Jack Farmer spoke to University of London cleaners about how they won the London Living Wage and union recognition by staging an unofficial strike
Cleaners are among the most badly treated and poorly paid workers in London. Many are immigrants from South America and a lack of fluent English often makes it all the more difficult to organise.
This is why the struggle of cleaners, porters and security guards at Senate House - part of the University of London - has been so remarkable. Over a number of years they've built a Unison union branch which includes over 100 outsourced workers, organised noisy public protests and a successful unofficial strike, winning the London Living Wage and union recognition.
Now they're fighting for sick pay, holiday and pension rights. As part of this campaign, they're standing rank and file candidates for positions in their Unison branch - arguing that management must be challenged, not cooperated with.
I spoke to two Senate House cleaners, Daniel and Maria (not their real names), about their ongoing campaign.
Daniel, an experienced trade union militant, first tried to organise his colleagues about seven years ago. "We, the cleaners, were invisible and disrespected. We didn't have the protection of a trade union. We didn't have dignity, self-esteem or hope.
"I spoke with my co-workers. I tried to get the message across that we couldn't go on living like we were in the 1930s or the Industrial Revolution. Some said I was crazy - that I was a danger to the other cleaners.
"We looked for help in all different places. Obviously as immigrants we have a lot of barriers, such as not being able to speak English. We found a student who spoke Spanish. I interrogated him to find out how we could get help. Eventually we found SOAS Unison, who helped us to get organised.
"We had a film showing to motivate our co-workers. We said, "Yes we can" achieve change if we're united. We have arms, we have a head and we can get work anywhere.
"We had our first protest on the steps of SOAS, which was a big success.
"Then we had the London Living Wage (LLW) campaign at SOAS.
"The LLW at that time was £7.45. At this time recognition was won between ISS (the current cleaning company) and SOAS. Then this happened at Birkbeck too.
But things didn't all go the workers' way.
"There was an immigration raid and they took nine co-workers away. Among them was a pregnant woman, that they didn't care about. Despite everything that had happened, all my co-workers were convinced that there wasn't any alternative to fighting on the streets
"With the examples from SOAS and Birkbeck I went to my co-workers at Senate House and said to them: look - our co-workers in the buildings around us are receiving a somewhat dignified salary. At that time only one of the cleaners in Senate House was in Unison! So we did a massive recruitment drive - until we had over 100 members, the majority of whom were cleaners.
"When people aren't connected, they don't have the inspiration to fight. So I spent seven or eight months recruiting and educating my co-workers, until the workforce was conscious of the need to fight back - to fight for a 'survival wage' as I call it.
"When we protested on the street they [the employers] didn't want us there. But we were firm - we didn't give in. That's when they decided to negotiate with us, that very day. We demanded our money now, not tomorrow. And we recovered £6,000 in total for the workers within three days. That was our first major victory. After the strike we lost our fear. Every day since we've been fighting to recover our self-esteem and dignity.
"We won our campaign on the street, don't forget that! Dialogue wasn't functioning. Having cups of tea and coffee with the directors of the company wasn't working.
Maria began working at Senate House shortly after the unofficial strike.
"When I started work as a cleaner here I benefited from the improved salary that had been won by the unofficial strike. But I still witnessed many injustices. Every morning I would see co-workers crying because of bad treatment. Many had low self-esteem and were frightened. I asked myself, why don't they complain? But everyone was scared of losing their jobs.
"I told my co-workers - this isn't normal, we should stand up for ourselves. We can put an end to this if we unite together. Little by little I convinced people and they became more assertive."
Maria's bravery has emboldened her colleagues to stand up for themselves. Unionising the workplace has clearly given people confidence - but this has been based on a rank and file strategy.
The unofficial strike in September 2011 was part of this.
Cleaners have now launched a campaign to win sick pay, holidays and pension rights - dubbed the "3 Cosas" campaign. These are benefits enjoyed by other university workers. The "3 Cosas" campaign has been spearheaded by ordinary cleaners and porters. Daniel and Maria told me of their frustration that Unison had been slow to take up their cause. Now cleaners are now standing in a contested election for positions in the Unison branch.
Daniel: "When we recruited people to the union we had an obligation to our co-workers from the moment they joined - that we would fight for them. I personally felt betrayed - cheated. Because we saw that our comrades [in the union leadership] who could have done something about this weren't doing anything. Because we saw that our co-workers' issues weren't being taken seriously by the union, we decided to hold an unofficial strike [in September 2011] - knowing that they could fire all of us.
We were putting ourselves at risk - but there was so much courage. No one cared whether they lost their job or not.
Maria: "The Unison committee [the leadership] were not keen on the '3 Cosas' campaign [for sick pay, holiday and pension rights] when it was originally proposed. They said that this campaign was separate from the branch, that the branch hadn't been properly consulted. We were extremely bothered by this. Many cleaners got together to decide whether to leave the branch en masse, because we weren't being supported.
"But then the Unison officials called a meeting - saying it was the first 'official' meeting of the '3 Cosas' campaign!
"Because the union officials hadn't properly supported us, we're standing our own candidates in the Unison branch election. Our priority is the '3 Cosas' campaign, but we also want to take up all the personal issues people have."
See facebook.com/3coca and sites.google.com/site/3cosascampaign/ for more information on the campaign. A video of the campaign can be seen on the Socialist Review website