Cleaners get unionised

Submitted by Janine on 20 July, 2005 - 9:29

Across the country, cleaners work in awful conditions. They need the union and the union needs them. On the Tube, RMT has been unionising cleaners. Here, one activist outlines what they have done.

What is the primary trade union principle? Workers of the world unite? An injury to one is an injury to all? The strong must help the weak?

Many unions have built structures on the 'principle' that by organising strong grades, they will defend all other grades.

But the rank and file rarely buy into that philosophy. They join unions for protection and to defend their workmates - the person next to you, not some faceless slab who the union leaders have not organised.

Soon that 'strong organised' grade walks over the picket line of the 'weaker workers' whom their principle says they defend.

We have stopped that situation - in the nick of time. We are preparing for disputes with several cleaning firms.

Cleaners have always been in the RMT. Before the spread of contracting-out through the industry, cleaners were employed by the same bosses as other rail workers. Before 'Company Plan', cleaners were Underground staff. They were, as now, the lowest grade: Railmen. They covered the platforms during the peak, then cleaned the station.

Depot cleaners were slower to be taken over by private companies, because staff need track training. In Northern line depots, which were PFIed before PPP, cleaners are still employees of the depot. The conditions that go with that are now being attacked.

Union membership among cleaners on the old British Rail has also been continuous.

Now, after years of contracting-out, many cleaners are not unionised. They work for low pay, for managers who bully them and risk their safety. The only answer - organise!

On London Underground, the initiative came from Finsbury Park RMT. All Tube cleaners were put in this one branch until they can form a branch of their own.

This does not mean that responsibility for all cleaners falls solely on Finsbury Park branch. It is only the conduit, whereby all branches contribute help and resources.

The branch has called on the help of many RMT activists to help cleaners, who formed a 'Friends of the Cleaners' network.

Last year we won over £50k from Blue Diamond after they sacked four workers in a 'management restructuring'. We found a document from a senior manager stating that 'now they have the Eastern European workers, all we need to do is catch African workers asleep and we can get rid of them'.

Even so, a Tribunal failed to find that our members had suffered racial discrimination! We won ‘unfair dismissal’ claims for three of the four (the other had been there less than a year). Since then, Blue Diamond has lost the contract at Morden depot.

The industry is littered with bad bosses. Very few - if any - staff have any good things to say about their company. One member has been TUPE'd four times in less than two years. That's more times than the Tory party has changed leaders since 1997!

An industry newcomer, Global House, has been throwing its weight around.

GBM is moving its staff without any notice or agreement of those staff.

ISS is restructuring its Supervisors grade. This is seen by members as a prelude to job reduction, loss of pay and grade.

ISS management made a presentation to head office officials. But the staff? ISS just sent a text message and a piece of paper to select one station to work at in future. These staff cover up to ten stations and get cars and mobile phones as part of their contracts, which could now be removed.

Meanwhile, ISS has suspended our main activist and Health and Safety Rep and again referred him to a discipinary hearing.

Such incidents have increased union membership. 40 cleaners came to a special branch meeting in June (pictured). We elected Health and Safety Reps for the Jubilee line, Northern line stations, Northern line depots, Piccadilly line nights and days.

More and more cleaners are having union representation at disciplinary hearings.

Unless cleaners’ issues are settled, we might well have to ballot our members within the grade with a view to taking strike action.

What should the primary trade union principle be? Unity is strength.

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