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John Lewis cleaners celebrate victory

Alex Wood writes that the success of the IWW's campaign shows that even small numbers of workers, when acting collectively, can win

August 16, 2012
4 min read


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


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Photo: Dan Lockton/Flickr

Cleaners at the John Lewis on Oxford Street have successfully stopped the proposed cuts to their jobs and hours and the accompanying fourfold intensification of their workload. Not only this, but they also won a 10 per cent pay rise, back-dated to March this year. The cleaners’ success follows a high-profile campaign including strikes, flying-pickets, demonstrations and even an invasion of the store. The campaign started in May when the cleaners joined the IWW Cleaners Branch (recently relaunched as the IWGB) after being informed by John Lewis’ cleaning contractor ICM that they faced 50 per cent job losses accompanied by a 50 per cent cut in hours for those that weren’t sacked – meaning a fourfold increase in the workload for half the pay!

The campaign kicked of with a mass leafleting of the store on 22 July which was followed by a large demonstration on the busy pavement outside the store. With the union’s gigantic red flags, air horns and whistles it was impossible to ignore the over hundred boisterous supporters mobilised by the union – they could be heard on the top floor of the store. This demonstration forced ICM to begin negotiations with the cleaners but talks collapsed following ICM’s refusal to stop the cuts or recognise the union. The cleaners balloted for strike action, gaining a turnout of 80 per cent with 90 per cent voting in favour.

Friday 13th of July proved unlucky for John Lewis as the first strike in its history commenced at 5.30 that morning. ICM brought in scabs from Peter Jones (also owned by John Lewis), so with the picket line swelling a flying-picket was sent to Peter Jones to try and dissuade cleaners at this store from crossing the picketing line at Oxford Street while putting more pressure on John Lewis by spreading the message to staff and customers at this additional store. The manger of Peter Jones responded by calling the police, but was disappointed to find out that, even in Kensington and Chelsea, it isn’t illegal to hand out flyers. At 1.30pm the demonstration turned into a store invasion as flags, air horns and drums were taken into the store and speeches given on the shop floor by union activists. This historic action was followed the very next day by another mass demonstration – this time with police protecting the entrance to the store.

The audacity and power of these actions forced John Lewis and ICM back to negotiating table but once more they refused to make any real concessions (beyond a few gift vouchers). The cleaners response was to strike again on 20 July and this time a flying-picket was sent to John Lewis’ HQ. The next strike was planned for the following Thursday – the same day as the Olympic Torch was due to pass by the store, having already gained press coverage in the Independent and Guardian John Lewis finally forced ICM to enter into real negotiations. With the cleaners’ victory assured, the strike was called off.

The success of the IWW’s campaign shows that even small numbers of workers, when acting collectively, can win. The cleaners succeeded for several reasons. Firstly, they were not afraid to use direct action tactics such as strikes and workplace invasions and occupations. Secondly, they were creative and visually, audibly and spatially multiplied the impact of their demonstrations. Thirdly, they made good use of the internet (the IWW Cleaners’ Branch has a thousand facebook friends and additionally could draw upon the IWW’s large email list of labour activists which ensured a large turnout at demonstrations and pickets even when only publicised a few days beforehand.) Finally, they strategically seized opportunities: they used John Lewis’ ethical public image and the approaching Olympics to ramp up the pressure.

The cleaners of John Lewis have shown how strikes can be won, wider labour and activist movements can learn from their success.

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


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