Jamie spoke to Scott and Athena, who work in the referencing section of Goodlord, a lettings platform. They are taking indefinite strike action over fire-and-rehire plans which would see many salaries reduced by £6,000 to below the real London Living Wage.

JJamie Woodcock

SScott Hunter

AAthena Parnell

JSo to start off, can you tell us what Goodlord does?

SGoodlord is a lettings referencing agency. They like to use the term “Prop Tech”, but that doesn’t really doesn’t roll off the tongue. When estate agents are letting properties they want to do credit checks, verify ID, and so on for applicants. They outsource that to us.

AYeah Goodlord is a tech company. They have several other products, like insurance for letting agents, billing and utilities, and this reference checking. These are the main products, but they like to think about themselves as a tech company or being a platform as their main product.

JOk great, so within that can you explain what work you do?

SSo I work in the referencing department. I do the nuts and bolts work of actually verifying information. We check ID, do an income check, and get a reference from a previous landlord, and all that sort of stuff. When someone applies for a tenancy, the estate agent sends them a unique link to Goodlord. This asks them to agree to a credit check and to send information and documents. Then that comes into our system, and we attempt to verify. Most of my work is on income and we have a set of criteria about what we accept in order to verify it. So it’s either: they’ve given you the right documents and you just do it straight away, or you’ve got to go back to the applicant. If you have a referee or something, you’ve got to contact them. And sometimes it’s complicated with unusual ways of getting documents. I’ve been there so long that I know all these weird criteria and ways of resolving queries.

AI was working in the referencing team and I worked in something called “ref support.” This is basically the customer service team dealing with the reference inquiries. So answering the clients calling in, talking to the letting agents directly. We’re a team of about 90. This is the biggest team in the company. There is also a tech support department and a software team. There’s always a need for support, as software doesn’t always work. People don’t always know how to use it. There’s always support needs and we’ll need customer service so long as we’re working with humans!

JYes, definitely! Ok so how did we get to where you are today with the strike? What happened along the way?

AI started at Goodlord last March on a fixed term contract, just before the lockdown. I was hired on a £22,000 a year contract, with a promise that it would go up to £24,000 after three months. We were told at the beginning of the lockdown that we can only work from home when it’s absolutely necessary as we deal with sensitive data. We were the last department that was allowed to work from home. I didn’t get furloughed, so I’ve worked through every lockdown. Goodlord was getting loads more customers because it was the only reference company offering insurance through the lockdown. The volumes just shot up. So because of this, my team decided we were going to ask for permanent contracts. We kept getting contract extensions, but then Goodlord announced that when our fixed term contracts were over they would re-engage us on permanent contracts. However, this was going to be on £18,000. So, the permanent contracts came with 25% pay cuts!

In July, it was just our team to start with, not the whole department. Our team is quite close to each other, we get on and we like each other. As the pressure of the lockdown continued, it dawned on us that we were still on fixed contracts. We also noticed that this job requires months of training. You could push people to do it before that much training, but they’re not going to do a good job. So we argued they need a core team of people on permanent contracts and that we’re happy to do it. We got rudely refused by the company. So yeah, that’s when we started organising.

JOkay, so you could say that they handled it badly, right?

AYeah they handled it pretty badly. I’d say that it’s their mishandling of situations like this that could be on the poster for how we ended up being on strike!

JSo once they’d pushed you with this mishandling, how did you start organising?

SI’m on the left, but I didn’t have a lot of practical experience with trade unions or workplace organising. But when they started cutting our wages and trying to fire-and-rehire us I wanted to get involved. When they announced these cuts, they called a big meeting and everyone was quite upset. I started a big WhatsApp group and said: “look, we can do something about this.” A few people were interested and we started trying to get organized remotely. We had zoom meetings and discussed our options. There was a fire underneath us, so more and more people got involved.

We then started trying to find out about our rights, searching through google and so on. That led us to sending a collective letter to the HR requesting a collective consultation. In our view, they were making a bunch of people potentially redundant. The law says that if they’re making more than 20 people redundant at a time in a company, they have to hold a collective consultation. We thought that because they can’t predict how many people will leave the company because of these cuts they should hold a meeting. They, obviously, claimed the opposite!

They ignored the letter, it was a classic brick wall. At the same time we started reaching out to any union we could find to get advice. We contacted several and got some replies back. A couple of these conversations didn’t go anywhere as they had clauses against helping with pre-existing issues, so they said they couldn’t represent us. Unite didn’t have that problem, so we joined them. I do want to give a shout out to Community and the Industrial Workers of the World who both provided some great advice.

With the help of Unite, we sent a second collective letter. They ignored it again. We thought it was important to exhaust the internal options. Goodlord said they were happy to talk to us individually, but refused to talk to us collectively. So we joined Unite and raised a grievance with their help. They ignored Unite too, so it got to the stage where we wanted to formally ballot for a strike.

Our ballot came back with an overwhelming vote to strike in January. So we used that to try and talk to them in January and February, but Goodlord still didn’t want to talk to us. They tried to bring in an internal feedback group to hear our concerns, while also having to negotiate with the grievance. We did get several concessions from the company. Originally, they wanted to make a pay cut to below a London living wage, cut sick pay to just three days a year, cut maternity and paternity benefits to the legal minimum, and bring in shift work where we had to work evenings or weekends. We pushed back on these at first. Then they started arguing that we don’t have to pay you the London Living Wage because you don’t have to live in London anymore. That’s when we called the strike action for mid-February.

JWhere did the idea of the strike come from?

SIt got to the point where they were ignoring our requests from United to meet and talk. It was a suggestion from our rep to try and get them to talk to us and let them know that we’re serious. We realised we didn’t have much to lose by getting a mandate to strike. We don’t have to strike with it, but it lets them know that we’re willing to take industrial action and get that leverage over the company. It takes so long to legally organise a strike, maybe five weeks in total. So we didn’t want to wait and we wanted to make sure striking was an option on the table.

JThat makes a lot of sense and it’s great that Unite supported it so early. After news of the organising came out, what’s the relationship been like with other workers at the company?

AThis has been us as the referencing and customer service department. With tech support, who basically do the same job as ours, Goodlord likes to treat them differently for some reason. Then there is the core product. There’s also insurance, sales, and stuff, and they’re quite separate. Reaching out to other departments is incredibly hard, almost impossible. I think a lot of the success in our department is based on the fact before the lockdown, we got close to each other and we formed friendships.

SIt does vary, we’ve had some sympathy for people who are kind of in similar roles who do similar sort of admin based work. Obviously, the higher you go up in management and with the sales team it has not been so sympathetic. The tech workers have been quite sympathetic. They’re paid below industry standard, so I wish they would unionize! Maybe we can give them some ideas, but the company has done everything it can to create a divide. They’ve done everything they can to demonize us as well, painting us as saboteurs attacking the company, and so on. We do know that we’ve got plenty of sympathy in some of the other departments.

JWhat has it been like organising under the pandemic? I’m guessing that working from home has meant things have been different as you can’t exactly go for a coffee with someone or chat during a break. How have you dealt with that?

AWhen we decided to go with Unite, we had to start inviting people to join the union. This was hard as it was in the middle of the big lockdown which is still going and going. We spent months inviting people into one-on-ones over Google Hangouts, Zoom, and things like that. I was just asking people: “hey, do you want to just hang out?” It was beneficial that our department was quite close already. So we had casual conversations and it was easy to start. We formed a core people who joined Unite and then we just did it!

SYeah, certainly it has been challenging. One of the biggest challenges is that they have been hiring new people. They had a big intake in December. It’s been very difficult to get those new people on board. Especially because we’ve never met them in real life, they’ve been entirely remote. It’s easier to ignore people and not feel solidarity with someone when they’re just a face on the screen.

AOne solution we came up with was to set up a neutral email address that’s not tied to any of us. So we are sending messages to the business email addresses of the company workers. One of our biggest problems is this lack of communication. The company dictates a narrative for the other workers. We have little way to reach out to those who we’re not in contact with or that we’ve never spoken to.

JThat lack of contact and communication changes things doesn’t it? But it’s great to hear that you’ve been trying to find ways around it. As a related question, what has it been like striking under a pandemic?

SThis is the fifth week of the strike now. It’s an indefinite strike. Our morale is super high. We’re kind of determined to stick it out!

AFirst of all, what I want to say is that everything we do is incredibly democratic, which is amazing. We all vote on every decision we are making. We honestly thought that even just the threat of this action is going to bring them to the table. You have to understand that at this point, they still absolutely refused to even talk to us. So now we are on an indefinite strike.

SEven though we’re working remotely, we have been picketing a few days a week outside the office. The pickets have been great for morale as well. Most of us have been able to turn out and do the pickets. It’s really great to see each other. Especially after so long as well, as we’ve been working remotely for most of the year. It was great to see all our Unite comrades as well, with people coming down from different branches. We’ve had regular zoom meetings, even with check-in style meetings where we just touch base and catch up with each other. It is very difficult to picket a virtual working environment, but we can still picket the main office and put pressure on them that way. We’ll be continuing to do so this week as well.

JIn addition to the picketing of the office, have you tried any other tactics?

SSocial media has been super important. This company has tried to present themselves as the friendly face of the lettings industry. Campaigning on social media has been really great. You might have seen some of the stuff we’ve been doing. We have an account called @SoBadlord on Twitter which has been doing some great stuff. We’ve also had members who’ve made videos and one that’s gone a bit viral! We’ve been posting a lot of interviews on the Unite social media and videos from the picket line. So that’s been good. Then we’ve had some of our Unite comrades doing demos outside the client offices, some outside of estate agents. The aim is to generate some awareness and also try and generate some phone calls for Goodlord so they have to deal with that.

JThat’s great to hear that you’ve been experimenting with different ways to put the pressure on during the pandemic. I’ve got a slightly broader question to follow on from that: what advice would you give to workers who might be in the same situation that you were in before joining Unite? What have you learned from the process that you would share with others?

SThe first thing I have learned is that it’s bloody hard work! It’s not easy, but the solidarity that you will find in your colleagues is amazing. The thing I would say is: “try to start early! Don’t wait until a big thing happens!” I started trying to casually ask around before about whether anyone was in a union or something like that. Looking back, it would have been better to start earlier. You can find resources on union websites, whether Unite or other unions, to help you start organizing. There are exercises like mapping your workplace which is definitely really helpful, understanding who might be pro- or anti-union. You don’t have to wait until a big thing happens. You can start small, even if it’s only just a few of you. You can start getting representation and building a base. Start with people you trust, keep it away from management, and start trying to build proactively right now. Then you can go from there. If you don’t build it, nobody else will. These things aren’t going to spontaneously come into existence. If you wait until management tries to pull something on you and get everyone riled up you’ll be on the backfoot. So check out those resources and just get started!

AI think that there are two parts to the advice. One is to realize that there is a constant pressure on companies coming from investors to push workers from above and earn more money. Those who are in control will just cut wages all the time if they can and make you work more. So in your company there is probably a constant pressure from above and if you’re not pressing from below they’re going to crush you. You have to push back because no one is going to give out gifts to you. No company is just going to notice how hard you’re working and decide to give you more money. This isn’t how the world works! My other advice is that you have to see that you cannot do it alone. One finger can be crushed, but bringing many together can make a fist!

JWhat do you think the impact of this strike is?

AI think this strike is more important than Goodlord. Those of us on strike are holding out, because we believe that the cause is much more important than a few thousand pounds or this job. Goodlord have said they’re not going to pay us the living wage if we work from home. If companies can get away with this, it has terrible implications for the future. Not just for us, but who knows where it will stop when the lockdown ends. If companies are starting to say that they’re cutting 20-30% of our wages because they can, there is no law to stop them from doing that. This will come for tech workers too. Although many see them as highly paid when they get £60-70,000, compared to the value they create for the company they should be getting £250,000. They might be able to order takeaway food every night, but they still can’t buy a house in London.

Since 2008, companies have given these bullshit reasons why they cannot pay us more because of the economy. We now have solid evidence that they can, but they just don’t want to. People should be paid the money they deserve. Lots of tech workers say that if they ask for more money, they might move their job to Eastern Europe or somewhere else. Here’s the thing, okay. I’m from Eastern Europe. If they can hire a programmer in Eastern Europe for £30,000 they would be rich. It is a lot of money in Eastern Europe and they could buy an apartment in a year. If it was that easy, believe me, they would have done it already. It’s not as easy as you think. For a company to outsource like this, it means they have to hire a legal team in that country, hire a consultancy team, rent office space, abide by the local law, and also probably to give loads of money to a local politician. They’re not going to move your job away. We need to stop companies paying workers less than they deserve. We need to stick together and do things collectively.

SYeah and fire-and-rehire is happening all over the country. We need to have solidarity with British Gas workers, Manchester bus workers, other strikes up and down the country. Fire-and-rehire is only going to get worse. Companies are going to be looking at GoodLord and thinking they can get away with cutting your wages if you are working remotely. So we need to support everyone else. Now is the time to preemptively organise against it.

JMy final question: what can readers of Notes from Below do to support your struggle and the strike?

SThe first thing is social media. Share posts from the Unite accounts, @SoBadlord, both on Twitter and Instagram. Share that as every little helps and the company hates seeing that stuff out there. If you’re in London and you can safely come along to our pickets, come and join us. We’d love to see you there and getting numbers is always a great morale boost. We also have a strike fund. Donations are always welcome, if you’re willing and able. We’ve been awed by the generosity we received so far. If you feel like you’ve got a sympathetic MP, it’s always worth writing to them. It might be worth it to raise awareness like that.

ASpread the word. Not just for us, but for yourselves as well. We are the majority and there are millions like us. Even just spreading awareness helps, so like and follow us on Instagram. Companies are also very, very sensitive to their reputation nowadays, for a reason. The more we hit them, the more it hurts.

JFrom Notes from Below we’d say leave a bad review if you’re a renter or tell the estate agent you won’t use them!

AI want people to know that we’re going to have a very hard period ahead of us. It’s coming and many people still haven’t really felt it. The furlough bubble is going to pop and there will be a recession. The only way we all end up coming out of this if we stick together!

You can support the strike in the following ways:

Call Goodlord out

Goodlord @sogoodlord care about their social media presence. We can put pressure on them by calling them out on social media platforms.

Twitter sogoodlord Instagram sogoodlord Facebook sogoodlord

Please use hashtags #FireAndRehire and #LondonLivingWage. You can also use the hashtag #GoodLordBadLord and follow SoBadLord, a parody account set up by Unite London & Eastern to draw attention to Goodlord’s practices, on Twitter.

Follow their branch social media

The workers are members of Unite London Digital & Tech branch (LE/7098L). Follow these social media accounts:

Share the strikes stories

There are a number of videos on the branch’s social media accounts and those of Unite London & Eastern containing short interviews with the strikers:

Send a message of support or request an interview

Messages of support, questions or requests for interviews can be sent to [email protected]

A hardship fund for members on strike has been set up, any donations would be gratefully received. The bank account details are:

  • Sort Code: 608301
  • Account number: 20303680
  • Name: Unite LE/7098L London ITC Branch
  • Reference to use: Goodlord

If you donate please also send details to [email protected] so we know where to send thank-you messages!


Jamie Woodcock (@jamie_woodcock)

Jamie Woodcock works as a researcher.