Historically, cleaning was a core railway function, with many railworkers carrying out cleaning duties alongside other work, and all cleaners in a railway union. But since contracting-out and privatisation, union membership levels have dropped, and vile, predatory multinational companies have moved in, recruited vulnerable migrant workers and kept them on minimal pay, minimal holiday entitlement and the worst conditions they can get away with.
In the face of this, it is good to see RMT revive its efforts to organise cleaners. The union has had successes, such as beating biometric booking-on systems in some depots, proving the effectiveness of an all-grades union. But some cleaners have joined the union and then felt forgotten.
The more pedestrian work of building a union in a traditionally unorganised, largely migrant workforce remains. RMT deserves commendation for organising these cleaners industrially, launching its 'cleaners' charter' of demands around pay and conditions. It has also held meetings to encourage cleaners to become reps, as opposed to some unions' strategy of relying on paid officials to organise migrant workers.
But the union could do more to provide for the particular situations of migrant workers, such as providing immigration advice on its helpline and advice in various languages. To strengthen links between cleaners and other grades, every branch should have a cleaners' liaison officer, who can feed current cleaners' issues back to the branch and make sure that all grades in the branch are actively organising cleaners.
The union is putting a lot of resources into this work on both the mainline and the Tube in Greater London, but similar resources need to be put into the rest of the country. And RMT also needs to prove that it is ready to take industrial action and win for cleaners.
On Eurostar, more than 100 RMT cleaners working for OCS were ready to strike on December 18 last year. With some on wages as low as £5.50 per hour (the legal minimum), the employer's offer was a pathetic 20p-an-hour - and even that depended on giving up £68 back pay. The OCS boss's pay rise, £13,000, was higher than many of his employees' annual wages.
Cleaners were understandbly angry and determined to fight. But the power of a 13-1 strike vote majority was allowed to fizzle away when a deal was struck that fell far short of the union's demand for a minimum pay rate matching the London living wage of at least £7.05 an hour.
Now RMT is gearing itself up for its first major fight against the cowboy cleaning companies on London Underground. ISS has announced its intention to get rid of 200 cleaners on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly Lines because TubeLines, the ‘Infraco’ in charge of the lines, has slashed the budget for cleaning.
The union has organised protests outside TubeLines' and the Mayor’s posh offices, submitted an Early Day Motion backed by RMT's MPs and handed official letters to ISS, TubeLines and the Mayor, demanding meetings. RMT wants to publicly embarrass Ken, who says he is concerned about the cleaners' inevitable destitution, into actually doing something to force his contractors to drop their plans. Livingstone's actions so far, however, have shown that his allegiances are with the private contractors and cleaning companies. He has guaranteed ISS’s contract until 2012 - a contract allowing only for cheap, sub-standard cleaning, as he fights to keep costs down to pour maximum resources into the 2012 Olympics.
With the Mayor's and the capitalists' camp so united, the RMT has decided to strike to save these jobs. Only 21 cleaners accepted voluntary redundancy, so we have to resist almost 200 compulsory redundancies. The T&G, who have also been organising ISS cleaners, had announced their intention to strike until the TUC decreed that their action would be unacceptable, as the RMT is the only union with national recognition with ISS.
The tasks of building the first effective cleaners' strike now lie ahead. While RMT cleaners' membership has risen by 50%, the number of unionised ISS cleaners still falls short of what would be desired. RMT must turn the TUC's decision to its advantage and make sure that all former T&G members are included in this fight.
At a cleaners' meeting in February, the overwhelming mood was for a strike. But there were concerns that organisation on some lines was much stronger than others. RMT should be ready to give money to cleaners to help them through the strikes. The union has a Disputes & Hardship Fund, and this is exactly the sort of fight it is for.
Drivers and station staff gave their 100% support. The strategy for the strike must include closing stations and taking trains out of service on the grounds of safety, with particular concentration on the depots, to ensure that trains are brought to a stop. This unity will be key to the effectiveness of the strike, but there will need to be an education drive among other grades to make sure people are on board with the cleaners' struggle. It is hard enough persuading people to take action over their own jobs, never mind over someone else's, especially when those jobs are not automatically regarded as part of the same workforce!
This will be a key test for RMT. A victory against ISS will hopefully remind us what a union can do for its members.
The challengess of organising cleaners in London have important lessons for the union across the industry: readiness to take action and unity across the grades is crucial if the union is to be successful.
STOP PRESS: RMT has won a promise from ISS of no compulsory redundancies. But the cut in jobs goes ahead, so the remaining cleaners will have an increased workload. The fight must go on.