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Cleaning up on the tube

London tube cleaners have won crucial pay increases from cleaning companies, with their £5.50 an hour poverty wages being brought up to £7.45.

Cleaners on Metronet contracts were granted the ‘ London living wage’ in July through a wider initiative whilst those working for ISS (contracted by Tubelines) won a staggered pay rise in pre-strike negotiations in August.

With the 48hour RMT strike in June/July and the planned three day strike in August forcing the hand of ISS, the cleaners have demonstrated their strength and gained from it. However, their fight is far from over with the strike committee continuing to meet in pursuit of unmet demands - more holidays, better sick pay, a decent pension and an end to the scandal of ‘third party sackings’.

With more strikes in the pipeline, lessons need to be learned if more gains are to be made. In the first strike T&G/Unite balloted late and didn’t join, making it less effective. The strike could also have been more successful if RMT cleaners had not been told to finish their shifts if they ended after the strike had begun, instead of all walking out together. This left workers isolated and open to pressure from management. A tougher obstacle has been ISS suspending strikers without pay on the grounds that there are irregularities with their NI numbers. Not only are these the same NI numbers they have always used, bringing the timing of the suspensions into question, but non-strikers have merely been asked to provide the documents without being suspended. These are clear cases of victimisation and examples of how immigration controls are used directly by companies seeking to profit from insecure, cheap labour to discipline their workforce and prevent it from improving its lot. Outsourcing and this kind of business practice go hand in hand.

The unions need a strategy for defending their members from this kind of attack. In this instance the RMT were slow to defend their suspended members where they could have got prompt and supportive legal advice and representation from immigration solicitors. The RMT is, however, pursuing a strategy of tackling outsourcing, first by seeking to bring workers’ conditions up to the standard of London Underground staff. They have already won the victory over post-Transfer recruits to Metronet after being brought back in-house.

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