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
16 August 2012

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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Pat 16 August 2012, 18.30

Good to see an IWW victory here at home. Once we work together we can do anything.

Chris 16 August 2012, 20.34

The cleaner campaign at John Lewis has been used as a springboard to relaunch the union organisation as the IWGB, the old industrial union which played a major role in the legendary red clydeside era. Here is the official press release:

Building on its recent successes in a series of disputes with employers the IWW London Regional Committee has in conjunction with a range of other members of the labour movement taken the decision to re-launch as the Industrial Workers of the Great Britain. The IWGB was originally founded in January 1909 with the aim of creating a new force in the British labour movement the re-launched IWGB adheres to the same goals advanced then – ‘the immediate object of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain is to build up a militant Industrial Union’.
The IWGB sets as a goal organising the unorganised with its militant organising drive a springboard for future expansion.
The IWGB recognises we live in tough times – austerity policies are reducing our standard of living. Everywhere employers are seeking to maximise their profits by job cuts, making people work harder, longer and paying them as little as possible. But there is an alternative. Our union stands on the principle to get workplace justice. Solidarity wins!

IWGB is an independent union. We are a voluntary association of workers fighting only for the interests of workers. We are not in ‘partnership’ with bosses, held back by bureaucrats or pleasing establishment politicians.


Such is the scale of the problems we face today we cannot afford to address them separately – piecemeal solutions are not enough because these problems are a product of the system we live under. This dog eat dog system cannot work in the interests of the majority. Industrial unionism links the struggles of today with the need for a new society fit for human beings. This ideal has nothing in common with the totalitarian ‘communism’ proclaimed in Russia and China! Or even the old Labour Party model of state-ownership. We want more freedom and democracy not dominated by party bosses and state bureaucrats. We seek a co-operative, sustainable society that puts a decent life for people before profits, for democratic self-management and social ownership, instead of control of our lives by corporations and their politicians.
Despite the many problems working class people face, the potential to change things for the better is within our reach, but we can only do it if we organise together. Join the fighting union for the 21st century.

Tim 17 August 2012, 09.56

Congratulations to the cleaners – a great IWW victory as Pat says.

It’s a shame this news is tarnished a little by this shamefully sectarian ‘IWGB’ split from the IWW. That’s no good for the IWW or for industrial unionism in general. Solidarity comes first and egotistical posturing of this sort does not help.

Incidentally I understand that the ‘London Regional Committee’ was a next to non-existent unofficial body with one member. Other London IWW members were not involved in it and organised purely within their own branches.

IWW-UK Communications 17 August 2012, 10.38

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT regarding recent developments surrounding the IWW Cleaners’ Branch
Posted 17 Aug 2012 by astrenoir


It has become clear from statements put out by Alberto Durango and Chris Ford that they intend to create a break away organisation from the IWW. This is not only in breach of our constitutional rules and principle, not least the core Industrial Unionist principle of the One Big Union, but places the workers who leave in a very vulnerable position as they will no longer be afforded the protection which members of the IWW benefit from.

The IWW has committed much time and effort in supporting the cleaners in their struggles, with Fellow Workers from all branches becoming actively involved. The union as a whole has invested a great deal to ensure the success of their campaigns. In light of this unconstitutional break away and formal complaints of alleged irregular, undemocratic and unconstitutional running of the IWW London Regional Committee and IWW Cleaners’ Branch lodged against Chris Ford and Alberto Durango, The Britain and Ireland Regional Administration of the IWW feels that there is no alternative but to suspend Chris Ford and Alberto Durango from their positions within the Union with immediate effect pending further investigation.

The decision about how we as a union approach this however, must be taken by the union as a whole. With this in mind, we will release a further statement announcing the decisions taken at the BIRA Annual Conference to be held (24/25th of august), hosted by Sheffield General Members Branch.

IWW Britain and Ireland Regional Administration

Chris 17 August 2012, 14.47

The IWW London Regional Committee consisted of delegates from the old IWW Cleaners Branch, London Busworkers Branch, Transport for London group and the Central-London General Members Branch. A mass a all members meeting by democratic vote decided to move forwards with a new organisational initiative having outgrown the activist network that is the old IWW in favour of a new industrial union with others. How bizarre to attack the leaders of a victorious strike in such a way – first in the history of the IWW in Britain.

Tim 17 August 2012, 15.39

AFAIK the busworkers for one weren’t involved in this move. The ‘Central London General Members Branch’ doesn’t even exist. Which casts doubt on the rest of that comment.

There is a London General Members Branch – but that has nothing whatsoever to do with the ‘London Regional Committee’ and has never gone near the LRC, which is a kind of figment of the imagination these days.

How bizarre is that?

Chris 18 August 2012, 20.03

Bizarre if it were true, but the above strike was not organised by an imaginary organisation, the drivers from Metroline, London United, Go Ahead and Stagecoach are very real. The employers we have been engaging with over the last year are real and we are not a creation of their imagination.

It is a pity but keeping tradition that the Red Pepper blog continues to display evidence of the fact people on the left seem to want to hate each other than capitalism. Only wish they would put more energy into that struggle.

Tim 20 August 2012, 18.43

You miss the point. The strike was a strike by the IWW cleaners branch which has of course had a very solid existence for a while. I was referring to the London Regional Committee – well known as a near-imaginary one-person ‘umbrella’ organisation. You being that person of course.

Could you please explain how this split off from the IWW furthers the class struggle?

admin 21 August 2012, 17.51

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Comments are now closed on this article.

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