Justice_for_cleanersIn an article first published in Communist Review, Rhys McCarthy a UNITE officer, charts the shift of unions to tackling pockets of workers previously thought beyond the reach of trade unions.

 Photo courtesy of dblackadder an official of Canadian Union of Public Employees.

 

I worked within the organising department of the T&G section of Unite for about three or four years and was involved from the beginning in organising the cleaners within Canary Wharf and then at the Houses of Parliament where the cleaners took part in the first strike ever held there.  It was good fun helping the cleaners organise themselves and having the confidence to organise a strike and win their demand for a living wage.

I want to outline some of the strategies and thinking behind union organising and also move it back into to the more traditional side of trade unionism. The strategies and techniques which we and other unions are using are shifting away from servicing individuals and into organising collectively.  I truly believe that organising is a socialist and left-wing strategy, while the servicing culture is a right-wing strategy.  Organising is about going back to basics, to what trade unions used to do and what the Communist Party used to do.  What was successful then was effective communication with the members about their problems and issues, building around that and following through with collective action.

Justice_for_cleanersIn an article first published in Communist Review, Rhys McCarthy a UNITE officer, charts the shift of unions to tackling pockets of workers previously thought beyond the reach of trade unions.

 Photo courtesy of dblackadder an official of Canadian Union of Public Employees.

 

I worked within the organising department of the T&G section of Unite for about three or four years and was involved from the beginning in organising the cleaners within Canary Wharf and then at the Houses of Parliament where the cleaners took part in the first strike ever held there.  It was good fun helping the cleaners organise themselves and having the confidence to organise a strike and win their demand for a living wage.

I want to outline some of the strategies and thinking behind union organising and also move it back into to the more traditional side of trade unionism. The strategies and techniques which we and other unions are using are shifting away from servicing individuals and into organising collectively.  I truly believe that organising is a socialist and left-wing strategy, while the servicing culture is a right-wing strategy.  Organising is about going back to basics, to what trade unions used to do and what the Communist Party used to do.  What was successful then was effective communication with the members about their problems and issues, building around that and following through with collective action.

Regaining a sense of purpose

 

It is obvious that generally trade unions have lost that ability for quite a while.  In response to Thatcherism and neoliberalism, the unions started to mirror the shift in wider society and began pandering to the individual, “Got a problem? Join the union”, and providing services with statements like “Join our union, you’ll get cheaper RAC” and “We give you free wills.”  This moved away from the collective to the individual and it has been a disaster. What members want is about standing up to the boss or the manager and defending and improving their terms and conditions.  This is what maintains and grows membership.  We are still picking up the problem of individualism today so we need to get our act together and completely turn this around.  It has been a slow process but there is change now, especially within my own union.

Five years ago, when you talked about organising, there was negativity from some full-time officials.  I believe they had got used to a culture of servicing and spending too much time running around responding to phone calls from individuals and representing them at disciplinary and grievance hearings - basically acting as well paid roving super shop stewards.  Now I am a full-time officer and I could spend my days driving around in my nice comfortable Vauxhall Astra, representing individuals - but that is really just managing decline and does not grow trade unionism.  We need to get back to the fundamental organising of workers.  I am pleased that the Unite joint general secretary, Tony Woodley, who wrote in his election manifesto about fighting back and organising, has put this into practice with a bold programme for 100 organisers.  I was part of that process and when I look back the outcome has been very positive.

Two of us organisers were put into that bastion of capitalism, Canary Wharf.  We went through a programme of surveying the different sites and companies.  Some years previously there had been in-house cleaners, but by this time it was all done by third-party cleaning companies, big multinationals like ISS and Mitie.  We started by finding out where the cleaners entered the workplace - they certainly didn’t go through the front door.  Then we put out contact cards, started talking to people to identify those who were leaders - basically people who wanted to stand up, were not afraid and wanted to make changes in their workplaces.  Then we began to put together a database of workers, mapping the workplace, finding out who was on what section and what shift, and getting our identified activists to do the work, so that they took ownership of it.

From the activists we found out what the issues were.  Clearly, if you are on the minimum wage, then pay is likely to be the major issue but we also found that bullying was rife and, shockingly, that workers could be quite legally fired on a whim. There was and still is a culture in the contract cleaning industry that a cleaner could be removed from the site simply if the client requested it – for example, if some merchant banker, sitting at his table on a Monday morning, didn’t like how a cleaner walked past him.  Maybe the cleaner didn’t smile at him, or maybe had the temerity to look him in the eye.  Unless discrimination could be proved - always difficult – then all the cleaning company had to do was to try to find work for that employee elsewhere within their business.  If they can’t do that then they can legally dismiss the cleaner.

We soon began to target issues like that, and then we had a case of cleaners being removed, not for “looking the wrong way”, but for touching rubbish from lost property - rubbish which was about to be thrown away from the basement of the building.  For this the client, HSBC, requested that five of our members be removed from the workplace.  In response we published newsletters, targeting the then CEO of HSBC, Sir John Bond, saying that we would go to the press with the slogan, “Cleaners sacked for touching rubbish”. To cut a long story short, we also said, “There will be a demonstration of the cleaners outside your offices unless you reinstate them.  We want them to be treated exactly the same as your directly employed workers.”  We had a meeting with a senior HR officer in the company, as a result of which they opted for an investigation – whose outcome was that only one of the five would be removed.  Not only did we save the jobs of the other four, but also we made sure that the one who was removed ended up on a contract with the same pay and conditions.  Small wins like this gave the workers confidence to get involved and stand together. 

 

No company is too big to take on...if you know how

All this is about being creative, understanding where these companies’ strengths and weaknesses are.  We applied leverage on big household-name banks, and used their wealth and status to embarrass them.  So, for example, when the banks were putting on big cultural events in the middle of Canary Wharf, subsidised opera with champagne and canapés flowing freely, then we would go along with the cleaners and hand out leaflets about poverty pay and the cleaners’ demands for a living wage.

Building links with local community groups like churches has also proved effective.  Our members are Latin American and black African, and are involved in either the local evangelical churches or the Catholic church, so we worked with an organisation called London Citizens, which was very useful.  Particularly at the beginning, they opened doors and got access to those banks who didn’t want to talk to unions but felt the need to talk to London Citizens, because it was a faith-based and community organisation.

On one occasion we had put in a pay claim to Morgan Stanley over the London Living Wage, which at the time was £6.70 per hour.  The claim would have cost only £300,000, but Morgan Stanley said that they weren’t going to agree to it as our members weren’t their cleaners, they were employed by a third party.  This of course is a deliberate capitalist strategy, using third parties, outsourcing and privatisation to weaken workers and trade unions.  So we put it back to Morgan Stanley: “They are your cleaners, they clean your building, whether it’s done by a third party or not.  Even if the cleaning contractor changes, the cleaners still work at your building and you have a responsibility towards them.”  The banks used the same old script that they were not their cleaners but we decided to re-write the script: “They are your cleaners, you have responsibility towards them, you hold the purse strings and the bill is £300,000.”

While this pay dispute was going on, I myself and a colleague visited our members at Morgan Stanley’s plush offices.  When there, we noticed a big poster about a season of plays at the Old Vic theatre, which was being sponsored by the company.  It turned out that this sponsorship was to the tune of half a million pounds a year, basically corporate social welfare for the middle classes.  So Morgan Stanley were happy to subsidise the theatre tickets for the middle classes, but not their cleaners’ pay claim, which would have cost them only £300,000.  Working with London Citizens, we had the cleaners picketing the Old Vic over two weeks, with loud hailers and leafleting.  Finally, it got to the extent where Morgan Stanley called the TGWU and said “Pull your dogs off from outside the theatre, we will meet with you.”  Senior officials met with the contract cleaner and Morgan Stanley and they settled and paid up.

 

From practice to theory and back again

This kind of organising has developed into a strategy which the union has taken up and developed into a wider sectoral approach, targeting other companies within the same industry - such as moving from Canary Wharf to cleaners throughout the City of London - but also other industries such as meat processing, logistics and aviation. This is because it is ultimately ineffective to target just one company in a wider sector, particularly if increased labour costs lead to undercutting by their non-unionised competitors.  Organising companies along a sectoral basis can stop a “race to the bottom” in terms of pay and conditions; and, by organising and gaining new recognition agreements, my union has had the strength to implement industry-wide minimum standard agreements.

In aviation, BA and the BAA have high levels of membership: workers have good pay and conditions because the union has been well organised and its shop stewards are doing the business.  However, they are not immune to threats, such as outsourcing and low-cost airlines potentially undercutting them and taking new business.  So within aviation we have targeted the security industry and low-cost airlines, although ultimately we need to target and organise Ryanair as well.

Organising is a continual cycle in which the union identifies the issues, and decides which are widely felt and deeply felt. You may have to go for an easy issue at first: you could be starting from a low level where a lot of people are scared and have never dealt with trade unions before; they may be young and have lived 30 years of Thatcherism and New Labourism; or they may be migrants - like cleaners from Colombia, where belonging to a trade union can amount to signing your own death warrant.  As I said before, issues must be widely felt and deeply felt; and once the issue is identified you organise around it - sending out newsletters, signing up collective petitions and educating and agitating members around their issues, which will then lead into their taking collective action.

It is the members who have to take the action, not the “outside” union.  On the sites I deal with I still sometimes get the question, “What’s the union going to do about it?”  Many members think that, by paying £2+ a week to the union, they hand over all responsibility to it and that this man or woman who is the full-time official is somehow some superman or superwoman who is going to solve all the problems with their wise words.  Now I do like to think that I can dispense wise and sometimes angry words - but if I haven’t got members backing me up and prepared to take collective action then I am not going to be able to put a lot of pressure on the company.

 

Every union branch needs a spring clean

I have talked a lot about “organising the unorganised”, but many of our union-recognised workplaces are in reality disorganised and unorganised.  “Organising the unorganised" in my opinion is not just about new greenfield sites or migrant workers. Too many of our recognised workplaces have membership below 50%, with a passive and inactive membership; where shop stewards service the members but don’t collectively involve any of them in the process; where the shop steward just turns up to pay negotiations but hasn’t asked the members what they want in the claim.  How many readers of this article - shop stewards or otherwise active in the trade union, in recognised workplaces - do a pay claim survey, go and ask the members what they want, let them have ownership of it and then base the pay claim on that?  I hope you all do but I take a guess and say many do not.

It is not just shop stewards not doing it properly.  A few of years ago, to my horror, I came across a full-time official who submitted a one-line pay claim to a company: “A substantial pay increase” was the demand.  It must have taken him a long time to come up with that one short sentence and it was quite obvious he hadn’t asked anyone, let alone the shop stewards about the pay claim.  I’m surmising what happened at the subsequent meeting with management but I imagine it went something like this:

Full-time officer: “We’d like a substantial pay increase.”

Company manager: “No!”

Full-time officer: “Oh, OK, then.”

How many readers have mapped the workplace to know where members and non-members are? How many have organised a collective grievance around a workplace issue?  Do we put out regular newsletters that involve our members and challenge the employer?  If we are going to be effective we all have a part to play - be it members, shop stewards and full-time officials - in getting organised, being proactive and being prepared to take collective action.

 

The fight for work, dignified and organised

It is not always easy and we are not always successful but we must try and fight.  I have recently had a couple of different workplaces where redundancies have been declared.  One of them is DHL Argos, which is making approximately £320m profit a year.  Its CEO was on Sky News saying, “Someone has to make a stand about the fear of job insecurity, because it’s affecting consumer spending”, but on that very same day Argos announced over 300 redundancies - 95 of them at one of my DHL sites.  Obviously the “stand” applied to everyone else and not to Argos.  They were making cuts to maintain profits for their shareholders in the City.  For me, it is clear that the City and the greedy bankers have created this current economic situation but once again ordinary workers are paying the price.  Unfortunately, for some of our members the penny has not yet dropped.

The statutory notice period of 30 days was under way and the clock was ticking.  I met with my shop stewards and my first question was, “What are your members going to do about it?”  The response was, “Nothing much, as they are scared”.  At first there was amongst some a feeling of defeatism and that all they had to do was make sure that the company followed a proper consultation process.  However, we decided to put together a strategy to take on the company: putting together newsletters actively criticising Argos and DHL; talking about taking some sort of collective action including a strike if necessary; signing a collective grievance; talking about going to the press and demonstrating outside Argos headquarters; approaching the local Labour MP to ask for his support.  All of this was about putting pressure on the company.

Unfortunately in this instance our success was limited: we did put in a collective grievance, we did get press publicity and involve our local Labour MP, but we were not successful in moving our members to a more militant stance or in drastically changing the company’s decision - and in the end some 65 people were made redundant.  However tough lessons were learned and it was important that the shop stewards were being seen to be proactive and organised in trying to garner support and action from their members. They certainly cannot be accused of standing by and doing nothing.  If you are at point A and your membership is quite passive, it may be too much to expect to move straight from A to Z and say, walk out on strike, but we need to be prepared to assist them in that journey and take them step by step.  We were and are educating, agitating and communicating with our members and we were putting the issue back to them, “What are you going to do?  We can help and support you.”

We have to organise and not solely service even in our so-called recognised workplaces, because in this current economic crisis things are going to get worse, not better.  This way we can start to make a difference for when the company comes to attack or make cuts next time.  If we organise and fight, we may not always win; but if we don’t organise and fight we will surely lose.