Alberto Durango is a cleaner activist who has repeatedly been victimised for his prominent role in union organising. In this piece he charts workers’ attempts to get a better deal and Unite’s abandonment of their struggle.
I came to London in 1995 running away from persecution by paramilitary groups because of my union activities with the banana workers in Uraba (Colombia). When I was new in London, despite my sense of justice, on several occasions I had to put my head down and let bosses commit abuses and steal my salary just because of my immigration status.
In 2002 when I was working all night with another 22 full time workers for Lancaster Office Cleaning Company at its Enron contract, the manager invited us to a meeting and told us that because of Enron’s bankruptcy all of us had lost our jobs. Then he said what good workers we were, expressed his apologies and invited us to leave the building. We were in shock but immediately replied that we would stay until the company guaranteed our jobs. After an exchange of allegations he told us that he was going to call the Police. We insisted on staying but after half an hour we decided to leave the building because of the immigration status of some of the workers, including my own.
Then we decided to go to Lancaster’s headquarters in Keston, Kent. When we arrived the top bosses were shocked but we were treated very well, with food and even money for minicabs, but again they tried to convince us that Lancaster had nothing to do with what happened and inviting us to go home and wait until the company found new jobs for us. We asked how long we should wait and if the company was going to keep paying our salaries. They replied that the company was not going to pay our salaries because it was Enron’s fault, not Lancaster’s, and we should be pleased that the company was going to try to find jobs for us. So we decided to fight using the legal system and start going to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau; I remember we went along to the CAB with 22 workers, and the people inside used to tell us to come only one or two at a time, but we always went together. After an exchange of letters with the company the company owner attended a meeting with us and in the end we won redundancy money and reinstatement.
After that I got involved in different struggles, including one with McLaren cleaning company’s Grant Thornton contract, where I was working on a part time basis, and where the manager was very abusive towards the cleaners, stopping money from the salaries. Because we complained I got dismissed, and that is how I met the Latin American Workers’ Association. I received all the necessary support and won my case in the employment tribunal, forcing the company to offer my job back, give me references and pay compensation. Because of this I became a voluntary member of the Association, helping people with individual employment cases and recruiting them to the union.
Then I got involved in the Justice for Cleaners campaign: a campaign that gave a lot of hope for cleaners in London. I helped to recruit many people during the campaign, using such examples of victories as in the Canary Wharf area at Goldman Sachs, Barclays etc; at that time I was working in the City area in a contract at Schroders investment. Guillermo Sanchez and I unionised the whole contract, 42 workers in total, and were expecting the union to do the campaign, but the leaders used to respond with promises that never they never then fulfilled. At the same time I started receiving complaints from some workers from othermbuildings that I had recruited to the union, telling me that the union had let them down, including workers at Lloyds TSB (the building next to Schroders), ING bank and some others with individual cases.
I decided to meet them to see what the situation was and find out about situations similar to what had happened at Schroders. With this information, after a democratic meeting we decided to start writing to the union, with all the workers’ signatures, trying to call the union official’s attention to support an action so we could get the living wage. After the letter to the union we mobilised all the workers to Transport House (Unite’s headquarters) for a event with cleaners from other sites. When the union official started calling the people by site name, he realised that the Schroders cleaners were all there so he told us to go to a meeting room because Schroders was a special case; we did so, somewhat happy thinking that finally we were going to get the union’s support, but instead the union official told us that if we wanted to demonstrate we should wear masks so the company would not take action against us. The people were stunned, listening to him talking to us like fools: this guy was the symbol of the fights in other sites around the City and Docklands.
But we decided to keep fighting, with or without the Union officials. So we started writing our petitions on three fronts: one letter to Schroders, one to Lancaster and another one to the union; surprisingly the responses from Lancaster were nearly the same as the union’s. Schroders, in reply, tried to change the hours of work and reduce the number of part time workers from 32 to 9, so we responded with the threat of demonstrations.
The union officials contacted us and invited the workers to talk to them outside the building and again tried to persuade us to accept the company’s proposals; we were very united and knew of the fairness of our petitions. Unfortunately the union officials looked like they were working for the HR department of the company because they were using the company’s language. The unions managed to stop us demonstrating on three occasions: every time, before the demonstration the official would call us and tell that the company had called for negotiations, but this never produced any result. The last time was when we confronted him and demanded that he tell us what the result of the negotiations were. He answered that we were going to have the right to have a consultation meeting: again he was treating us like fools. That is when we decided to put a date for the demonstration. When we informed the union official he went again to the Schroders building and proposed changing the date because the union had a better, long plan to do daily demonstrations and so win; the workers did not believe him but decided to play his game. He told us the organisers could do October 15th 2008, and all the workers said, OK, we will wait for you that date (we knew that was not going to happen). We had already decided a date (October 17th). We waited for them on the 15th but as predicted they never arrived.
On the 17th we did the demonstration with the solidarity of other cleaners and groups, after intimidation and threats from the company we negotiated with them and as a result of our resistance we won.
As normal the bosses always hit back and started a process of constructive dismissal against me but I defended myself using the employment laws. During this time I met Edwin Pazmino, a Unite shop steward working at Willis insurance company for MITIE cleaning services. He told me the history where the workers got dismissed at Willis, including him. In his history we found coincidences with the Schroders workers: he recruited all the workers to Unite, and after they won the living wage, the company responded by changing the hours of work (from 7-11 to all night) and reducing the number of workers. They had the same official as us and the workers did not trust him. He and three women workers wanted to fight back and asked me for solidarity, so we started creating a network of solidarity to fight back and start a series of demonstrations in front of Willis from the beginning of February 2009 trying get the reinstatement of these workers and at the same time trying to get the union to support the workers. The workers wrote a letter to the Unite deputy general secretary Jack Dromey asking him to support the union members, and he responded with the same story as the company, a situation that did not surprise me because in Schroders we got used to this.
We managed to get support from some of the union’s branches, workers and important personalities around London including the Unite Visteon workers, Unite construction workers branch, RMT Finsbury Park branch, John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, and sent a letter to Jack Dromey asking him to listen to the workers and support them.
In March Schroders used the third party pressure law and asked Lancaster to put me out of the building. Lancaster put me in different contracts around the City area but never told me what my job was, introduced me to anyone or showed me any place to sit down (like a prison) and on many occasions the managers verbally abused me.
When I was on the May Day demonstration I received a call from one of Lancaster’s managers inviting me for a meeting to offer a alternative job at 9:30am on the 6th. I went early that morning to the construction workers’ demonstration in the Olympic stadium where the organisers were going to use our megaphone (we got it in solidarity from one of the Unite branches). At 8:45 I went to Lancaster’s headquarters and arrived at 9:15; one of the HR managers (the one attacking me all the time after the Schroders victory) told that he was calling me to make sure I wasn’t late then asked me to sit down in a meeting room and wait for him. Then he come back with the Police and immigration. They immediately started asking questions and then searched me. They found on me lots of socialist propaganda and asked me if I am a socialist, then they hand cuffed me and took me to my home in a private car. They searched the whole house and kept asking me what is my name with MITIE (which proves my solidarity with the MITIE workers is related with my arrest). They also found a DVD from the Tamil community which I collected at a forum on May 4th; one of the Police said that the Tamils are a terrorist organization so I could get arrested on the basis of terrorism laws. They confiscated my partner’s and daughter’s passports saying that the passports were false. They took me to a Peckham police station and I left at 8pm with a caution.
The company dismissed me so I called the union to get represented and I got the same official that let the Schroders and Willis workers down. During the process I found many irregularities where instead of helping me he was doing the opposite. When I got the evidence I wrote to the regional secretary asking him to investigate this union official but I never got a response.
After this I was invited to Unite’s United Left meeting, a situation that give me lot of hope because I was expecting the progressive part of the union. But the same official that let the Schroders and MITIE workers down and tried to help the company to dismiss me was there. In some ways I was happy because I was going to have the chance to say the truth in front of the people and open their eyes, and also I was ready for the people to listen to a debate. But the chair did not let me talk, with various excuses. The first was that we did not inform the organisers on time, but the people who invited me proved that they wrote e-mails in advance. Then he said that the same union officials had issues with us (the Willis campaign and me) so I was not allowed to talk. The most progressive people there managed to get a vote of the whole meeting: the result was 39 against me talking and 29 in favour.
I think the difference in the votes was about the friends of the union officials. For me it is shameful for people that call themselves ‘left’ to vote not to listen to a victimised worker supporting an unofficial demonstration trying to get back the jobs of three women and the shop steward. I know people were manipulated but I think they should listen the workers’ side of the story and then make conclusions. In the same meeting other workers talked about unofficial demonstrations and got applause. I want to ask the people who voted against us…what is the difference between those workers and us? I think we are class brothers and should support each other.
I am clear in my sense of solidarity: that is why I give solidarity to Visteon workers on the picket line, construction workers at their demonstration, SOAS deported cleaners during the occupation and rallies, RMT train workers on the picket line and RMT cleaners’ demonstrations for the living wage.
Another thing that attracted my attention was about two weeks ago when I was in a meeting in Transport House about the SOAS campaign. One of the demands is to remove ISS (the cleaning contractor) and put the cleaning in house. It was a big surprise for me when one of Unite’s security guards told me that he works for ISS, not for Unite.
At the National Shop Stewards Network’s conference there was circulating a Unite Official leaflet saying bad things about the Willis campaign and I guess that is Jack Dromey’s answer to the cleaners. It is very questionable that the union prefers investing in propaganda against workers instead of investing those resources trying to get better conditions for members.