Organising the ‘unorganisable’

A cleaners’ campaign flies in the face of traditional impressions of trade unionism, writes Lydia Hughes

May 14, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by Gordon Roland Peden

In 2017, cleaners at the London School of Economics, organised by the United Voices of the World union (UVW), won a 10-month campaign to be employed directly by the university again. This represented a huge improvement in their terms and conditions of work, setting off a domino effect across London of universities ending outsourcing.

I was one of the students helping with the cleaners’ campaign, and we could not help but feel we had witnessed something special. As student activists on the left in London we rarely associated with trade unions, nor was workers’ power then central to our ideas of social change. Trade unions were sometimes seen as something negative, dominated by plump old men living off the dues of members.

The campaign led by the cleaners at LSE flew in the face of this. It was ‘unorganisable’ workers getting organised and waging a ferocious battle against their employer with a young, militant union. The cleaners had power, something we are unused to on the left, and it felt amazing. They were precarious workers in all meanings of the word. The contractor, Noonan, acted with near impunity, firing people at will. Yet the question we were asking was not: how did they organise despite all this? It was clear that there was nothing that would stop them organising; they expressed no fear. The question was: why before now had every trade union they approached ignored them?

Challenging union complacency

I looked to the history of the trade union movement, trying to make sense of it. Why did the trade unions work for some and not others? This is how I came across the night cleaners’ campaign in the 1970s. The campaign foregrounded the struggles of working-class women and aimed to ‘challenge trade union complacency about women’s subordination’. I then met Sheila Rowbotham, one of the key organisers of the campaign, and we found our experiences matched, even down to small details – although, admittedly, when we were organising at LSE we never rode around on motorbikes hoping to speak to cleaners in the early hours of the morning.

The night cleaners’ campaign was started by the formidable May Hobbs, herself a night cleaner, who got in touch with members of the women’s liberation movement to help her flyer other cleaners. The film The Nightcleaners, which has recently been re-released, follows Hobbs and the organising with the Cleaners’ Action Group. It documents the cramped meetings in Sheila Rowbotham’s bedroom between feminists and cleaners.

May Hobbs’ story is mirrored by those of the women who led the strike at LSE. They too were constantly in struggle, operating as one-woman unions while attempting to find an official union to support their struggles. Again, they were met with apathy, not from their colleagues, but from union organisers. May Hobbs even took to calling her union organiser at home and complaining to his wife about his inactivity.

She writes in her autobiography, ‘So we decided to join the union, but this time we were not going to put up with the male trade union officers of the TGWU just doing a little bit for us when it suited them.’ In The Nightcleaners, she can be heard arguing with union organisers who make endless excuses as to why night cleaners cannot be organised. Similar conversations happened for years at the LSE. One cleaner said, ‘I went and joined Unite and I keep going and took my views to Unite, to their headquarters. But it was like, I am not getting anything out of it.’

Isolated and tedious

The film also documents the isolated and tedious nature of cleaning work, and the terrible terms and conditions they received. Little has changed in the conditions of work. Sexual harassment is rife, wages go unpaid, and abuse and bullying is an expected feature of the work. The contractors have gone, for the most part, unchallenged by strong unions. Without this opposition they have maintained Dickensian conditions to enable huge profit margins. In the film, one night cleaner explains the conditions ‘are more like slavery’. In 2017, an LSE cleaner echoed this sentiment: ‘We are in slavery. The only thing they have not done to us is shackle us and tell us and whip us. But by words we are whipping, by tools we use we are whipping.’

While the night cleaners previously were mostly white women, the cleaning sector today in central London is largely populated by migrant workers, with many Latin Americans. They often face a double exclusion, due to their gender and status as migrants, as well as finding it hard to access a union that can speak their own language.

Their battle for inclusion within the trade union movement this time around has led the creation of a new wave of small radical unions, predominantly represented by United Voices of the World (UVW), the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union (CAIWU). This movement is a marriage of those who have left the big unions after bad experiences and those who had been deemed ‘unorganisable’ by them. Instead of battling for recognition from the big unions, as the 1970s night cleaners did, disenfranchised communities have this time created their own – unions that operate in their language, support them through complex case work, and, most importantly, are willing to fight.

In this new union movement a new attitude to workplace organising can be found, one based on action, militancy and unconditional support. And it works: this movement has seen huge wins across the cleaning sector. Companies that were so used to going unchallenged are now pulling out of universities across London. The tide is turning against outsourcing, and worker power has made it happen. As the women’s liberation movement came to the importance of building working class solidarity, especially in marginalised communities, our movement must also do the same. In the words of May Hobbs, ‘I say to all of you, get out and fight now.’

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