Cleaners at the Corporation of London, Guildhall have achieved a significant victory in a dispute with their sub-contractor Ocean Contract Cleaning London Ltd. Organised in the London IWW Cleaners and Allied Industries Branch (IU 640) this has been a major achievement for the workers and the IWW as a whole.
The Guildhall was built between 1411 and 1440 as a symbol of the English ruling elite – many of its labour policies remain stuck in its medieval past. The workers who maintain the splendour of the Guildhall are on a miserable £5.93 per hour, they receive no sick pay or pension. They are hired through Ocean Contract Cleaning. A company also with a long history worthy of a medieval establishment – in 2006 London Citizens uncovered that workers employed by Ocean at a London University were being commonly under-paid or not paid at all. Those cleaners recovered £50,000 in unpaid wages.
At the Guildhall the cleaners found themselves in a similar situation of being repeatedly underpaid in their wages going back months. Some waited two to three months to get wages they were owed. They even had the Public Holiday for the Royal Wedding deducted from their holiday leave. To add insult to injury the workers who are overwhelmingly migrants, from Latin America, Asia and Africa are subjected to management abuses now common place in the cleaning industry, petty bullying, and disciplinaries for next to nothing. If you are five minutes late you are sent home, if you are late again you are fired. IWW members have reported being threatened with dismissal for being two-minutes late.
The cleaners fight back
The cleaners however have matched the management’s arrogance with militant direct action. The thirty four cleaners at the Guildhall got organised – on Tuesday 14 and Wednesday 15 June they arrived for work – however without any guarantee of actual wages they remained in the reception for the duration of the shift until they were given clear assurances they would be paid their wages for their work!
Despite the assurances of Ocean that the workers would be paid by 20 June they were still left with an average of two weeks wages unpaid. The workers raised a collective grievance submitted by the IWW which also failed to resolve the situation.
The IWW cleaners responded by stepping up their campaign calling a day of action on Friday 15 July. Once again the cleaners refused to provide free labour to clean the Guildhall without being paid the wages they are owed in return. This time the cleaners protest called by the IWW Cleaners Branch, was joined by a demonstration in solidarity supported by the IWW London General Members Branch, with support from cleaners in other workplaces, UCL and SOAS workers and students, Colombia Solidarity Campaign and members of RMT, NUJ, UCU, UNISON and UNITE. Over sixty people demonstrated in solidarity from 5:30 AM at the Guildhall, the protest assisted by the Vicar David Parrott from the nearby Church who provided tea and coffee and the Church facilities.
Cleaners secure their objectives
Workers painted their hands with ‘Stop the abuse’ and chanted slogan such as ‘No pay, no work’, the old IWW anthem ‘Solidarity Forever, For the union makes us strong’ echoed around the Guildhall which is so used to hymns of praise to the Lords of capital!
It was only as a result the IWW members at Guildhall stepping up their campaign that the Guildhall management intervened – inviting our union to meet with them and their sub-contractor Ocean. A delegation of composed of Alberto Durango Secretary the London IWW Cleaners Branch, Chris Ford, of London General Members Branch and a three IWW members from the cleaners at Guildhall then met with the Guildhall management and the Ocean Contract Cleaning.
To facilitate the negotiations, and with the approval of the cleaners we agreed to relocate the demonstration from the Guildhall Yard – allegedly we were on private property even though the City Police had twice given permission to demonstrate there. The bosses were clearly irritated by the demonstration and repeatedly tried to trick the IWW to accept their offer of a room for the workers to wait whilst negotiations continued. Wage slaves we may be – fools we are not!
Under pressure, and with the Guildhall management openly arguing with the Ocean management – the IWW secured agreement of immediate payment of wages owed and a review of the wages over the last sixth month. After five hours of protest action IWW secured written evidence from Ocean HR department that a CHAPS the payments to the cleaners had been made before ending protest.
The 15 July protest alongside the previous actions in June has resulted in the cleaners achieving their demands at the Guildhall – it has been a significant victory. All the IWW members at Guildhall and in the Cleaners Branch are to be congratulated for what has been inspiring campaign.
Veiled threats and Next Steps
On several occasions the management at the Corporation of London’s Guildhall have challenged the IWW that the action of the cleaners is illegal industrial action. Unlike the traditional unions, the IWW is not running scared of the anti-trade union laws introduced by Thatcher to stop workers from taking effective industrial action. The IWW does not disown or refute the actions democratically decided upon by members to advance their interests. When it was muted that disciplinary action may be taken against the cleaners, the IWW made clear to management that our union will mount a campaign to defend any IWW member victimised for attempting to secure wages that they are fully entitled to receive.
However contrary to what the bosses have said and some web-sites unrelated to the IWW, the IWW did not need to call a strike at the Guildhall – instead what arose has been tantamount to a virtual lock out against the cleaners by their employer. Far from the cleaners taking illegal action it has been the employer who repeatedly failed to fulfil their contractual obligation to pay wages properly payable to workers in return for their labour. These workers on the minimum wage are not providing charity.
We will make these views clear on Thursday 28 July when the IWW will be meeting the Managing Director of Ocean Contract Cleaning. The IWW Cleaners Branch will now be taking forward the next steps in a campaign to improve the conditions of the members at the Guildhall. Amongst the key objectives are:
1. Recognition of the IWW. Almost all cleaners at the Guildhall are members in the Industrial Workers of the Work, the independent workers union. Instead of trying to undermine the IWW, as the new contractor Sodexo is seeking to do by holding one-to-one ‘consultations’ with cleaners – the employers need to face the reality the union is here to stay.
2. A Living Wage now. IWW members have decided to campaign for the London Living Wage which is currently set by the GLA at £8.30 p/h. The cleaning contractors see wages as burden on their profits, which for months they have been boosting by no paying the proper wage rates. For workers the wage rate is the price of survival, with a rising cost of living and worsening recession the current £5.93 p/h is worse than poverty pay.
The Guildhall can claim it is not responsible for the cleaners – it is up to the sub-contractor Ocean and from 1 September the new contractor Sodexo. However as the saying goes – ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. It is the Guildhall who decided to contract out their cleaning; it is the Guildhall who sets the terms of the tender. The Guildhall could bring the contract in house and put cleaners on the same conditions as other staff, it could only give contracts to those who pay a living wage and recognise trade unions. Whether the Guildhall employs it cleaners directly or through a sub-contractor the IWW demands justice for cleaner now!
Cleaners Know Your Rights
The IWW will be hosting a briefing for cleaners who work at the Guildhall after your shift end at 08:00, the date and venue to be announced. The IWW has arranged for an Employment Rights Solicitor who will provide an outline of your rights as a worker, covering your contract of employment, wages, holidays and rest breaks, discipline and grievance, redundancy and much more. Spanish and French language translation will be provided.
English Language Classes
Employers have been using workers knowledge of the English language as a means to exploit and abuse them. Whilst the IWW is arranging for literature in Spanish and French to assist members we are also arranging for free English language classes for IWW members to be held in the near future.