Cleaners fight back

Submitted by Matthew on 1 August, 2012 - 2:52

Tube cleaners and their supporters rallied at Stratford station, on the edges of the Olympic Park, on Friday 27 July as cleaning and security workers employed by Initial, ISS, and Carlisle struck to win Olympic bonuses and living wages.

Cleaners have been frozen out of the Olympic bonuses the Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers union (RMT) has succeeded in winning for its members in other grades. They picketed at depots and stations across London Underground and the Docklands Light Railway and leafleted other Tube workers and members of the public.

Across the network, strikers reported the widespread use of agency staff by cleaning contractors. One worker told Solidarity: “They’re using ten agency staff for work that would normally be done by two people.”

The cleaners’ rally at Stratford maintained a lively and noisy presence under the nervous gaze of dozens of British Transport Police, Metropolitan Police, and G4S security guards. Speeches at the rally had a common theme: the obscenity of extreme low-pay and hyper-exploitation in a city as rich as London, and a time when billions of pounds were being spend on the Olympics (an event which couldn’t function without the labour of workers like the Tube cleaners and others like them, but who will receive no reward for their essential role).

One striker said “London has everything for you, but it will not be given to you on a platter. You have to fight for it.” Activists also spoke of their hope that the strike could provide the impetus for a renewed organising campaign amongst cleaners on the Tube.
The Tube cleaners’ strike is part of ongoing struggles, citywide, of cleaning workers. This group of London workers are in large part an invisible migrant workforce. They keep its transport network, its offices, and its institutions clean, but face low-pay, bullying bosses, unsafe conditions, and precarious contracts.

The strike of cleaners at John Lewis’ flagship store on Oxford Street, although involving only a small number of workers, is another hugely significant battle.

Their planned strike on Thursday 26 July was suspended to discuss a renewed offer from management; their pickets on previous strike days had been similarly lively and assertive.

Representatives from the union, the Industrial Workers of the World, attended the Tube cleaners’ picket lines on Friday 27 and spoke to the Stratford rally to offer solidarity.

The IWW’s campaign at John Lewis shows that low-paid precarious workers in the private sector (and in a prominent high-street employer) can be unionised and can fight back. Most of the labour movement has been reluctant to attempt any serious organising on the high street, seeing the combination of staff transience and hostile anti-union employers as too big a mountain to climb.

Cleaners at many of London’s most prestigious academic institutions, including University College London, the London School of Economics, and the School of African and Oriental Studies, have also fought long struggles to win living wages.

Last year, the Senate House Living Wage Campaign formed to link up cleaners’ struggles across University of London institutions and fight for a living wage across-the-board. Here again, outsourcing is a ubiquitous feature, and bosses’ responses have involved often brutal victimisation and collusion with the state to have troublesome workers (whose immigration status is often precarious) deported.

Cleaners’ struggles are not limited to London. On 5 August, cleaners on the Tyne and Wear Metro in Newcastle (employed by the contractor Churchill) will strike again for 48 hours as part of their battle to win living wages and the levelling up of conditions between directly employed and sub-contracted staff. They are also striking against the victimisation of a colleague.

Cleaning workers are an integral and growing part of the modern urban working class. Their struggles — like the struggles of unskilled, precarious, immigrant workers before them, such as the dockers’ battles in the 1880s — show that, despite conditions of extreme exploitation and personal danger, the logic of capitalism will always compel workers to resist.

Solidarity can help turn that resistance into victory.

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