London Underground cleaners: Striking against poverty and exploitation

Submitted by AWL on 1 July, 2008 - 9:28

On Thursday 26 June, over 700 London Underground cleaners organised by the RMT union, who voted 98% in favour of strike action, will take on multinational cleaning companies ISS, ICS, Initial and GBM in a 24 hour strike. This will be followed by a 48 hour strike from 1 to 3 July. With no cleaners at key depots and stations, the health and safety risks of running a railway without cleaners could paralyse the Tube.

Cleaners have been paid the bare legal minimum wage for too long. And now, with food, fuel and rent costs rising, cleaners are struggling to survive. They are demanding a minimum wage of £7.20 an hour (the London Living Wage set by Ken Livingstone), sick pay and 28 days leave plus bank holidays.

One cleaner activist said, “There are some cleaners who have worked every day for four years with only a few days off. Imagine, working a public holiday for no extra money!” They are also demanding free travel, a final salary pension and an end to unjust ‘third party sackings’,.

A group of workers who were supposedly impossible to organise — mainly immigrant workers, privatised, with no history of union organisation — have proved the cynics wrong. They have shown the way forward for class struggle. Many cleaners have problems with their immigration papers, but they have proved that undocumented workers can defy a system that aims to silence them.

Some RMT activists have been sceptical about the idea of a cleaners’ strike, despite the cleaners’ own enthusiasm for a fight-back. “People have always made out that cleaners don’t know what they want, that they don’t know what they’re asking for when they say they want to strike. Cleaners do know what they want, all it needed was organisation. Now our destiny is in our hands”, said Clara Osagiede, Secretary of the RMT cleaners grade.

The strike is a challenge to the way the Public Private Partnership works on the Tube. Under PPP Transport for London gives contracts to Metronet and Tubelines, who in turn hire in cleaning companies. With each layer of contracting, private companies cream off a layer of public money as profit. Their model of profitability and efficiency is absolute degradation of the cleaners from top to bottom. Improved efficiency keeps everyone happy.

TfL, and all the middle men who pat each other on the back and hand out pots of money to each other, cannot wash their hands of the responsibility for the cleaners’ exploitation. Tactics used by the cleaning companies to grind the cleaners down include: on-the-spot sackings; cleaners being made to clean eight stations at a time on their own, so they don't get pride from their work and — importantly — don't talk to each other; having to clean faeces with their bare hands when not provided with equipment; using toxic, unapproved cleaning chemicals disguised in the approved bottles. Clara said, “These cleaning company bosses are worse than murderers… I liken them to the masters of the slave trade”.

They have brutalised their workforce in the hope that they would be so ground they would never fight back. But it has not worked. Over six years of dogged organising by the RMT, the Transport & General Workers Union-Unite, and the cleaners’ desperate need for something to change, have produced this spectacular mandate for strike action.

A successful strike will threaten the whole basis of the Public Private Partnership. If the workers will not accept the degradation on which profitability is based, where is the “efficiency” to come from? The logic of this struggle is that all cleaning should be brought back into public ownership.

Cleaners will be taking on international companies. For instance, ISS employs 43,500 people worldwide with revenues exceeding £710 million a year. GBM’s turnover is £40 million a year and they employ 2,500 people. Initial employs 70,000 people in 40 countries worldwide. International companies may seem like monolithic giants, undefeatable. But I bet they never reckoned on this.

One nucleus of organisation — built on the RMT's industrial strength and the key role of cleaning in the running of the Underground — can break the basis of their profitability. When workers refuse to just accept what is offered and vote in overwhleming numbers to improve their wages and their life through collective, trade union action we see a glimmer of a real challeneg to the way the multinationals do business.

This dispute is about so much more than the cleaners initial demands. The cleaners’ own organisational strength and solidarity shows that a marginalised, precarious group of workers can and will fight back.

It shows the whole labour movement the possibilities and necessities of organising the unorganised.

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