Today was the latest in a series of demos organised by Mitie cleaners working at Willis Group in the City of London, unfairly dismissed after standing up to management attacks. Such protests take place at the Willis building on Bank’s Lime Street every Friday at 1pm (email firstname.lastname@example.org for info). Jake Lagnado wrote this piece for The Commune about the importance of this fight.
In mid-2007 around 25 cleaners at multinational insurance brokers the Willis Group based in the City of London began to organise under the umbrella of Unite’s Justice for Cleaners campaign, for the campaign’s main demands of the ‘living wage’ rather than the minimum wage.
The campaign, largely modelled on similar campaigns run by the American union SEIU, aims to target key workplaces in a particular sector it wants to unionise. The idea is that after a limited time pouring resources into unionising this sector, a self-sufficient union structure is left in place, and resources are switched to another campaign in another sector.
The buildings the union targets have to fulfill certain conditions: they should have a minimum number of workers; employ a cleaning contractor the union is targetting; and be in the geographical zone selected for the campaign. By winning in key workplaces it is hoped that a ‘zonal agreement’ can be reached which extends the gains to all workers in that sector in the locality.
Resources are not put into workplaces which don’t meet these criteria, even where there is interest from the workforce. The Latin American Workers Association knows a number of such examples. There are also occasional examples of workers have succeeded in pressurizing the union to be included in the campaign
In January 2008 Mitie finally agreed to pay Willis cleaners the much vaunted living wage. But there was a catch: they wanted to switch from evening working (7pm-11pm) to all-night working (10pm-6am). That meant an increase in hours and reduction in the workforce – in other words less people doing more work. Against the usual business competition, Mitie had recently renewed its contract with Willis and clearly keeping costs down was part of the reason!
The cleaners sent a petition demanding this did not happen. But despite talks taking place the change went ahead anyway. The union agreed to hold a demonstration but it was cancelled with an hour to spare when Mitie offered to relocate the workforce to HBOS with the same terms and conditions. It was in the shop steward’s words the will of the majority that they should stay together as a group working the same hours.
In the midst of this some unorthodox tactics were used: for example the cleaners leafleted the office workers desks. Also workers successfully persuaded the union to include a key activist who had been fired.
The problem returned when the temporarily relocated workers including the shop steward came to the end of their temporary contracts. A few were relocated on a permanent basis, others got other jobs. In that way the size of the group was reduced. Few stood the all-night working long – the workforce at Willis now is reputedly a different set of workers altogether.
Mitie offered the remaining six workers unsuitable alternative positions in order to meet its legal requirements, and finally made them redundant in December 2008.
They appealed the decision anyway and independently wrote to the company saying that they would demonstrate if no response was received. When the company found out about this they arranged for the workers to come in. The workers called off the demo at the union’s request, only for the meeting to prove a waste of time. The union informed them that although they had another right of appeal, there was really nothing more to be done. At the end of their tether, the workers called the first of their protests, but not before desperately trying to seek further advice from their union.
The weekly protests have now been going on for over two months. They have inspired because they go against the grain of the usual resignation that meets redundancies. Victory perhaps lies not so much now in reinstatement, but in showing that fighting back is possible.
At the time of The Commune going to press the union has made no public pronouncement, but has worked hard in the face of adverse publicity to persuade those on the inside of the union that this is a cause not worth supporting. Why? Because the workers went outside the rules by demonstrating when they shouldn’t have. And in the Willis case, it appears it was national Unite officers at the highest level who told lower ranking officials that this was union policy.
Launching wage rise campaigns makes good publicity, but companies don’t usually intend to spend a penny more on their workers. So they may award the wage rise but will then make up for it by increasing the workload, making people redundant and, crucially, reducing and thereby dispersing organised workforces. As we know, campaigning after the event in the case of redundancies is extremely hard as people don’t have the same power. Even in the case of Gate Gourmet it was shocking how soon after the official settlement the issue of those left on the outside became a non-issue – something which I have never seen properly discussed on the left.
The Justice for Cleaners campaign has many echoes of SEIU campaigns in the US. Most of all, in the top-down way they are controlled and the way they sit easily with the partnership approach to industrial relations. The organizing approach does not mean an end to the partnership approach, despite a certain amount of ‘militant’ posturing e.g. noisy demos, occasional sit-ins and the like. It is of course better such organising campaigns happen than they don’t. It is also important to note that, as in this case, workers do fight within them to make their own demands heard, and use tactics outside the campaign rulebook.
At the same time there is no doubt that union officials, especially those caught up in the almost religious fervour of some organising campaigns, react very badly when workers play outside their rules. When cleaners at nearby Schroders bank held their own self-organised protest in late 2008, the union sanctioned it at the very last minute after repeated attempts to postpone it. But it also sent an organiser down to desperately try to control what the cleaners chanted and what leaflets they gave out.
Finally the Willis case brings up the issue of union policy which prohibits protests while negotiations and internal procedures are going on. How many recognition agreements is this written into? Even if – and it is questionable – there are tactical reasons for not officially sanctioning protests during talks, it is outrageous that any union should actually use this as a reason not to represent it as members. It reveals such an agreement as one by which both union and company control workers. In particular, where unions call off protests supposedly to allow talks to place.