particularly bad one. I remember it very clearly, even down to what I was wearing. I was packing to go home over Christmas and I got a text off my friend Susie, telling me that the shop we both worked in had been taken over by administrators. And just like that, I knew my job would be gone.

The truth is, it was actually eight months later that my job finally went, but it did go, in the same way a terminal illness sucks the life out of a human. Long, slow, arduous. I worked in Zavvi, previously Virgin Megastore, in Cardiff. I started out as a Saturday girl, and when I graduated university and still didn’t know what to do with my life, I went full time. I’m not looking at it with the rose-tinted spectacles of time, but I loved that place. I loved the fact I was surrounded by music all day. I loved that I worked with strange, beautiful people, who liked all the same stuff I did. If they ever read this, they may laugh, but that shop was the first place I ever felt like I belonged somewhere. I did a lot of finding out who I was while I was there. And let’s face it, as full time jobs go, mine was a complete doss. Maybe I was just lazy. But there was always time to stand around, debating over what music went on next, gossiping about the last night out you had, sleeping off your hangover in the stockroom. It was a wonderful place.

There were tell tale signs for ages. Little things that, had I been more clued up on life, might have made me realise what was coming. Overtime stopped getting paid, fewer Christmas temps, problems ordering new stock, etc etc etc. I remember there being rumours of trouble, talking about it behind the tills. But when I got that text off Susie, I felt like I’d been smacked in the face. And so I reacted in the way any rational person would. I cried all the way home on the train and then I drank two bottles of rum with my friend Brett. I don’t have very good memories of Christmas 2008.

When I went back to work, on 27 December, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To this day, that shift is still the worst eight hours I have ever had. That day I realised how selfish and horrible other people can be. We all got to work and there was a grim determination in the air. It was like none of us wanted to be there, but we would get through it together. Then trading started, and all I remember is being shouted at by angry people who couldn’t use their gift cards. If you know anything about companies who go into administration you will know that gift cards immediately become invalid. It is not the choice of the staff. Let me say that again. IT IS NOT THE CHOICE OF THE STAFF YOU ARE SHOUTING AT. If you are the kind of person who would get angry about that, then think about this. You have just lost your £10 gift card. The person you are screaming at has just lost their livelihood. You may not think there are many people who would be that thoughtless, I certainly didn’t. But for the following six weeks, its all I can remember. We had people who were very understanding, kind, sorry for us. But my overriding memory, sadly, is not of our regulars who came to offer best wishes, but the many people who were angry at us for their loss. I understand the frustration, but I was too busy worrying about how I would pay my rent or find a job in January to be too sympathetic.

So Zavvi remained for a further six weeks. In that time, administrators tried to find buyers for the company as a whole, and then as parts. Smaller shops were closed and their stock passed to bigger stores like ours. It was like bucketing water out of a sinking boat, except it wasn’t water, it was people and their children and their mortgages and their homes and their ability to support themselves. Finally it came down to the last day. We learned from our manager, a long-haired jumpy character named Pete who loved caffeine and flowery shirts, that there was a potential buyer for our shop. He was buying five other Zavvis, turning them into his own company and he wanted ours. But there were negotiations first and it might not happen. So we had to pack up the shop. Literally everything had to be put into boxes and taped up. Every single shelf cleared, every corner of every stockroom emptied. It was the most depressing day ever. I remember wanting to cry, and being really glad my friend Jess was there. She ran the book department and I don’t know what I would have done without here in those few weeks. After work I went to the cinema with my housemates. When I came out of the cinema, I had a text.

"We’re bought!"

Someone had bought Cardiff Zavvi! I still had a job! The next day we rushed back to work, signed new contracts and unpacked the boxes. We were trading by the afternoon under the name Head Entertainment. It was amazing! Back to the pub, this time to celebrate.

But the joy didn’t last long. The following seven months were a stark lesson for me in just how underhand and ruthless some people are in business. It’s quite shocking really. I won’t ramble on with the many, many details of how the whole Head Entertainment mess began, but a basic description would be; evil man buys out desperate shop, evil man screws desperate staff about, desperate staff realise they will lose jobs and also any redundancy entitlement. Evil man wins, desperate staff lose.

It’s a long, complicated story, that I don’t understand entirely, even now, but suddenly, less than a month after we were bought out, we found ourselves in the awful position of knowing that our jobs would end, and that we wouldn’t get any money at the end of it. Somehow it was even worse. And for the months leading up to summer, we all worked not knowing if we’d have a shop to come to the next day. But we had to work. I couldn’t find another job. Some people left. But the ones who remained were all in the same position. Stuck. Helpless. When the final cut came in July and we learned we were closing for good, it was almost a relief. We had to pack the shop up again. We all walked to the pub and had our last lunch together. Then we spent the whole night drowning sorrows. It was nice in a way, the whole thing bonded everyone quite tightly. Some of those people are still great friends of mine, and I hope they will remain as such. But really it was terrible.

It would be another month before I finally found a new job, this time in HMV. I didn’t want to go, and true enough, I hated every day I worked there. I don’t know why. I made some great friends there, people who became a big part of my life at the time, and we had some amazing times together. But I was utterly miserable, and less than a year later, they cut my hours down to one day a week, with 24 hours notice, essentially making me redundant again. And the old feelings returned.

In a society that is built on debt, when you spend two months out of work, and you have credit cards and rent and an overdraft to pay, you can easily be defeated. I had to admit defeat. I moved home, more experienced, maybe wiser, but completely broken. It took me a long time to pull myself back together. It took even longer to get the redundancy money owed to us by Head Entertainment. A two year court battle between us and the owners, entirely put together by our incredible floor manager Ev, a wonderfully funny, eccentric man, with a love of birds and woolen hats. He took them on, at an incredible cost to himself, and he won us the money in the end. But he shouldn’t have had to.

At the end of the day, you can't rant for hours about the government, and corporate companies and business and management. You’d probably be right. None of it is fair. People are screwed over all the time, just because they are small and the companies are big. Companies go under all the time because of mismanagement and greed and power hungry egomaniacs, and the people who suffer most are the people who started off at the bottom anyway. They just get trampled. But ranting doesn’t change anything. Neither does blogging about it. Because now HMV is in trouble and if they doesn’t find a buyer, that’s another 4,000 jobs gone, and whatever you read or write about it on the internet isn’t going to change that.

Except it's not 4,000 jobs. It’s 4,000 people. 4,000 families. 4,000 homes. Just like when our shop went under and it was me and my credit card bills. Jess and her mortgage. Dan and his kids, Tony and his retirement plans. People’s lives thrown into absolute chaos. It’s the scariest thing that ever happened to me, and probably to a lot of them too. I hope people realise that in the next few weeks, when they walk into a HMV and find out they can’t use their gift card anymore.

This piece originally appeared on A Barefoot Girl

People walk past the HMV shop in Piccadilly on January 15, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caitlin Leyshon blogs at A Barefoot Girl.

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An unlikely alliance of Hollywood and British builders are exposing the impact of blacklisting

When a secret operation of blacklisting UK construction workers was uncovered six years ago, the prospect of a film like Trumbo making blacklists a talking point was laughable.

“Scores of people lost their homes, their families disintegrated . . . some even lost their lives.” So says Bryan Cranston in the title role of Trumbo, the new film about the blacklist of communist sympathisers that gripped Hollywood for over a decade from the late 1940s.

The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a Communist party member, won two Oscars for his work under wraps during the blacklist era. But he spent almost a year in prison for his defiance of the US Congress’s inquisition into “un-American activities”.

Fifty-six years after the effective end of the blacklist and 5,500 miles from Hollywood, Cranston’s words are too close to home for a group of workers from a rather different demographic. In 2009, a government raid on a shady outfit called the Consulting Association discovered a database of over 3,000 builders in an unassuming office in the West Midlands.

With the sponsorship and co-operation of the likes of Balfour Beatty, Skanska, Carillion and Sir Robert McAlpine, the company worked to systematically deny employment to political activists and workplace safety reps who had raised grievances with bosses. Some files contained information that activists believe could only have been supplied by the police.

This week, 71 blacklistees were paid £5.6m by the firms. Hundreds more are fighting on to face the company chiefs in a High Court trial in May.

Some lost their homes, their families, their lives, as Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain chronicle in their book Blacklisted. In 1995, Roy Bentham, a joiner from Merseyside, was added to the list after taking part in a strike, and soon could not find work anywhere in the northwest. “Being apart from my long-term girlfriend also put a strain on me and her emotionally,” he says. “We have subsequently split up. It does impact on your home life – and it’s still impacting now.”

In Trumbo, the title character clashes repeatedly over resistance tactics with fellow blacklisted writer Arlen Hird, a composite character played by Louis CK. After both men are released from jail, Hird first proposes to sue production companies for lost earnings, but later slams Trumbo for seeing revenge purely in financial terms – and forgetting the politics.

Blacklisted builders face similar dilemmas. Initially unions entered into talks with construction firms over compensation – but these broke down after the firms unilaterally launched their own scheme, branded “cut-price” by reps.

Some of the legal claims now due for the High Court were served as long ago as 2013. But in the past few weeks the litigants have come under immense pressure to withdraw. If they refuse to accept bosses’ offers and the courts subsequently award them less, workers will be forced to cover the firms’ legal fees.

Campaigners say the companies have already spent £20m fighting the claims, and are using this threat to “buy themselves out” of the embarrassing spectacle of having to testify in court.

Trumbo, however, offers a ray of hope. When the secret operation was uncovered six years ago, the prospect of Hollywood making a talking point of blacklisting was laughable. Activists are annoyed their own cases have been met by a “radio silence”. But the Blacklist Support Group wants to take advantage of the buzz around the film, and is encouraging its members to write to their local papers and speak up at public events about the impact of the Consulting Association database.

They will be helped by the fact that Trumbo, in spite of its Hollywood razzmatazz, is a fundamentally political film. Pride, the acclaimed 2014 picture about Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, did not mention the Communist affiliation of key character Mark Ashton – reportedly to avoid alienating American audiences. Not so in Trumbo. The film even makes a compelling case that the relative comfort of Hollywood is no reason to withdraw our sympathy – and reminds us that scores of poorer and less powerful communists suffered too. “It shows that blacklisting is not a one-off aberration – it’s part and parcel of how capitalism works,” Smith, himself on the construction database, tells me.

It’s hard to imagine blacklists in Britain have been confined to the building trade. It shouldn’t take a blockbuster to make such flagrant human rights abuses a hot topic – but it’s unsurprising it has, given the decline of industrial journalism and the bias of our legal system. Three cheers for Hollywood.

 Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @conradlandin.