East End Trades Guild: Krissie Nicolson

Krissie Nicolson is the founding organiser of the East End Trades Guild, which brings together hundreds of small businesses to work for fair rent, business rates, taxes and planning. The East End is one of the most rapidly gentrifying parts of London. Amid the new builds, many of the small businesses in Hackney and Tower Hamlets are struggling to survive. 

What’s your name and what do you do?
My name is Krissie Nicolson, I’m the founding organiser of the East End Trades Guild. I did a masters in community organising back in 2010, which is how I got involved.

When did you decide to do this?
I read an interview on Spitalfields Life with Paul Gardener, who owns Gardeners Bags, about the landlord putting up the rent. Because of the power of narrative and the skill of the anonymous author the public outcry was so huge, the landlord agreed to change the rent increase.

I had lived in Hackney for many years as a single parent and I had brought up my son there. A lot of work was being done with housing, but not much was going on in terms of small businesses. Business groups usually cater for big businesses. There wasn’t much around for small businesses other than services and access to finance.

Paul Gardner and I got on really well. Community organising is about relationships first and through those relationships we uncovered that a lot of small businesses face the same issues.

At the same time as this property crisis is going on, there is a huge surge of micro businesses and there isn’t effective representation for them.

What is the point of the East End Trades Guild?
The three most important things for members are business rents, business rates, and taxes and planning. All of them are related to property values.

I didn’t fully realise before how much small businesses are connected to communities. It’s really become a labour of love. At the same time as this property crisis is going on, there is a huge surge of micro businesses and there isn’t effective representation for them. The corporates are making sure their interests are seen to. As long as the power imbalance continues it stifles innovation and egalitarian solutions. Our aim is to bring locally owned small independent businesses of all sectors together to speak as one and to take action on their concerns.

We do listening campaigns to find out what common issues are. We did an action last year which was more about encouraging local spend, called East End Independents’ Day.

We had markets, events, walking tours all happening on the same day to champion small independent businesses and to create traction on the broader issues that were mentioned before about rates and planning.

We invited the mayor to meet with us on the day, which was quite fun. It wasn’t an easy task to get him to agree but we were quite creative about how we did it.

We ran a crowd-funding campaign for it in June and discussed ideas. Off the back of that, people who didn’t know each other met each other and it generated trade between members.

Another point of this is to strengthen collaboration and trade between the wider community. With Brexit on the horizon, relationships are important and bring economic resilience.  

How do you fit it in?
Members pay to join and that means that we are accountable to the members, meaning me and the guild as an organisation rather than to big business and government. So my position is paid, not very much, but it’s a great position to be in, I feel very lucky. 

In community organising you learn about building one-to-one relationships and people getting to know people. What neo-liberalism has done is drive people away from each other. It has atomised people, so when you talk about relationships, some people find it a bit weird, but it’s just building up trust.

It’s slow work. As we are developing people are beginning to see the value of it. It was difficult for me because I was doing a masters and working for below the minimum wage. I worked as a volunteer before members agreed to pay dues.

What neo-liberalism has done is drive people away from each other and atomised people so when you talk about relationships, some people find it a bit weird, but it’s just building up trust in a relationship.

What’s been the hardest thing?
There’s a lot of data out there that says that entrepreneurs who own their houses outright are more likely to have successful businesses and that’s another driver.

The labour market is so unstable, it’s really important to bring people together so that we can support one another and create equality of opportunity. Reciprocity is one of our core values.

What’s been your proudest moment?
Every time one of our members stands up in a room and talks about their experience of running a business it’s always been really inspiring.

It’s always inspiring to hear people talk about their livelihood and how it impacts the community. I think the members are quite extraordinary people.

It’s very difficult to pick a single moment. When we got the mayor to come down to Independents’ Day, that was a proud moment. 

It was important that he came because he is in charge of a lot of the areas that matter to us, like rents, rates and planning.

Rates are probably going to be devolved to the Greater London Authority so we need a seat at the table when rates are being managed. The Mayor has powers with planning, we need him on side. We still need to work out a more strategic relationship with the GLA. Through the rates campaign we have closer relationship with Hackney and Tower Hamlets. 

What keeps you going when things get hard.
As a single parent you develop a lot of resilience. I also had some time away and worked with a migrant and refugee organisation on voter registration in West London in the run up to the local and national elections.

When you work with organisations like that you become aware of your privilege. I have had struggle but I understand that I am lucky. That keeps me going.

What’s next?
We need to strengthen what we’re doing in East London. I have had a bit of time away from the Guild and we found that businesses were so busy doing their own thing that they didn’t have time to do something on top of that. Once we have that strengthened we can expand more. I think we will be doing a lot of that institutional work this year.

How did you vote in the EU referendum and why?
I voted remain. I feel really sad that it became so polarised and became a party political weapon and marginalised so many people and bought out the worst in so many people.

One of the defining strengths of the East End is immigration. Without immigrants we wouldn’t have fish and chips, curry, bagels, all these things that make the East End so distinctive and appealing. So the fact that immigration was this weapon as a thing that would be solved by Brexit was false and it’s going to be very difficult for us to be isolation.

One of the defining strengths of the East End is immigration. 

Will it impact the Guild?
It’s already impacting it. Prices are going up. There’s a lot of uncertainty. It makes our work more important and it will mean we need to work together more and more and cross those divides.

Our work isn’t just about trade and business, it’s about people and place and bringing people together across backgrounds, class and race and providing spaces for that to happen.

What does community mean to you?
It means everything to me really. I felt isolated as a single parent in London and it was only when I started investigating what this thing community organising was that my potential was unlocked. In our culture time is money and that limits people. It limited me.

When I started learning about community organising and making time for real human relationships in this public way, that’s when opportunities arrived. It boils down to that simple thing of meeting people. That’s where that nascent potential comes from, an encounter. We need more of it.

What would you say to someone looking to do something similar?
I would say go for it. I would also say take care of yourself. Get your finances sorted first. If I hadn’t had gone for it, it wouldn’t have happened. Yes it was a struggle but it’s paying off.

Learn from other people. Go and talk to other people and find out how they are doing it. Find allies who are doing similar things. There are lots of other people willing to help if you develop relationships.

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