There are 26 PFI (Private Finance Initiative) schools in Tower Hamlets. The cleaning, catertaking and maintenance services were outsourced many years ago to G4S, the huge security corporation. It's one of the biggest companies in the world and its Chief Executive, Nick Buckles, is one of the highest-paid bosses in the country. The workers G4S employ in Tower Hamlets are very low-paid and are often only in a school for two to four hours each day. Many of them are from a migrant background and don't have good English language skills.
The company wanted to change the method by which the workers were paid and the date on which they received their pay. The effect would've been extremely drastic in terms of throwing off people's budgeting and personal finances each month. It would also have meant that they wouldn't have had a pay packet in August at all, and that when they finally got paid in September they would've been five or six weeks in arrears. The only outcome of the company's sham consultation was that they offered a bridging loan for workers in August, but the workers were clear that they didn't want to borrow money of their bosses – they wanted to be paid!
At the same time, G4S wanted to introduce biometric fingerprint machines to clock people on and off shifts in three of the schools. Workers were essentially expected to hand over their identities to their employer in order to get paid. They felt it was demeaning and showed a complete lack of trust. A sham consultation was held on this issue too but G4S went ahead an installed the machines anyway. The workers agreed that they would refuse to use the machines and the union provided them with letters to give to management if they were asked to do so explaining that their refusal was supported by the union.
G4S also employ cleaners and porters at Mile End hospital, and throughout our campaign they tried to play off the hospital workers against the school workers. They've got the biometric sign-ins there already, and G4S told us that the hospital workers were happy with the set-up. They also told us that they'd introduced the new payroll system there and the workers had agreed to it. But when we visited the hospital and spoke to the workers, we found that they were far from happy with the biometric machines and that the new payroll system had only just been proposed and that the workers we definitely opposed to it! We also discovered that G4S had been telling the hospital workers the same lies about the school workers – that they'd already agreed to the new payroll system. It was classic divide-and-rule from the bosses. Reaching out to the hospital workers and building unity with them was essential to what we did.
We held a consultative ballot on the two issues and it came back 100% in favour of all-out, indefinite strike action. This is not a group of workers who normally clamour to take strike action and the ballot showed their determination. We began fighting for Unison to hold a full ballot, and in the meantime we went into higher-level negotiations with G4S bosses. By this time we'd made the result of the consultative ballot known and begun a public campaign. We'd lobbied the local authority, on whose behalf G4S provide the services in schools. We held a demonstration outside the negotiation meeting with placards and chanting. It was a visible challenge and affront to the G4S bosses. We chanted at them as they went in, asking them how much they earned each month!
At the meeting, G4S backed down completely on the new payroll system and suspended the introduction of the biometric machines. They haven't dropped the plan entirely but given how determined they were to introduce them (going as far as to install the machines in the workplace), forcing them to hold off is significant. It gives us time to go on a renewed offensive against the plans.
Organisation made this victory possible. The workers are isolated, working as individuals or in twos in schools that are often miles apart. We fought this isolation by making sure reps and organisers got round to each workplaces and maintained face-to-face contact with all members about the dispute, making sure they were kept informed and could have a say about where it should go.
Linking up with the hospital workers was also absolutely key. The public versus private sector distinction is meaningless here; when you're dealing with a private company providing services for the public sector you have to relate to workers who work for that company, wherever they're working. As the campaign goes on we may need to build links with G4S employees working in private sector workplaces too.
The workers have decided to produce a regular union newsletter for G4S employees locally, mainly focusing on the cleaners, caretakers and maintenance staff in schools as well as the Mile End hospital workers. That's their own initiative, not something that's run by union officialdom. They realise the solidarity and unity that won this dispute needs to be maintained.
The union has grown as a result of the dispute. The union bureaucracy tells us we have to focus entirely on getting our membership numbers up and concentrate entirely on recruiting rather than building and winning disputes. But the best way to recruit people to the union is to show that being part of the union is how you can win things from your bosses. We fought to win in Tower Hamlets and we've built the union out of that fight. You recruit by organsing, not the other way around.