Last month a small but important struggle was waged by public housing residents from the Atherton Gardens estate in Fitzroy. This struggle raised a number of broader lessons for the current movement against the Abbott government and the fight against cuts more generally.
For some time now, tenants through their resident organisation AGRA (Atherton Gardens Resident Association) have been receiving free food in an open market-style arrangement twice a week.
The food is sourced from a non government organisation (NGO) called Foodbank. Foodbank are a not for profit organisation that is supposed to provide food relief to people experiencing hardship.
All of a sudden last month Foodbank drastically cut the amount of food distributed to the Atherton Gardens estate. When media outlets inquired into the situation the only answers given were that there had been some sort of personality conflict between Foodbank management and the leaders of AGRA.
Attempts at discussing the problems were met with a haughty arrogance from the Foodbank management. The residents were shocked to hear that they were being collectively punished for a situation that was not of their making.
The vast bulk of people who live on the estate are on extremely low incomes. Many are old or sick and unable to work. The food they receive is has been an important supplement to their meagre incomes.
Far from just accepting this cut the residents decided that they would fight Foodbank’s decision. They took matters into their own hands and their response was a lesson for all those who are facing cuts – be it from governments, employers or NGOs.
The residents immediately reached out for help to broaden their support base. Resident leaders sought assistance from local activists and Councillors and spread their message via community radio and the mass media.
Within days AGRA also mobilised about 150 residents on the estate and loaded them into buses. They travelled to the Foodbank offices in a mass, peaceful delegation to demand a reversal of its decision.
When the Foodbank managers refused to come out and talk to the mainly elderly residents, the delegation decided to take their complaint inside the Foodbank headquarters and conduct a peaceful occupation.
This action immediately changed the balance of power in the dispute and put Foodbank management on the back foot. The occupation led to Foodbank agreeing to negotiations between themselves and the AGRA leaders.
As we go to press the talks are continuing but Foodbank have already indicated that they are prepared to reinstate the amount of food donated to the estate.
That the residents started from a position of opposition to all cuts, and that they were prepared to engage in militant action, meant that they were well placed to wage an effective campaign. These simple lessons should be pondered by all those trying to stop cuts and other neo-liberal attacks.
By Stephen Jolly