Organising cleaners in the 1970s

Submitted by AWL on 22 May, 2019 - 12:12 Author: Bruce Robinson

Shown as part of the “Women Organise!” film season in Manchester, The Nightcleaners is a documentary about the struggle to organise women office cleaners in 1970-72. The film has many resonances today when organising cleaners and other low-paid, insecure workers is again a central task for the unions.

The filmmakers of the Berwick Street Film Collective (one of whom, Humphrey Trevelyan, was at the Manchester showing) were not traditional documentary makers, but saw themselves both as part of the women’s fight and as creatively producing a piece of cinema. The result is a film that is a powerful depiction of the cleaners’ struggle with highly unorthodox elements.

It begins with the camera watching lone women cleaning offices in an otherwise darkened office block, talking about the job and why they put up with shifts from 10 at night till 7 in the morning. In interviews conducted on their break, women talk about the financial pressures of providing for their families, in one case because a partner refuses to share his pay packet. They still have to do all the work of childcare, shopping and housework. Sleep suffers – one woman only sleeping for one or two hours a day – but none of them can afford to give the job up, and they stay partly also because it enables them to accommodate paid and domestic labour.

The boss of one of the firms who subcontracts the cleaners and wishes to appear sympathetic acknowledges that “without these people, I’d be penniless”, while also saying that competition with a small number of similar firms for contracts puts a constant pressure on wages.

The double burden of paid and domestic work was a central concern of the “Second Wave” feminist movement which was just coming into being in Britain with its first national conference in Oxford in February 1970. A major theme of the film is how the feminist movement interacted with the cleaners through a support group doing work such as leafleting buildings but also discussing tactics and more general issues.

Two of the organisers of the Oxford conference, Sally Alexander and Sheila Rowbotham, are seen and heard in the film talking with the cleaners. The newly elected 21 year old MP for Mid Ulster, Bernadette Devlin, is also seen explaining to some of the cleaners how capitalism works.

The film moves from showing the women’s situation to following their campaign for unionisation, higher wages and more workers on the job. Central to this — and the film — was May Hobbs.

May Hobbs, an East Ender in her thirties, set up the Cleaners’ Action Group and was victimised after she and other cleaners had taken action to demand more cleaners on a particular job. She became the key organiser and is seen recruiting to the union (the T&GWU, a forerunner of Unite) and giving advice to cleaners on how deal with a problem on the job. She speaks in Trafalgar Square under a Women’s Liberation banner about how not all supporters of that cause are middle class, and talks to the camera about how much she has learnt through the struggle.

It quickly becomes clear that recruitment to the union is only the first major hurdle. The union itself fails to provide more than verbal support. One union official, close to the stereotype, gives reasons why it’s not possible to do much: “500 people in 50 workplaces are not the same as 500 people in one factory”. Other officials don’t turn up for meetings. Participation in union structures is impossible because of the women’s working hours and home commitments. May Hobbs can’t get any financial support for her organising job.

The film repeatedly shows the then might of the unions on a massive demonstration against Heath government’s anti-union Industrial Relations Bill — in contrast to the limited resources and power of the cleaners. Many ideas float around in the discussions between May Hobbs, other cleaners and their women supporters. One comments that the women should start their own union; another that the union needs to become a social movement. May talks to unionised cleaners about whether and how much less than their wage demand they’d be prepared to settle for if they get to negotiate.

The film does not come to a conclusion. Trevelyan pointed out that there were some successes for cleaners in the public sector and in organising in smaller unions. There is a second related film. The lack of a conclusion points to the film not being a standard documentary. Trevelyan talked of it being influenced by a fashion for “deconstruction”. The film makers are themselves filmed filming. There are long silent, grainy, black and white focuses on the faces of some cleaners and silent pauses of a minute or two with a grey screen, presumably intended to give the viewers time to reflect.

These get a bit irritating after a while. Trevelyan reported that some people walked out, but that the cleaners who had seen the film did not object. It points to the experimental nature of much post-68 radical arts. The film is available on DVD and deserves to be seen again widely. An extract from the film and a link to an interview with Sally Alexander are here.

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