Tube cleaners: a strike for freedom

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I was an activist from a young age. As a student in Nigeria I was secretary of the national students' organisation in my university. I had a political background - I lived with a political uncle and he was my inspiration.

When I came to England, and into the cleaning industry at London Underground (LU), the first thing I found was that the cleaners were predominantly black. That was a motivation, seeing what they were being subjected to. It reminded me of my background.

I got involved and felt I could be part of the struggle. I saw it as a set of people under slavery. It was not just about the money but their oppressive situation, and I felt there was a need for liberation.

I got involved with the RMT rail workers' union because it has principles I believe in. I became a member and then a rep, and I started standing against some of the social injustice that was being unleashed on my fellow cleaners.

I was always in dispute with my managers. I got disciplined because I stood my ground over a member who was suspended without pay and was even denied his holiday pay. I had a confrontation with my manager and wrote a letter for the RMT newsletter saying I thought it was robbery. I said I was not going into discussion before his pay was restored

My general manager didn't like it but, surprisingly, they quickly paid the money to him. It really gave me joy to see the smile I saw on the member's face, but I got done for that. My general manager called me and said I was being too outspoken, and how dare I say that the management had robbed the members? He threatened me and I was suspended.

I was called back and the cleaners voted for me to be their secretary. So I became secretary and thought the first thing was to fight against the injustice that 16 years ago LU cleaners were earning more than they do today. Then they also had free travel and sick pay. So we started the struggle.

People said, "How could you? Cleaners cannot be organised. You will never get a yes vote." But we spent sleepless nights in stations mobilising. I wasn't going to be stopped. It was worse back home. We had rough times as activists. We had to lead and mobilise while in hiding. Here I could go to any depot - it's easier than having meetings in forests, in fear of being picked up by state security and imprisoned. We mobilised the cleaners and we won a 99.2 percent vote for action. We couldn't believe it!

After the first strike we had ups and downs. There was pressure on me to call the action off, but there was something I knew from experience. The only language the oppressor understands is aggression. Either we accept defeat or we fight on and win.

Management tried to intimidate us. They suspended workers. Then, agents of the government came and arrested cleaners. Some are now in detention because suddenly their immigration status became an issue. Their immigration status was not an issue until we came out on strike.

We decided we were not going to be intimidated by deportation. We canvassed, going station to station, depot to depot, to build support. Sometimes I would get home from work at 6am and have to go out to another meeting.

As the Tube Lines workers' strike was about to start alongside ours, suddenly management felt pushed to talk to us urgently and make an offer. We were promised the London Living Wage for cleaners across the network. Some thought victory was impossible - it was a great feeling and my phone rang non-stop from members saying thank you. But after the strikes were called off management toughened their stance. The contractors said they would delay implementation of the deal and renewed their offensive on workers' immigration status. So our campaign had to go on.

We have taken these other issues of racism and immigration on board.

It's not just about pay. It is about freedom: freedom to work in a decent working environment; freedom to work in decent conditions and to be given proper conditions of service. How would you feel if you worked in an environment where you could be sacked just like that? We want to be treated with dignity and respect, so there are lots of issues that we still need to take on. It's going to be a long struggle, but we have to take it step by step.


Clara Osagiede is secretary of the RMT cleaners' grade and has led the London tube cleaners' campaign for a living wage. She writes in a personal capacity.