I am reviving this series of interviews trying to find working class women who are activists in their political party, trade union or single issue campaign. It seems to be me they have disappeared from the political scene but please contact me if your disagree and I will be happy to interview them.
Today it is difficult to find working class people running campaigns, never mind actually taking part. This is true of everything from Labour Party representation to single issue campaigns including Better Buses to Palestianian Solidarity Campaign and Keep Our NHS Public. There are glaring exceptions, including the Salford Unemployment Centre, Charlotte Hughes of the Ashton Job Centre campaign and….. Maria Brabiner.
Maria is part of a working class radical tradition. Born, brought up and still living in Broughton, Salford she has experienced first hand the discrimination that goes with poverty and an increasingly cruel benefits system.
She was brought up by her mother who was a widow and although Maria did well at school, she had to leave at 16 in order to get a job to support the family. Working at a local factory she went from being a clerk to secretary to the Tecnical Director in the 19 years she worked there – until she was made redundant in 2001.
Her next job was working for Salford Council Social Services Department. But, when her mother had a stroke, Maria felt she had little choice except to become a carer which she did for the next five years.
After her mother died Maria thought she would have no problem in finding another job. She was wrong as unemployment and ageism kicked in. Maria also found out that when she applied for benefits she was not eligible due to the savings she had accrued over her life and also discovered that carers do not get their full National Insurance credits.
For two years Maria lived on her savings, getting by in a system that did not recognise the contribution that she had made by becoming her mother’s carer. In 2013 she was hit by a new benefit cut when the Bedroom Tax was brought in by the Coalition Government.
The British Welfare Reform Act 2012 affected tenants living in social housing with rooms designated as “spare.” Tenants had their Housing Benefit cut – from 14-25% depending on the number of rooms – and were forced to fund this reduction out of their other benefits or go into arrears and potentially be evicted. It directly attacked working class people who lived in social housing, some of them like Maria who were living in the family home and part of a local community. It also disproportionately affected disabled people.
Politicians promoted the so- called reform on the basis it would “redistribute” family type social housing for people on the housing list. No newly built social housing for single people was generated in order for these people to move into. Instead people were forced into the private housing sector with higher rents and less security of tenure.
Maria’s response to the Bedroom Tax was “I am not having this”. She felt she was being treated as a scrounger. “I felt angry and took it personally. I was looking for work and felt a responsibility to speak up for other people.”
The BT Campaign was one of the most dynamic of the 2000s. The local campaign was driven by radical activist Mark Krantz whom Maria described as the architect of the campaign. He was involved in organising some of the local marches in Manchester and Salford while Maria became a frontline speaker appearing on television, radio and local and national media.
The campaign against it brought together the left including trade unions and pushed the Labour Party into promising that they would scrap it once in power.
The Bedroom Tax still exists today, although over the years exceptions, particularly for disabled people, have reformed the original legislation.
Maria feels one of the big successes of the campaign was when Salford Council agreed not to evict anyone who fell into arrears. “And people on my estate know that they can knock on my door if they have a problem.”
Her own life changed as she got a job in 2013 working in the Higher Education sector. But after a few months she was made redundant again due to the government changing the rules over student grants.
Once again Maria was back on benefits and having to ration her food and heating. “But you know who your friends are when you are poor and I was shown a lot of kindness as well as bags of shopping and food for my cat.”
Today she has a full time job in a food factory. “I work 39 hours on a fulltime contract in a unionised workplace.” But getting to work is not easy. When she works a Saturday she is faced with the reality that there are no buses before 10am from where she lives into Manchester. “My choices are; walk or get a taxi. Not much of a choice when you are on a low income.” Maria is not alone- throughout the city in the early hours there are plenty of people who have to walk to get to work for early shifts. Often they are people on low incomes, including many migrants.
Recently Maria has become involved with the Better Buses Campaign. BBC are part of the Foundation for Integrated Transport and We Own it, funded by a combination of grants from trade unions such as Unison, Network for Social Change as well as individual donors. Looking at the people working for these organisations it is hard to find anyone from a working class background or who like Maria actually use the buses.
Maria has, alongside other people, spoken to the media about her experiences of using the buses. But her long time aim is to become a local councillor in Broughton and represent her neighbours. This year she was chosen as the candidate for the Labour Party for Broughton.
After the General Election result, and the decline in people voting in local elections, she is sanguine about the role that the Labour Party plays in peoples’ lives. “Working class people feel let down. I experienced that anger when I canvassed during the General Election.I think working class felt let down by Labour, for not honouring the Referendum result of 2017″.
But she feels that she has the experience to represent the needs of her local community. “My experiences opened my eyes to the unfairness of the system. It made me humble. It made me less selfish. I want to use my experiences to help my constituents.”
Here is Maria speaking at a Stop the Bedroom Tax Campaign meeting in 2013 here
Article by journalist Frances Ryan on affect of Bedroom Tax today see