Organising in the citadels of capital

Submitted by Matthew on 14 September, 2011 - 12:40

The syndicalist union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has been organising amongst cleaning workers in the City of London, the heartland of British capitalism. An IWW activist spoke to Solidarity about the campaign.

A lot of cleaners start their first shift very early – at 6am or 7am – and have to be off the premises by 9.

Many will come back later for a shift in the afternoon or evening, and will often work on two or three different sites during a day or have other jobs.

The conditions are primitive, and bad management practises are rife. Bosses can easily abuse workers as many are migrants who don’t speak English, and there’s a lot of corruption and nepotism amongst cleaning contractors who employ and promote their friends and family. The contractors are practised union-busters so it can be hard to organise. Health and safety is also a problem; workers aren’t given proper training in handling cleaning products and can’t always read the English labels. A huge issue is the non-payment of wages; wages are often paid late and we’ve encountered instances of them being withheld for up to three months.

Mainstream unions have attempted to organise cleaners but their campaigns have been short-termist. A lot of resources have been ploughed in for a limited period of time and then pulled. There’s a high turnover of staff in the industry, which means that stewards and activists might not be in the job for very long. If you want to organise, you have to be in for the long haul.

We began organising in the sector when workers organised in the Latin American Workers’ Association became frustrated with the lack of support they were getting from Unite.

We were already active in the Cleaners’ Defence Committee and could offer a framework for the cleaners to organise an independent union.

In the past few months things have really kicked off, particularly at Guildhall and Heron Tower near Liverpool Street where we’ve had big campaigns.

The main issue has been the non-payment of wages, and our first demand in the disputes was for the immediate payment of all wages owed. Beyond that we’re also fighting for a living wage. We’ve had successes in both campaigns, but the dispute at Guildhall in particular is still ongoing.

Our approach is based on direct-action unionism. We develop a set of demands and then keep up a campaign of action until they’re met. That action could include demonstrations, wildcat strikes or other forms of action. Traditional negotiating tactics can’t be relied upon in a precarious industry based on sub-contracting. We also place a lot of emphasis on grass-roots control, so all the decisions about where to go in a campaign are made in meetings by the workers themselves.

We’re not looking to take members away from TUC unions; we’re organising where mainstream unions aren’t. If workers in an industry where there’s already a strong, recognised union wanted to join the IWW I’d advise them to dual-card [i.e. maintain their membership of the official union]. We don’t want to poach members, but where we have organised we are fighting for recognition. We’re in the early stages of some organising campaigns at Canary Wharf and in some hospitals.

There’ll be plenty of actions coming up soon. The new contractor at Guildhall, Sodexo, has suspended one of our activists so we’re fighting for his reinstatement.

There’ll be motions going round that other labour-movement bodies can pass and we’ll be looking to build the maximum possible solidarity to win his job back.

• More: Cleaners Branch Facebook group.

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