Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A New Dawn? John Lewis cleaners’ strike

Alex Wood argues this morning's picket lines could mark a new era of labour organising

July 13, 2012
5 min read


Alex WoodAlex Wood is a sociologist of work and employment @tom_swing


  share     tweet  

Today cleaners at John Lewis’ flagship Oxford St. store have downed their mops and formed picket lines outside. This is the first time in its 148 year history that a strike has taken place at the store.

In 1920, upon taking over the shop from his father, John Spedan Lewis reconstituted the store as an employee owned partnership. Spedan had been horrified by his fathers exploitative employment practices under which employees were paid “hardly more than a bare living.” Spedan believed John Lewis should be operated according to a principle whereby “partnership for all takes the place of exploitative employment”. This ‘John Lewis model’ was hailed as a new dawn in employment relations and Spedan even titled his 1954 book ‘Fair Shares: a possible advance in civilisation and perhaps the only alternative to communism‘. The championing of John Lewis as an ethical employer continues into the modern day: just last week Nick Clegg promoted John Lewis’ social responsibility and announced his hope for plans which would allow employees the ‘right to request’ a stake in the business.

Yet a century and half after being founded upon Spendan’s belief in ‘Partnership For All’ the company now excludes many staff, such as cleaners, from being partners. Despite Spedan’s insistence that “trade unions will still be needed”, John Lewis refuses to recognise independent trade unions and has a reputation for being hostile to unions. Poverty pay is still a reality, not just for cleaners, but for many workers across the partnership – even when last year’s annual bonus of 14 per cent is included. But John Lewis does represent a new dawn, just not the one suggested by the deputy Prime Minister. Rather the new dawn of renewed workplace agitation, organisation and unionisation.

Already excluded from being partners (and the benefits of an annual bonus, discount, pension etc), things for the cleaners got worse earlier this year when John Lewis decided to cut it’s cleaning budget. In order to win the contract the cleaners’ direct employer ICM made an overly competitive bid. In accepting such a low tender John Lewis made job cuts inevitable for the cleaners at their store. John Lewis can not eschew responsibility when it is their actions which are directly to blame for the harmful cuts at their flagship store. ICM informed the cleaners in May that they could expect around half of their jobs to go and those who remained would have their hours cut by 50 per cent. Meaning that the remaining cleaners would have had to increase the intensity of their work by a factor of four, for half the pay!

The cleaners affected had heard of other cleaners who, when facing similar exploitative conditions, joined the IWW. Around 200 cleaners across London have joined the rank-and-file focused union. Cleaners at John Lewis organised a campaign to put pressure on ICM. The first action took place at midday on Friday 22 July with a mass leafleting at the entrances to the flagship store, this was followed the next day by a large and extremely loud demonstration outside which was attended by over a hundred people. The next demonstration was called off in order to allow negotiations to take place in good faith. However, this was not reciprocated by ICM who refused to recognise the union for collective bargaining and rejected outright the union’s demand that they end the practice of poverty wages and start paying the London Living Wage of £8.30. They, therefore, balloted for strike action, gaining a turnout of 80 per cent and 90 per cent voting in favour. Meanwhile, 19 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion of support.

This strike could have a wider impact than simply improving conditions at one store. In 1888 union membership accounted for a measly 5 per cent of the national labour force and not only liberal commentators, but socialists too, were of the opinion that unskilled workers (especially female workers) were too uneducated, powerless and helpless to be organised. They were ignored by the new labour and socialist movements which focused their efforts upon the labour aristocracy made up of male skilled workers in small craft unions. But on the 2 July 1888, 1,400 female low-skilled workers at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow walked out in response to the victimisation of one of their co-workers. The women organised their own publicity and created a strike fund from scratch – two weeks later the company caved in to all of their demands.

Just over a year later this inspired other ‘unorganisable’ workers, when London dockers working on a single ship went on strike, over the non-payment of their bonus. The strike quickly snowballed with 60,000 dockers and 60,000 workers in allied industries joining them on strike. Five weeks later, the owners caved into all of their demands and with this victory the era of mass general unions began.

Like the strikers at Bryant and May the cleaners on the picket line at 5.30 this morning maybe part of a new era of struggle amongst workers previously ignored by the mainstream labour movement.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Alex WoodAlex Wood is a sociologist of work and employment @tom_swing


Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths


62