Credit crunched – working in financial services during the 2008-2009 crash

On the Clock
This article comes from a comrade who is a member of the Solidarity Federation in the UK. He describes the article as “An account of working for a credit company during the financial crisis, as well as workers’ attempts to resist speed-ups and workload increases.”

This job gave me an inside view of the ‘credit crunch’, in fact in a real sense I was a part of it. The financial crisis also meant a lot of pressure passed onto the workforce, through speed-ups, stress and redundancies. I started the job in early 2008 after I was made redundant in my last job. I was recruited through an agency, but it was a temp-to-perm position following completion of a 6-month training period. This was my first permanent job in about 6 years of temping/agency work. When I started, I was reassured this wasn’t ‘sub-prime lending’, but ‘middle tier’. There were certainly rival companies with far less stringent lending criteria, who apparently got into problems later, so I guess this was more or less true. When I started, the company employed maybe 60 people. While the company had its own cash to lend, it much preferred lending other peoples’. So they had a relationship with several major banks (with whose bosses our bosses would take time off to play golf). Basically they’d borrow money to re-lend at a higher rate, and take the difference as a middle-man’s profit.

The company I worked for was based in the north of England. It specialised in commercial lease-rentals. These, it turns out, were quite the cash cow. They work similarly to hire-purchase, except the lending company (‘the funder’) still owns the asset at the end. A typical deal would work like this: A customer would approach a supplier for an asset. For example, the owner of a kebab shop might go online to buy a new deep fat fryer. The supplier would offer them credit and contact a broker, the broker would contact the funder (us) for a quote. Typical interest was 16% or more. If the customer signed up, the funder would buy the asset and lease it to them for a fixed monthly rental over a 3 to 5 year term. At the end of the minimum term, the customer could return the asset at their expense, or continue renting it (lucrative ‘secondary payments’). If they defaulted, they still owed all the payments of the minimum term, and had to return the asset (or have it repossessed).

The typical customers were small sole-traders or partnerships or new-start limited companies, stuff like kebab shops, pubs, restaurants, betting shops, estate agents… and business without a top credit rating and with a tight enough cashflow to prefer lease-rental to purchase. Typical sums were £4,000-£7,000, although occasionally we’d write a deal worth 6 figures. Companies with a top credit rating or a well-established trading history could get credit from major banks. The new-starts and smaller fish came to us.

My job was as an underwriter. In finance, underwriting is the process of assessing the creditworthiness of a credit application. You look at things like the applicants’ accounts, the equity in their home, for new starts you might look at their business plan, you’d check for any relationships between the customer and supplier (a common fraud would be imaginary assets), as well as seeing if the directors had a string of failed ventures behind them. We had to turn these proposals around within one hour (including the time it took for admin to load them into our system). The time pressure meant there was quite an intense working environment from the off. One of the other team members (Sam) in our team of three was also a trainee, so we were in at the deep end. Consequently, there was never much time for chatting with co-workers. We were all pretty busy, and the open plan office meant a manager was always within earshot.
Underwriting used to be a ‘profession’ with a sizeable salary to go with it. But like many jobs, it’s been deskilled over the years, and in many places completely replaced by automated algorithms. In some major banks, there’s still highly-paid professional underwriters working on multi-million pound deals. But at our place, it was pretty much low paid, formulaic work, applying a tick-box set of criteria and ratios to say yes or no, with borderline cases referred to the boss (the line manager was also a company director, as it was a small firm). We could have been replaced by an algorithm, but the company’s niche in the market meant they from time to time picked up on lucrative deals a computer would have missed by being too formulaic. So we were there to spot the borderline ones.

Starting work
Paradoxically the initial global financial crisis of 2007 had been good for the firm. As major lenders tightened up their lending criteria, more and more relatively good credits fell through the cracks to be picked up by the smaller funders. I was recruited into a team of three to replace someone who was leaving. Previously, the team had been all-female, managed by an alpha-male patriarch of a boss, who was also a shareholder in the company. He was an imposing guy, a former athlete and veteran of the industry, who’d previously worked high up in a multinational bank before becoming a director in this firm. He liked things done precisely his way, and if you weren’t doing it to his satisfaction, you’d soon know about it. When I started I was asked if I was comfortable working in an all-female team. Needing the job, and having worked in such teams before, I obviously said yes. But I didn’t realise quite how patriarchal the working environment was.

We were talked down to, dismissed out of hand and casually belittled as a matter of course. I definitely got the least of this, even when I made newbie errors. I think the ‘guy’ in ‘new guy’ was most pertinent. From my first week I heard stories from my teammate Lauren about the time our boss had made our Sam cry only a week before I started, loudly belittling her mistakes in front of the whole office. So, from the off there was a high-pressure, management-by-bullying atmosphere. The bosses would counter this by buying a round of drinks in a local pub every Friday on the company account. This was the main place we’d see each other outside of work.

The workload was pretty high and rising. Before long, every week was a record week. I had to hit the ground running, and as I was on a temp-to-perm contract kept my head down and went with the flow to begin with. This meant going along with the submissive workplace culture, and following suit when working all hours necessary to deal with the extra workload. This started out as working through lunch on the odd busy day, or staying late to deal with a last minute rush. Pretty soon the exception became the norm, and we were working though our breaks every day, and staying late every evening. None of this was paid, either in cash or time in lieu.

Unpaid overtime, stress
This obviously began to take its toll. I started missing evening classes, and ended up dropping out. Sam was a single mum and worked two jobs to make ends meet. She couldn’t stay late, and felt guilty she was leaving the work to me and Lauren. I tried to reassure her it was fine, it was our fault for staying late and not her fault. Pretty soon she managed to find a new job for much better pay, meaning she could just work the one. As me and Lauren were doing such a good job coping with the increased workload, the company decided not to replace her. A plus side to this was they ended my training period prematurely, which made me a feel a bit less insecure about standing up for ourselves.

We were banned from talking about our contracts, but working in this environment meant we built up trust quite quickly and confided in one another. It turned out Sam had been paid £2,000/year less than me, even though we were both on a ‘training wage’ and had started within a few weeks of one another. No wonder she’d been working two jobs! Now down to a team of two, our workload kept on rising. 10 hour days with no breaks were becoming the norm, and there was little chance to slack off. Potential deals dropped into a communal pot, and we had to pick them up and turn them round within the hour. All this was monitored (as I later discovered).

Stress was a major issue in the workplace. I was drinking too much, as were lots of people. A small act of solidarity became offering each other chewing gums on the train to mask the smell of a particularly heavy night. A note in my notebook reads: “Team brief: “we’re in a very difficult climate so I need you both to speed up, be more efficient. I take the point it can be demoralising, but you have to put the negative thoughts behind you and be enthusiastic.” FUCK THE FUCK OFF.” That about summed up my state of mind. Several people were diagnosed with severe depression (though I only found out about this later as people kept it to themselves). One woman in another department was off with stress. She lived with Lauren, who was pissed off at her for not answering her texts, saying she was selfish taking time off when we all had so much work on. Mainly, the stress affected my sleep. I was getting about 4 hours a night. I got through the morning on energy drinks, then in the evening tried to knock myself out with Whisky and valium. Weirdly, nobody seemed to notice at work. I kept my shirts ironed and my breath fresh, and got decent reports in my appraisals. But while I kept it together outwardly, I felt like a zombie most of the time.

Just saying no
Despite her attitude towards her flatmate, I managed to work on Lauren and in the small gaps when the boss was in meetings. I talked her round to leaving the office to get the train together (even though I went east and she went west). The idea was this way nobody would feel guilty for leaving the work to the other person. Gradually, we began leaving earlier and earlier, until we left on time. The very next morning after we left on time, we were both called into a meeting with the boss and the HR woman. We were told categorically it was “unacceptable” to take our breaks on “rare busy days”, i.e. every day. Lauren was terrified and all the work we’d done was undone. I managed to get her to keep leaving work together, but we went back to working through lunches and staying late. Shortly after this, Lauren’s flatmate Vicky came back to work from stress and was immediately let go. This sent a pretty clear message, and it’s hard to describe how precarious the atmosphere was at work.

It got worse. This began a steady drip-drip of redundancies. Every week or two, someone would be called into a meeting at 5pm on a Friday and told not to come back. It was indescribably stressful. Everyone was looking over their shoulders, and by this point (late 2008) the economy had taken a turn for the worse and the prospects of finding another job looked bleak. By this point, I’d had enough. I started thinking about how to organise against this. I had absolutely no clue where to start. I went for drinks with a few workmates and discussed it. Everyone agreed it was shit, but then we got drunk and nothing came of it. I wanted to just start working to contracted hours, but knew if I didn’t get Lauren on board I was just singling myself out for redundancy.

In the end, I decided to just start taking my breaks, and encouraging Lauren to do the same. She was reluctant at first, then one day, half-way through a sandwich, the boss asked me ‘which deal are you looking at?’ I replied, mouthful of sandwich, ‘none, I’m just on my lunch at the moment’. He insisted, ‘can you help out?’. I replied ‘No, I’m on my lunch’. The boss’ face just dropped, quickly replaced by an evil lingering glare as I merrily chomped on my sandwich. But he didn’t say anything. This was an incredibly tiny thing, but it had a disproportionately big effect. Lauren ducked behind the partitioned cubicle out of sight of the boss, and mouthed, beaming, ‘I can’t believe you just said that!’ From then on, we both took our lunches, and gradually moved back to leaving on time.

This time, our working to contract got us called into a meeting again. But instead of bullying, they’d decided to reduce our workloads. In short, they added some pre-screening to prevent us having to spend lots of time looking at deals we were going to say no to anyway. This reduced workload meant our contracted hours were normalised, and we got our breaks. A massive relief. However, the price of this was I’d singled myself out as a ‘troublemaker’. As I’d said, the patriarchal culture in the workplace had meant simply saying ‘No’ was inconceivable. Now I’d done it, they started looking for ways to get back at me.

The bosses strike back
One thing they started doing was pushing for me and Lauren to update our underwriting manual, a guide to doing our job used to train new people. As they’d made a point of saying they weren’t hiring, this was clearly about making us more replaceable. We talked about it and dragged our feet, deflecting follow-ups by saying we were prioritising hitting our turnaround targets. They also started monitoring our internet usage. I foolishly logged into libcom sometimes during quiet spells, and they called me into a meeting and gave me a print out, name-checking ‘a certain forum’. I was unaccompanied, but said literally nothing. My boss also made a point of me arriving at 9am and leaving at 5:30. His exact words were (recorded in my notebook at the time) “I can’t say anything about this as it’s in your contract, but it’s been noted”. This was obviously an attempt at intimidation. It didn’t work, but I didn’t know what to do next either.

About the only other ‘collective action’ we pulled off were little things. We made a point of buying chocolates, but only offering them amongst ourselves and not to the boss. From an atmosphere of atomisation and subjugation, there was a tangible sense of ‘us and them’, and a new sense of confidence and self-respect. One pretty cool thing a guy in admin did was work late one night so he could put the wall clock back by a few minutes. That meant he could get a later train and still be at his desk by ‘9am’. We were told the redundancies were over, and the survivors had a sense of being in it together – and against the company. This could be overstated of course, but something intangible but unmistakeable changed in the workplace atmosphere after we ‘won’ our work to contract.

However, we weren’t at all prepared for the counter-attack. After about 6 months of this, the effects of the credit crunch were rippling through. Our company started tightening up lending criteria, reducing the volume of business. Fewer people were starting businesses or expanding existing ones, further reducing volumes. The victory 6 months prior became part of the problem. With less work to do, redundancies were back on the table. And this time, informal, small-scale resistance wasn’t going to cut it. There was plenty of money in the company. A mate in accounts forwarded some documents which showed the directors had pulled out £100,000 each in dividends, before using the ‘weak financial position’ to justify cuts. But unless were could resist across teams, we were going to get fucked over.

And we did get fucked over. A few meetings in the pub notwithstanding, we didn’t get anywhere. The admin guy who changed the clock, unprompted, came out with “I’m not criticising capitalism or anything, but they’re absolutely ruthless.” I read that the same as “I’m not a racist, but…”. However, political opposition to capitalism isn’t very helpful unless it’s expressed practically. And it wasn’t. We weren’t organised. We didn’t know how to organise. The drip-drip of redundancies began again, and we faced them as atomised individuals. As an extra twist of spite, they got me on my birthday. At 9am the boss sent round a circular email wishing me happy birthday, making sure everybody in the office knew. At 5pm he called me into his office and I was gone.

While there’s no such thing as value-free facts, I’ve tried to present the above narrative fairly dry to let people draw their own conclusions. Obviously a lot was left out. Much more could be said about the relationship of work to mental health, of the workplace dynamics (particularly the gendered ones), and the way something like a collective identity opposed to the bosses emerged in the process of speed-ups and lay-offs. But it’s long enough already, so those are themes I’ll have to take up another time. Here are some of the things I drew from the experience.

‘How not to do it’.
I had no idea to organise at work, having always worked in temp/agency jobs, and never having worked in a unionised workplace let alone an organised one. Consequently, I kind of made it up as I went along, with some reference to the stuff in the libcom organise section. And obviously I made a lot of mistakes. These would include: (1) a lack of strategy in building contacts. Over-reliance on organic friendships to make contacts meant the people I talked to about work issues weren’t reflective of the wider workforce. Particularly, there was a big gender divide. Some of the most pissed off and militant workers were young women, but they all socialised together, and normally separate from the men (e.g. going for ‘girls meals’ together). If I were to do it again, I’d try and have a conscious strategy for building contacts from other departments and teams to bridge these kind of informal workplace groups, which are only reinforced otherwise. This oversight came back to haunt us as we were picked off one-by-one for redundancy, and unable to even collectively discuss it, let alone resist it.

(2) Related to this, when we did meet up to discuss things, it wasn’t clear what it was about. I.e. we’d meet up to grumble about work, but it would also be a social. We’d often meet in a pub, and after a few drinks anything we came up with was forgotten by the morning. This was exacerbated by the heavy drinking culture arising from the stress. It would have made more sense to meet in say, a coffee shop, get through the conversation about work, divide up any follow-up tasks, and [i]then[/i] go for drinks elsewhere. Pubs are also loud, and as a social environment aren’t really conducive to collective discussions. I now recognise what I was doing instinctively as building a ‘workplace committee’, but I’d have made a much better job of it with a bit of strategic thinking rather than making it up as I went along.

(3) I totally failed to do any ‘inoculation’, in other words, preparing for the consequences of organising. It’s one thing to say ‘No’ to the boss. It’s quite another to deal with the fallout. While I wasn’t easily intimidated (frankly, I’d had enough), my workmate was and this set us back weeks, and could have let the bosses drive a wedge between us if they’d have been a bit sharper. We did have some conversations about the likely outcome, but nowhere near enough to be prepared. I guess this reflects the lack of proper conversations outside work, as inside work the whispered conspiracies were stolen in the short gaps in the panoptic surveillance of an open-plan office.

(4) The issue: unpaid overtime wasn’t something that effected other teams: admin, accounts, collections etc all worked pretty standard hours as they weren’t so locked into the 1-hour turnaround (some admin staff did sometimes do unpaid OT during rushes though). It didn’t generalise, so the failure to collectivise things may well reflect a badly chosen issue. Maybe we could have picked something else first to build solidarity, or a ‘basket’ of issues to bring more people in. For example, everyone lived under the fear of redundancy. With hindsight something like collectively confronting the bosses (with a letter, or in a meeting say) demanding clarity on redundancy plans instead of what felt like a weekly lottery might have been worth pursuing, and might have pulled more people together, which could then have been a springboard for other grievances.

(5) Finally, individual confrontation allowed them to single me out. It might have been ok if we’d have discussed it and had some contingency for victimisation, but as ‘just saying no’ happened somewhat spontaneously this hadn’t happened. It also didn’t challenge the gender dynamics. Me saying no to my boss was pretty powerful. But if Lauren had said it, knowing she’d be backed up, it would have been an even more impressive reversal of the workplace power relations. I guess you can’t do everything at once, but it does seem like a mistake to just rely on those with the confidence to start with, rather than trying to develop everyone’s confidence, and thus to challenge problematic dynamics in the workplace.

Political organisation, or union?
I was a member of SolFed throughout this, which is the British section of the anarcho-syndicalist IWA. While the IWA has some active union sections (including the famous CNT in Spain), at the time we were very much a political organisation. By that I mean a group of people with similar political ideas, meeting up to discuss ‘politics’ and doing political activity, like distributing the Dispatch or Tea Break bulletins. While I could sound off about stress in meetings, as an organisation SolFed didn’t and couldn’t really help me. ‘Political activity’ was completely separated from my everyday life. At precisely the time when libertarian communist politics should have been most relevant, the opposite was true. And to be honest the last thing I wanted to do with my scarce free time was go to meetings disconnected from my life.

For me, this really made me feel like I didn’t want to be part of an anarchist political organisation, but an anarchist union. In other words, I wanted SolFed to be an organisation that could support workers like me in situations like this, whether through training, networking, brainstorming strategies, sharing best-practice, potentially meeting workmates outside of work to help with organising and so on. We simply didn’t have the capacity to do these things at the time (at least in my Local, and there was little co-ordination nationally outside of the education sector). I wasn’t alone in these feelings, and I think SolFed’s made great strides in this direction over the past 3 years. Certainly, were I to find myself in a similar situation again, SolFed would be an asset rather than an evening of alienated political activity with little relevance to my life. And I know other SolFed members are finding this in their workplaces too, though obviously it’s a work in progress. Regardless of the organisational specifics, I think it does make a difference feeling like you’re part of an organisation that can back you up, even if that back-up is only support/advice rather than industrial action.

‘Theoretical’ observations.
Finally, I’ll just make a few theoretical points. One of the big trendy theories at the time, and to a lesser extent still, is the idea of ‘post-fordist cognitive immaterial labour’, a radically new form of work, even one with latent communist potential (Negri & Hardt etc). Frankly, I think this is bollocks. This job was very much cognitive labour (mental arithmetic, writing emails etc), it was very much ‘immaterial production’ (we had to deal with people on the phone, show the right attitude, write emails in a specific company voice etc). But yet, it was basically a production line. Work came in, passed along a chain from sales to admin to underwriting, back to sales and to accounts and admin again, with each stage doing a fairly standardised set of tasks before passing it along the chain. So for me, the boring old Marxist emphasis on the relations of production still trumps the fashionable emphasis on the content of concrete labour. Another fashionable idea at the time I was working there was the idea of ‘faceless resistance’: small, invisible resistances like sabotage. Now this stuff is great. I think the guy changing the clock to allow himself to get a later train was brilliant. But I wouldn’t fetishise this stuff. I think there’s a danger of making a virtue of necessity. In our weakness, it’s easy to try and present this kind of individual, covert action as something sexy and radical, when really it does little, in itself, to change the balance of power in the workplace.