Cleaners employed by three companies across four rail services launched a coordinated 48-hour strike on Friday 2 November, in a prelude to a possible national strike across all eight of the RMT union's live disputes involving cleaners in the rail sector.
Cleaners employed by ISS on East Coast mainline and London Midland trains, Churchills cleaners on the Tyne & Wear Metro, and Carlisle cleaners on the First TransPennine Express picketed stations in London, Newcastle, Bletchley, Northampton, Warrington, Hull, and Manchester.
The strikes are offensive in character, making positive demands on the companies rather than reacting to a particular bosses' attack. Workers' Liberty members supported picket lines around the country.
The struggles are part of a wider wave of strikes and other direct actions by cleaning workers in a variety of sectors and industries, who are amongst the lowest-paid and most exploited sections of the working class.
Newcastle - Tyne & Wear Metro cleaners (Churchill)
Luke from Newcastle AWL spoke to Stuart Roberts, a Tyne & Wear Metro cleaner and RMT rep.
Why are cleaners from several different employers striking today?
We are out today to fight for our members’ right to decent living standards. The cleaners at the company I work for, Churchill’s, which cleans the Tyne and Wear Metro, pay us the bare minimum, with very few terms and conditions. We are on strike today because we deserve a living wage, not poverty pay.
Today is the first day of coordinated national strike action by cleaners. In the RMT we believe this is massively important, because it is through unified struggle that we can win. Individual struggles often stagnate and falter. Coordinated action is the way forward.
How have the negotiations with management been?
There have been some talks, but the bosses have made it very clear that in our case that they are unwilling to negotiate any pay rise. The situation we are put in is now to carry on taking action, or to back down. We will continue to argue that we deserve decent pay. Churchill’s says it is a minimum wage employer. But don’t believe a word of it - those at the top of the company certainly aren’t paid a minimum wage.
How can those not directly involved in the cleaners’ dispute help their struggle?
One thing we have been getting people to do is to lobby their MPs, and to hassle the Local Transport Authority, Nexus and Deutsche Bahn. However, many of the reasons we are faced with poverty pay stem back to the capitulation of the Labour Party to policies of privatisation. Dave Woods, the Labour councillor who chairs the LTA, refuses to support struggling workers such as ourselves. I doubt we will get any joy out of the Labour councillors. If we need to strike for another year, so be it. I can’t see it ending any time soon.
We have perhaps had less effect since the drivers’ dispute ended. In retrospect this can be seen as a mistake by the union leadership. There are still individual drivers who will argue that they can’t run the service on health and safety grounds if the transport has not been cleaned, but the numbers, and the ending of their own strike makes things more difficult. In a sense our hands are tied by Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws.
Kings Cross - East Coast Mainline cleaners (ISS)
ISS cleaners organised a well-attended picket at Kings Cross station in central London. Many strikers commented on management's use of agency labour to undermine the strike. Some reported having heard rumours of agency workers being put up in hotels overnight in order to allow them to work through strike period. Pickets suggested that, with all the money ISS was spending to break the strike, it might end up costing them more than actually conceding the strike's demands!
Philip Salih, ISS cleaner on the East Coast mainline and RMT activist, spoke to Solidarity
"We haven't had a pay rise in 11 years. 90% of the staff don't get sick pay or London weighting. We don't get travel allowance or a pension fund; we get £6.19 an hour, and that's it. All we've had in the last 11 years is what we've got through the government's minimum wage increases, which amounts to about 60p. The main demands of our strike are around these issues.
"Cleaners are striking across several different companies. All the companies are the same; they exploit cheap labour, often migrant workers. They abuse them and bully them. There have also been cuts to Sunday working pay, and increases in workload. We're doing more work, with more trains to clean, but there's no extra money. Even people who work overtime don't get any extra pay - just a flat overtime rate. Management are using agency labour to break our strike. We don't think that's legal, to be quite honest.
"All the cleaning companies are abusing their staff. They want to pay you as little as possible, and get as much out of you as they can. What we're looking for is a London living wage. The Mayor says it's £8.30; £6.19 is well below that. People cannot survive on £6.19 an hour in 21st-century London.
"ISS claim they can't pay us any more money because East Coast won't pay them any more money. But East Coast is run by the government now, so the government is allowing these companies to get away with exploiting cheap labour.
"We're going to end up hungry and homeless if things carry on like this. We're really struggling, we can't pay our rents, we've got families to support, bills are going up, but our wages are going down. It can't carry on. That's why we're on strike today."
Northampton - London Midland cleaners (ISS)
Manchester - First TransPennine Express cleaners/train dispatchers (Carlisle)
TransPennine Express workers Kate and Stephen spoke to Solidarity on the picket line at Manchester Picadilly station.
Why are you on strike?
We're on strike for a pay increase and for better terms and conditions, for sick pay and enhancements for weekends, night work and bank holidays. Basic rights, really, for workers. We also don't get free travel like others. Our dispute is with the people who directly employ us firstly but with the train companies as well because they're doing things on the cheap.
Have they responded yet to the strikes?
We've not had any response from either of them yet. They don't want to talk to us. They won't talk to our representatives. We get some support from other RMT members who work for the rail companies. We just have to keep going on at it till we get somewhere. This the fourth strike. This is the first time we've done it over two days. We'll definitely have more strikes and we also have a work to rule when we don't do any rest day working.
Have you had any links with the other cleaners who have been on strike?
We haven't had any contact with the other cleaners who've been on strike. But if it goes on, we will try to share resources.
How did you come to join the RMT? Are you still recruiting people to the union?
It was the rep of the train guards. He recruited us. It was word of mouth mainly. We thought we'd be able to protect ourselves better. Quite high proportion of train dispatchers are in the union. There are about 60 of us in the union. We're still trying to recruit. I've been out a few times myself. It's going well. We hope it will get better.
Hull - First TransPennine Express cleaners/train dispatchers (Carlisle)
Cleaners' struggles in other industries:
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