There is power in a union

A fast-growing grassroots union is shaking up the way trade unions organise among the lowest paid and most marginalised workers. Shiri Shalmy reports

January 14, 2019 · 19 min read
Photo: Gordon Roland Peden

Early morning on 7 August 2018, and more than a hundred people have gathered on the pavement in front of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) building in Westminster. In a few minutes, thousands of civil servants will file into the building and make their way through tight security towards their desks, where they will be working to implement British law under the instruction of the Lord Chancellor and justice secretary, the Rt Hon David Gauke MP. As on any other day, the office workers expect that by the time they sit down to work, the floors will have been mopped, the bins emptied and the toilets refreshed by an army of overnight cleaners. But not that morning.

On the street outside, some of the ministry’s lowest paid and most marginalised workers are getting ready for the first of three strike days. They have had enough of being invisible. They demand to be seen and listened to, in daylight, in public.

The MoJ cleaners, all migrant workers, are members of the trade union United Voices of the World (UVW), an autonomous, campaigning union representing some of the most precarious and marginalised workers in the UK. They joined UVW the previous year, many of them becoming trade union members for the first time in their lives. For months, they built up confidence, recruited colleagues and planned their action, with support from a small team of union organisers and activists. This was their big day.

The working poor

The MoJ workers, like many other UVW members before them, were demanding to be paid the London Living Wage, the minimum hourly wage that is required to survive in the capital, currently standing at £10.55 per hour. Calculated annually by the Resolution Foundation, the principle behind the London Living Wage is that wages should cover the cost of living a dignified life in London, allowing workers to pay for the basic needs of a family, including secure accommodation, bills and adequate, healthy food, while having enough time to rest, socialise and have a family life. The lowest paid MoJ workers, like many across the capital, earn the national minimum wage, which currently stands at £7.83. The ‘working poor’ are constrained to a life of overwork, overcrowded homes and social exclusion: an undignified life of abject poverty in one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

It is common for people on the minimum wage to work multiple jobs, often across different parts of the city. Not being able to afford the tube, many spend hours on slow buses or even walk to work. As Carlos Roberto, who has worked at the MoJ for the past nine years, says: ‘We are working two jobs just to survive. I don’t have time for anything else. My time is used exclusively for work, every day.’ Another worker, Sidney, says he can’t afford travel within zone one and has to run for part of his journey to work and back every day.

In January 2018 the MoJ re‑tendered its facilities management and front of house services, which had previously been outsourced to a number of subcontractors. The cleaners’ contract, as well as five other services, including security and reception, was awarded to OCS, an external contractor that became the cleaners’ new employer through a Tupe process, which is supposed to ensure a continuation of pay and conditions when moving from one employer to another. OCS, a multinational corporation that made £1 billion in profit in 2018, made a bid that included paying service staff the minimum wage, keeping its lowest-paid employees in poverty. Unlike other government departments, local authorities and even some commercial companies, the MoJ did not insist that all people working in the ministry are paid the London Living Wage, and accepted the bid.

UVW submitted a formal claim on behalf of the cleaners, who, apart from demanding to be paid a living wage, also asked for equality of annual leave entitlement and sick pay with direct employees – under their current contract, they simply cannot afford to be ill.

OCS and the ministry responded with a deafening silence, leaving the workers with no other choice but to take industrial action.

Fatima Djalo, who has been cleaning the MoJ headquarters for over ten years, says: ‘Our wages have only increased by £1 since 2009. We’ve never had a union here before. UVW is the first union we had. I hope the strike will help us to win a pay rise and dignified working conditions. Everybody deserves a dignified life.’

Bigger impact

At the same time the MoJ workers were preparing to strike, another group of UVW members, outsourced cleaners at London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – all migrants and barely surviving on the minimum wage – started to organise their own action. The similarities between the two groups were obvious and it became clear that by striking together they would have a bigger impact.

‘I work 11 hours every day to earn a bit more because what they pay isn’t enough,’ says Mirna Yirabel Holguin Lara, who works as a cleaner at Kensington Town Hall. ‘We hope to win this strike and that the bosses see that we deserve a dignified salary.’

Both groups of cleaners found out about UVW through fellow Latin American workers, who told them about a small trade union where they would be able to speak Spanish and where people just like themselves – low paid, migrant, precarious and, mostly, women – have organised and won campaigns in the most unlikely places. They heard about cleaners at Ferrari and Bank of America who secured the London Living Wage in 2017; about Harrods restaurant staff who gained back the tips that their employer, the Qatari royal family, the richest people in the world, had been stealing from them; and about the London School of Economics cleaners, who, after a short campaign of intense direct action, forced the university to bring them in‑house and match their terms and conditions to those of academic staff.

They also learned that at UVW they will be listened to and taken seriously. That they will not be just members – they will be organisers. That they will plan their own campaigns, develop strategies, negotiate with their employers and lead mass direct actions. That they will reclaim their power and regain that most important quality – their dignity.

Loud and confident

The three-day strike was loud, disruptive and confident. In true UVW tradition, each day involved music, shared food, dancing and a homemade pig piñata. Entrances to office buildings were blocked and thousands of leaflets explaining the purpose of the strike were handed out to civil servants on both sites. On the second morning of the strike, Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad joined cleaners for a salsa dance outside the town hall. And most significantly, the strike involved direct action and featured not one, but two, occupations.

On the first evening of the strike, UVW members and activists barged into a council meeting at Kensington Town Hall and, while councillor Quentin Marshall, the chair of the meeting, hid away, another senior leadership member, Catherine Faulks, agreed under pressure to arrange a meeting with the cleaners the following day. Early morning on 8 August, after months of deflecting any responsibility for their outsourced workers, the Kensington and Chelsea leadership, including chief executive Barry Quirk, were forced to negotiate with cleaners on the picket line.

This was followed, a few weeks after, by a formal meeting with the council leader, Elizabeth Campbell, in which the council conceded to the cleaners’ demands and committed to pay them – and all other outsourced staff – the London Living Wage from January 2019. It was clear that the swift victory was the direct result of direct action.

As soon as the picket line meeting in Kensington was over, UVW members and activists moved back to the MoJ, where they staged the second occupation of the strike. The ministry lobby was filled with people, banners, music and dancing; traffic through the high-security ‘pods’ was disrupted and again, and the union’s action forced senior management to negotiate with workers on their terms, during an active occupation.

Joining forces

But the most significant achievement of that action was yet to come. As activists occupied the lobby, MoJ security officers and receptionists watched with interest. They heard conversations between cleaners, listened to the speeches and saw the huge level of support the strike was receiving from other workers, activists, politicians and the media. They realised that their pay, which at £9 was slightly higher than the cleaners’, was still well below the London Living Wage – and they were getting angry.

According to Cristina Albores Miguez, who works on the reception desk, ‘I saw the cleaners protesting and I thought we, the security team, are also being treated unfairly. I thought: we have to do something about it.’

The day after the strike, Cristina joined UVW and was followed, within days, by the entire security team. These new members, who have been silenced and ignored for so many years, were politicised through watching their colleagues take action. They found their courage by realising they could join forces and shut down a whole government department. And they will.

On 1 November, UVW started the process of balloting the MoJ security team, and despite OCS’s attempts to divide, placate and intimidate members, a yes vote was expected for an indefinite strike as Red Pepper went to press, with action due to start in early December. This time, UVW members hope to be joined by PCS members at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), who are also balloting to strike for the London Living Wage.

Cristina is confident about the impact of winning the campaign at the MoJ. ‘A victory will bring self-respect, motivation and big changes to people’s lives, especially financially, but not only – it will allow us to live life with more dignity and to believe in ourselves. We don’t need to be silent any more. I feel empowered and more confident to fight for our rights. It feels great being a member of UVW.’

How to win

So how did a tiny trade union, which started with only a handful of members in 2014, achieve such significant victories and build such confidence in the most marginalised, victimised and silenced workers? In people who, socially and politically, were never asked for their views, never mind given the opportunity to lead mass campaigns. How did a group of Jamaican grandmothers force the LSE to bring 300 workers in-house, and how did Susana and Carolina, two Ecuadorian mums working on the minimum wage, manage to fight the mighty Topshop in court – and win?

The answer lies in the organising principles that have informed United Voices of the World since the start: a collective and horizontal decision-making process, direct action, and creating ongoing opportunities for solidarity, socialising and political engagement.

UVW members are some of the most precarious, vulnerable and exploited workers. Many are migrant service workers living in poverty, while others – for example, a new group of activist sex workers – are stigmatised and marginalised. They often contact the union as a last resort, while facing harassment or discrimination and, often, just before or after losing their job.

Susana Benavides, who was victimised at Topshop for trade union activity and recently won a significant and lengthy court case against her previous employer, says, ‘When I complained about the working conditions at Topshop, the bullying started. My manager called me “a donkey”, increased my workload and ignored my breaks, overlooked my health problems and, eventually, physically attacked me. I tried to get help but couldn’t speak English. I was depressed and desperate. I feel that as a migrant woman I suffer twice. The language barrier seems an opportunity for bosses to exploit us through bad contracts. They use our disadvantage against us.’

Workers often arrive at the union office feeling isolated and scared, hoping that a trained caseworker will fix an urgent personal problem. At UVW they discover that what they considered to be a personal grievance is rarely that. Issues around pay and conditions are usually felt widely and deeply throughout the workforce; they are collective concerns that can only be tackled through a collective struggle. The first member is then empowered to become an organiser, encouraging others to join the union and open a collective front against their bosses, with legal and organisational support from the union.

As Sidney Spencer, a security officer at the MoJ, says, ‘I feel like finally somebody listens to us and fights with us. This is something I never felt before in all the time I lived in this country.’

The real action

While much of UVW’s work takes place through the legal processes of scrutinising contracts, writing letters, consulting lawyers and pursuing court actions, the real action takes place on the streets.

Ignoring traditional trade union assumptions about workplace density and often about official union recognition, UVW encourages workers to take direct action, including demonstrations, strikes and occupations, to win their campaigns. This strategy, often deemed ‘militant’ or ‘radical’ by the national, TUC-affiliated trade unions, has proved remarkably effective, with disputes being resolved within weeks or months where bigger unions have struggled for years. Sometimes, as at the Daily Mail in early 2018, UVW activists don’t even have to take to the streets to win a campaign – the threat of direct action can be enough to convince employers to immediately meet the workers’ demands.

Since it was formed by a small group of trade unionists and activists in early 2014, United Voices of the World has maintained a democratic, participatory and flexible structure, where campaigns are led by workers and bureaucracy is kept to a minimum. The guiding principle is to ensure the widest possible access to decision-making and to empower those who are most affected to take the necessary steps to fight exploitation.

The UVW organising committee, made up of paid staff (currently eight people, most of them working part-time), members and activists, has always been open to anyone. ‘Professional’ trade unionists, newly-signed members working across different industries and people from the wider autonomous left and labour movement have an equal role in developing and shaping the union strategy, hiring staff, planning activities and deciding internal policies. Members are encouraged to join the committee and any of the union’s working groups.

At the March 2018 AGM, members took the revolutionary decision to take this a step further and delete all official titles. UVW is the only British trade union that does not have a general secretary. In general meetings, all members have an equal say and more localised decisions are made either through the organising committee or through autonomous working groups.

Workplace groups organise around specific campaigns, where workers collectively agree their demands and tactics, as well as how to use resources and strike funds. The sex workers group, for example, meets regularly at a safe space to discuss workplace issues but also collectively develops sector-specific campaign materials and organise relevant workers’ education and social events.

Political ideas are hardly ever discussed in abstract terms – they are interrogated and re-evaluated as practical concerns, rather than philosophical questions. The unwritten but fiercely tangible rule is that workers – and more generally the working class – have the collective intellectual capacity to identify and articulate our oppressions and have the agency and skill to act on them, on our own terms.

Issues around authority and privilege are also actively brought to the surface as practical concerns and the organising committee, the activist community around the union and members regularly reflect on the distribution of power, consensus and participation.

Mutual aid

All this was made possible because of a wider organisational culture that has always been an important part of the union. UVW members consider themselves part of a community based on solidarity and mutual aid, rather than individual workers or separate campaign groups. Gia Jones, who joined UVW after she was sacked with no warning from a London strip club, says, ‘It has been great to join up with other precarious workers and being able to understand and talk about our struggles. The union has opened up a new world to many dancers, including myself, and given us support that we otherwise didn’t think possible. I found it especially helpful when I was caught up in an immigration raid at a strip club in Glasgow and other members were quick to help. Within a day we were able to circulate advice to other dancers about what to do in a police raid.’

Everyone is seen as an activist and UVW members regularly turn up to actions at other workplaces, often years after their own dispute has been resolved. In summer 2018, a group of strippers organised a fundraiser party for the striking MoJ and Kensington and Chelsea cleaners. Contributing their skills as dancers and party organisers, the group raised over £2,000 towards the strike fund, which was equally distributed between the cleaners. Sonia, one of the strippers, says, ‘I helped organise the cleaners’ fundraiser party and performed a dance because I wanted to support other workers who struggle a lot in their own industry, as we struggle in ours. I also wanted to break the stereotype that strippers are all about money, by talking to people at the party about how sex workers are also workers and part of the union.’

This sense of solidarity and collective care is actively encouraged through creating opportunities for social interaction – open campaign meetings, a programme of public events, English lessons and regular parties – where current and new members, as well as supporters and activists, can meet to share experience and exchange ideas.

Sidney from the MoJ says, ‘Being a member of UVW makes me feel at home – that everything we do, we do together. In the future, after we win the campaign at the MoJ, I want to stay deeply involved in this union and fight for the people who don’t have an opportunity to speak and to apply for their rights.’

Externally, UVW operates as part of a growing ecosystem of groups and organisations on the wider autonomous left. Comrades from other independent unions, such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), organisers from the London Renters Union, Women’s Strike and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), the various Justice4Cleaners groups in universities and activists from groups such as Class War, as well as a large number of more loosely affiliated activists, regularly turn up to actions. Their explicit politics and practices might not always be exactly the same as UVW’s but there is a general understanding about a shared cause and the union can count on a large number of committed activists to support its actions, as it would support theirs.

Apart from being able to secure large numbers of people to join actions, this also sometimes informs the kinds of actions that can be taken – the privileges afforded to those who speak English, present as white and have secure immigration status mean that they are less likely to suffer police violence and, in the case they do, that they face lesser risks.

UVW’s organisational principles and direct action tactics prove again and again that a confident workforce can win victories against the most stubborn, exploitative bosses. This is grassroots organising, backed by a strong conviction that workers are best placed to analyse their conditions, develop the politics and strategy to improve them, and act on their decisions. In the current political climate, after years of diminishing collective power for workers and communities, and with many of the large trade unions acting like little more than insurance companies, this is considered radical.

Visit the UVW website and support the strike fund.

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