Cleaners on the underground see the worst side of factors affecting workers across Britain at the moment – poverty wages made possible by privatisation and subcontracting; victimisation due to racist immigration laws; sexual harassment due to insecure immigration status; and the undervaluing of their work partly because it has traditionally been seen as women’s (and therefore less important) work.
The cleaners’ struggle
This is why their dispute is crucial not only for cleaners on the underground, but for workers everywhere. It is also why Feminist Fightback were inspired to offer their solidarity to RMT cleaners on the underground to demand some of their basic rights at work:
A London Living Wage
28 days’ annual leave
An end to third party sackings
Free travel to work
At our steering meeting in June, Feminist Fightback heard from Clara Osagiede, RMT Cleaners’ Grade Secretary. She highlighted how the exploitation of cleaners on the underground has very gendered elements: women without secure immigration status are often sexually assaulted by their managers. If they take a stand, they are subjected to disciplinaries and sacked.
RMT Cleaners took the courageous decision to take three days of strike in July, with massive support of 99% in the ballot for strike action.
[callout title=Our actions] Feminist Fightback’s solidarity actions aimed to add to the disruption caused by the tube cleaners’ action – and to use direct action as a way of achieving our goals.
On the first day of strike action, we invaded London Underground HQ and started ‘cleaning’ the lobby, chanting the strikers’ demands. When challenged by the Head of HR, we continued chanting but started cleaning his shoes instead! [link to press release and photos]
During the next strike action, we co-ordinated milkshake spillages at key stations, shutting down at least one of the escalators at Tottenham Court Road at rush hour. We then made our way to London Underground HQ, to bring the rubbish to their doorstep. The action received a lot of support from commuters at St James’ station and added to the press coverage the strike action received that day .[/callout]
In a rally called by the Labour Representation Committee, we proposed a demonstration at City Hall during Mayor’s Question time when we knew a question about the strike had been tabled. The demo had a strong RMT presence and received great support. Its impact was increased by Feminist Fightback activists who entered the assembly and disrupted Mayor’s Questions. They unfurled a banner ‘suspending the Mayor from work’ just as several union activists had been, and chanted the demands of the strike before they were removed from the hall. This put the question right at the top of the agenda and brought forward the Mayor’s announcement that a living wage would be granted to Metronet cleaners.
Inspiring wider solidarity
This model of solidarity direct actions spread further as the dispute continued. A solidarity meeting of Brent Trades Council led to 40 people entering the depot to ensure that a rep facing a disciplinary was able to have his union rep with him.
On the day of the suspended strike action in August, groups including Campaign Against Immigration Controls, London Coalition Against Poverty and Feminist Fightback got together to picket cleaning contractors GBM and ISS. Over 30 people chanted “GBM hear us say! No deporting from today!” Activists entered ISS offices and challenged managers about their victimisation of union activists before they were thrown out. Later that day, with impressive solidarity from RMT members in the area, activists temporarily stopped the Bakerloo line to demand the reinstatement of the rep at Stonebridge.
Although the strike action in August was suspended, Tubelines who control three of the London Underground lines have yet to concede to the cleaners’ demands for a living wage, and the union has not ruled out further strike action.
The use of racist immigration laws to attack union activists continues. The rep at Stonebridge depot is still suspended and other activists have been deported.
Feminist Fightback will continue to offer its solidarity to cleaners on the underground.
The Mayor, TfL, Metronet, Tubelines, ISS and GBM are all responsible
The Mayor is chair of the board of TfL. Metronet and Tubelines run the tube lines that TfL is responsible for. ISS, GBM and other companies are contracted to provide cleaning services. With this many bosses involved, they’re getting used to passing the buck.
To stop this we need to keep up the pressure at all levels. If we can get the Mayor and TfL to take responsibility for the cleaners doing their dirty work, then we are one step closer to the long-term goal of bringing the cleaners back in house.
In the meantime, we can’t let Tubelines shirk its responsibility for granting its cleaners the living wage, nor let ISS and GBM get away with victimising cleaners with insecure immigration status.