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

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.


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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out


24