In recent months cleaners at Guildhall in the city of London, and Senate House, University of London have gone on strike and held protests over unpaid wages, working conditions and victimisation.
At Guildhall the conflict began when cleaners twice walked out over unpaid wages. Having received what was owed to them, they began holding regular protests calling for the London Living Wage (‘LLW’: £8.30) and an end to victimisation. In the middle of the campaign the employer changed from Ocean to Sodexho, a multinational company which runs detention centres and prisons as well as cleaning and catering. As soon as Sodexho took over the cleaning contract they started bullying the cleaners and suspended the union rep, on the grounds of rudeness to a supervisor.
The workers, who have joined the cleaners’ branch of the IWW union, have continued their battle. After winning their unpaid wages, they have had the strength and confidence to fight over other issues important to them. They have demanded an end to corruption and nepotism in the allocation of work, which is widespread in the industry but not usually challenged in public. The workers are well organised and well supported but the company is uncompromising and continues to harass and attempt to intimidate them.
At Senate House, part of the University of London, the cleaners also went on strike over unpaid wages. The strike was unofficial but received support from Unison members at Senate House. After getting their wages and a settlement for a victimised worker, they started holding demonstrations for the London Living Wage and sick pay. They have received support from students in the Bloomsbury Fightback group, as well as from UCU and Unison members from other nearby universities, including SOAS and Birkbeck. At some universities, like London Met, the cleaners have already won the LLW.
The two groups of cleaners have supported each other and gone to each other’s picket lines. These workers, who some had writen off as “unorganisable”, have been militant, brave and prepared to ignore the anti-strike laws. But they need support from other workers, and, most of all, for the struggles to spread. The consistent support they have received from other Senate House, SOAS and Birkbeck staff is important.
An electrician from the dispute in construction (see below) visited a Senate House protest and gave moving messages of solidarity. The employers have shown that they are prepared to be vicious and may get more so; cleaners have been deported following disputes in other workplaces, in raids planned and coordinated with the Home Office. As the austerity attacks get worse, wages in many industries are being pushed down and fighting in the casualised and low paid workplaces becomes the only option. Victories in these disputes give confidence to immigrant and minimum wage workers, and help stop the ‘race to the bottom’ for all workers.