Bravery and creativity in the crisis

Submitted by Matthew on 28 November, 2012 - 8:46

Cleaning workers in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) at John Lewis stores in London recently won an important victory when their threat of industrial action secured an immediate and backdated 9% pay increase. An IWW organiser spoke to Solidarity about their recent campaigns amongst cleaning workers. This article is abridged from a much longer interview, available online here.


As well as the John Lewis campaign, the IWW’s main priority campaign in London involves cleaners at BMA House, the headquarters of the British Medical Association.

The cleaners here are employed by a subcontractor called Interserve, a major multinational, and being paid minimum wage which is now £6.19 p/h. Their campaign is to win a Living Wage.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media and political circles, as Boris Johnson recently announced the new “London Living Wage” rate of £8.55 p/h (£7.45 outside of London) at the Living Wage awards hosted by London Citizens and KPMG. In the same week it was announced that around five million workers (one in five) are not earning the “bare minimum necessary to live on” — i.e. the Living Wage.

BMA House cleaners have met with Interserve management and requested a meeting with BMA management (which was turned down), and have been holding awareness-raising demonstrations outside the BMA every week. There’s been a great reaction to this, including fantastic support from the GMB union who organise BMA employees, as well as from members of the BMA Council.

When it comes to organising, the key is often to find demands that are specific, practical, and winnable enough to campaign around, whilst also mobilising around perhaps vaguer but maybe more deeply-felt ideas of dignity and equality.

Cleaners’ struggles are about turning capitalist logic on its head. The economy is fucked, we’re in recession, we’re all in it together, figures are down this year — blah blah. But the vast majority know that’s nonsense from a working-class perspective. The directors’ massive pay rises (39% in recent years in some cases!), the increasing gap between rich and poor, the tax avoidance, are all well-known. So for example, at Interserve, the top dog’s pay has increased 11% this year, up to £900,000, and then they’re saying it’s a tough time, we’re all in it together.

The bravery and creativity of our campaigns are important lessons that can be generalised. Bravery is necessary both on the part of organisers and rank-and-file members (a blurred distinction in the IWW). Organisers need to be much braver in terms of how they approach workers.

Proposing direct action isn’t something to be done hesitantly. How do you expect workers to be brave and take what is genuinely risky action if you look scared of it yourself?

But it is something to propose. Too often we, organisers, activists, the left, treat workers with kid gloves. We propose all sort of ineffective options mostly on the basis that “the workers aren’t up for it” or “everyone is scared”, or even “we aren’t sure we can win”. But I think half the time, when people don’t seem up for it, it’s because they aren’t stupid and they aren’t up for that ineffective action we’re proposing. Propose the truth. If it’ll take a 6-month strike to win, say so. People won’t do half measures but if they think you’re up front and proposing the action it’ll really take to win, they sometimes go for it.

Creativity is important too. Make actions fun, make them communal. Language exchanges, informal education classes, dances… we need to bring back the “union way of life”. And stop sounding like the bosses! It’s a fine balance to be struck I think between inspiring confidence by appearing professional, knowledgeable, and of course genuinely knowing what you’re doing and not getting caught out by regulations, but also really speaking in an accessible way and not mystifying things. Workers need to understand their union and their struggle, or else how can they lead it? Don’t patronise, do educate, but don’t become “like the enemy”.

There are challenges presented by the “invisibility” of cleaners within the wider working class.

Cleaners often have a different employer than the rest of the workers in their workplace or sector, and are often literally “invisible” to their colleagues as they work very early or very late shifts so are not seen or interacted with by other workers.

There are plenty of immigration issues too, including employers directly colluding with the UK Border Agencies to use deportations, or the threat of them, as a tool against organising.

Building industrial strength in an industry based on contracting and subcontracting has been about targeting clients rather than the contractors. Often, the cleaning companies care more about working for that client than the client cares about subcontracting to a particular cleaning company. So putting pressure on the client can put the cleaning company’s contract in jeopardy. We’ve seen some of that client-focused pressure work at John Lewis.

Above all, it’s back to good old creative direct action. Retailers are obviously very susceptible to demonstrations and blockades — any action that impacts sales. But others, like offices and banks, maybe need different actions, like phone/email blockades or other kinds of economic sabotage. Or maybe it’s their own clients and subsidiaries and investors that are the weak points. Whatever it is, find it. Occupations are a big step up, but very effective if you have the strength.

The analogy with the “New Unionism” struggles of the 1880s and 90s has real merits, maybe more than most folks are realising.

The obvious practical lesson is that we need a straightforward, direct-action-focused industrial unionism, which speaks to the experience, levels of education, and languages of our people. Also it’s important that this be based in the normal daily lives and cultures of our people, rebuilding a union way of life. Maybe that’s the overriding lesson of the “New Unionism” and later industrial syndicalist movements of that time.

But I think there’s another side to the New Unionism and the Great Unrest which is often overlooked. Looking back at it, that movement often appears to us as being quite rough-and-ready, and based on a raw militancy and direct-action spirit. But the movement was also intensely modern, futuristic even. Organisations like the IWW, the original Industrial Workers of Great Britain, the Independent Syndicalist Education League, and others, were really breaking with lots of what the left and union movement held to be obvious, and it was controversial.

Right now, I think even — maybe even especially — the radical left are far too conservative, stuck in ideas and traditions that we take for granted without questioning.

• Future issues of Solidarity will feature further interviews with cleaning worker activists and organisers, including members of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain.

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