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.
6 thoughts on “alberto durango: ‘i am for justice and the truth’”
Cleaners shouldn’t be undervalued. There job has a greater effect than most realise, a dirty environment makes for a more stressful work place and conflicts are more likely to arise.
Keep up your fight!
I will circulate this article to UNITE members in Newcastle. It is outrageous that they are treating you like this.
Hasta la victoria siempre! Venceremos!
I will keep fighting, thanks for your solidarity.
A short update on some recent events:
A very lively demonstration of trade unionists joined victimised rep Alberto Durengo at his appeal with Lancaster Cleaning Company on Friday 3rd July. The demonstration was endorsed by John McDonnell MP and numerous others figure form the labour movement. The employer was presented with a powerful case for Alberto’s reinstatement and responded saying they are re-investigating as a result of new evidence. In fact the evidence in question was predominantly Lancaster’s own company records, an indictment of their decision to sack Alberto in the first place.
2. LRC Supports Willis cleaners and Alberto
The National Committee of the Labour Representation Committee has added its voice in support of the Willis cleaners and Alberto. On Saturday 4 July the motion below was passed unanimously by the National Committee chaired by John McDonnell MP. The LRC includes the affiliated trade unions, RMT, FBU, CWU, ASLEF and the Bakers Union and the NUM.
The Labour Representation Committee endorses the Open Letter to Jack Dromey, UNITE Deputy General Secretary urging him you to reverse the decision to withdraw the union’s support from the Mitie workers at Willis.
Latin American and African cleaners, all UNITE members, were sacked in December 2008 by their employer Mitie Cleaning & Support Services Ltd, after refusing company pressure to move from a 4 hour shift to an all night 8 hour shift; they received final dismissals after talks broke down over the start time of substitute working at other sites.
We believe that the critical issue here is to trust in the workers’ version of events rather than the employer’s; the workers were NOT responsible for the breakdown in talks.
We also believe that for the ‘Justice for Cleaners’ campaign to go forward the union must make every effort to regain the full trust of the sacked Mitie workers.
We condemn as persecution the arrest of Alberto Durango, a cleaners branch committee member, at a time when he was giving valuable support to the Willis workers. We demand his reinstatement.
We urge UNITE to reconsider, to re-establish full representation for these unfairly dismissed workers and campaign for their reinstatement.
We agree to support the campaign for reinstatement being waged by the workers themselves and call on the labour and trade union movement to show its solidarity.
The NC agrees that the LRC will sponsor a public meeting in support of these UNITE cleaners.
And this is the official report on what happened at the 18 June United Left Meeting by Sean McGovern:
unite’s london and eastern regional united left meeting
18th june 2009
gustave tuck lecture theatre
I’m unclear of the exact number of United Left supporters present; however, I counted more than 80 in the main auditorium of the Gustave Tuck lecture theatre; and, at least ten more in the balconies flanking the auditorium – there could have been more but I couldn’t see them due to my limited scope to move around. Thus, I’d estimate that there were around 95 supporters present.
1. Elections for UL Officer’s Committee
On 21st May a meeting of the UL Officer’s Committee took place. Present were the Chair, Jim Kelly, Bronwen Handyside, one of the Regional NCC members and the joint Regional Coordinators Peter Gillard and Seán McGovern.
Our group met in order to formulate the Agenda for the 18th June L&E UL supporters meeting. During this meeting a discussion on L&E UL Officer’s Committee elections took place – at the 23rd October 2008 UL meeting the Steering Committee had asked the supporters to allow the current Chair, Coordinators, etc to stay in place for six-months, promising elections of all positions.
By the 18th June Peter Gillard was objecting to the elections. A few people voiced their objections to holding the elections. One or two claimed that there should be no elections; claiming everything should be done by consensus.
Finally, nominations for Chair were called for. Jim Kelly was the only nomination; and, he was duly elected as Chair. The same occurred with the other positions, and the London and Eastern United Left Officer’s Committee is as follows:
Chair – Jim Kelly
Vice Chair – Terri Miller
Equalities Officer – Tamsin Piper
Treasurer – Jay Mistry
Editor – Russell Cartwright
Coordinator – Seán McGovern
2. Report on Committee Structures – John Murphy
There will be 24 Regional Sector, 8 Area Activist, and 4 Equalities Conferences most likely to be held in early September with the new Regional Committee sitting in October. This means there will be no there will be no Lay Committees, apart from the Executive, until the autumn.
The weighted voting system, allowing only ‘super’ reps a vote, has been abandoned; now all reps at the conferences will have a vote.
These Conferences will create 700 Committee places; this gives the United Left a massive task over the next couple of months.
Once the Executive has finalised the structures, most likely in early July; we can distribute the information more widely.
If, as reported, expenses are not to be paid to conference delegates; this will be viewed as a setback to lay democracy.
The Policy Conference will take place in the spring of 2010.
At this point in the meeting things broke down again. Two people who were neither on the AUG or T&G Broad Left list made an appeal to speak. Given they were not known supporters of the United Left the Chair decided it was inappropriate for ‘strangers’ to attend our meetings in order to gain a platform.
A number of UL supporters requested they be allowed to speak; however, other supporters called for the Chair to follow the Agenda. At this point the Chair called for a vote asking whether to follow the Agenda or let them speak.
27 UL supporters voted ‘Yes’ to allowing them to speak; while 39 voted to follow the agreed Agenda.
Unfortunately, a small element of UL supporters didn’t agree with the democratic process; and, continued to disrupt and obstruct the rest of the meeting. This seemed like a deliberate attempt to shut down any further debate; and, on a couple of occasions the Chair was forced to take very stern measures in order to quieten the obstructionist element.
On the 18th a majority of the Left supporters present, many of whom are long-standing Comrades, including around a dozen from the Justice for Cleaners Branch, viewed the issue differently from the minority at the meeting; and, accordingly this was reflected in the vote.
Finally, Rod Finlayson got around to giving a report from the Visteon disputes. Rod, an ex-Ford’s Dagenham worker, had visited Visteon Belfast and Enfield; and, was able to give us a flavour of the actions from both these plants.
Rod also reported on the Rob William’s sacking; the overwhelming vote by Linamar Unite members to strike; and, the capitulation by the Linamar bosses, when they capitulated and reinstated Rob unconditionally.
The following links will give more information on these two issues.
Next, Steve O’Rourke a bus driver and Chair of the Regional Passenger Trade Group reported on the ongoing London Bus Workers’ Campaign. The Campaign has been running for a few years; and, is particularly focussing on the massive disparity between the wages of drivers working for different bus companies.
There can be as much as a £12,000 per annum difference in the wages of bus drivers from one company to another. Essentially, one bus driver will earn £230 a week less than another for driving a bus, often as not, along the same London streets.
Last year a strike ballot was held, and won; unfortunately, several bus companies, in cahoots, brought out an injunction thus stopping any action. Despite this setback the bus workers are even more determined to carry on with their campaign; and, next time around they’ll be prepared, crossing the ‘Ts’ and dotting the ‘Is’ on the ballot.
Moving things up a gear the Campaign is now demanding Central Pay Bargaining. If successful this would out them in a very powerful negotiating position.
One supporter suggested that we make inroads with sister unions within public transport and begin forming shop stewards’ combines; another, informed us that a statement had been put out assuring that bus workers wouldn’t work extra shifts during tube strikes.
For further information on the Campaign, please follow this link:
4. General Secretary Hustings
• There didn’t seem to any great interest in holding a Regional Hustings.
• It was agreed that all United Left GS election candidates give an undertaking that in the event they’re not successful in the hustings that they will pledge not to stand on another ticket.
• A hustings in July would be too short a timeline; our supporters wouldn’t necessarily know the candidate.
• We don’t want a rushed decision.
• We’re also awaiting the decision on which kind of weighted voting system will be used in the hustings.
The Chair brought proceedings to a halt at 9.30 pm.
A collection was held and £123.80 was collected. The hire of the venue was £170.
THIS IS THE DISTORTED AND SLANDEROUS REPORT BEING ISSUED BY THE UNITED LEFT.
The Mitie/Willis Cleaners’ Dispute
> • February 2008, the Willis Group altered a contractual arrangement it
> had with Mitie, the building services company, at a particular London
> • Mitie then tried to use this as an opportunity to change the
> cleaners’ contracts from part-time 19:00 – 23:00 to full time; or,
> failing this make the entire cleaning crew redundant.
> • As the 23 cleaners working on the site at the time were either
> Spanish or Portuguese speaking the case was handed over to a regional
> industrial officer (RIO) with a South American back ground.
> • After a series of negotiations the RIO managed to keep the shifts as
> they were and won a pay increase from £6 to £7.20 per hour, the then
> London Living Wage rate.
> • At this time 19 of the 23 agreed to move to a new site, on a
> temporary basis; agreed to the pay rise; and, agreed to working the
> same hours.
> • The remaining 4 workers decided to negotiate with the company to
> work a full-time night-shift.
> All in all the Justice for Cleaners Branch considered this a success.
> • However, temporary situations have a habit of running their course;
> and, such was the situation with the 19 Mitie cleaners.
> • And so, in August 2008 Mitie wanted to move some of the 19 over to
> Canary Wharf; a proposition turned down by the workers because the
> hours and place of work were inconvenient for some.
> • By November 2008 the company began to consult with 7 of the
> cleaners. Instead of the Canary Wharf contract they were offered one
> within the City; and, asked to work from 18:00 – 22:00 with a wage
> increase, taking them to £7.50 per hour. The cleaners refused these
> • On 2nd December 2008 a meeting was held with the cleaners, the
> company and the union. At this meeting the company offered the
> cleaners a deal whereby they could start work at 18:30 and finish at
> 22:00, yet receive the full four hours pay; however, if they refused
> these terms Mitie would make them redundant.
> • The upshot of the offer was that 7 people accepted, while 2 declined
> – on the grounds that their other job didn’t finish until 18:00.
> • The RIO then asked Mitie if they could keep the remaining two at
> their present contract while the issue was resolved.
> • By 8th December, and while the RIO was on holiday, Mitie informed
> the Willis cleaners they were pressing ahead with redundancies.
> • Back on duty the RIO was informed of the situation with our Willis/
> Mite members; and, sent out appeal letters to Mitie.
> • As it was late December some of the members involved were on
> holiday; and so, the RIO arranged the appeals for January.
> • The appeal hearings went ahead on 14th January with the RIO
> representing 5 of the 7 cleaners, as 2 members opted out of the
> • Shortly after one of the group, ‘C’, pulled out.
> • Mitie agreed to look to reinstate the workers in other contracts
> while the appeals were being processed.
> • Before any appeals decisions had been made, around 26th January, one
> of the appellants, ‘P’, without consulting with either his RIO or his
> Branch informed the company that he intended a series of pickets
> outside the Willis building.
> • So, while negotiations were ongoing this group eschewed advice from
> their union official and Branch; and, instead walk away mouthing that
> time honoured expedient ‘We’ve been betrayed!’
> • Despite the RIO attempting to resolve the situation at the highest
> levels ‘P’ informed him that they did not want Unite involved in their
> dispute as they had other people to negotiate on their behalf.
> • Almost immediately following this a senior Mite manager tried to
> resolve the issue through Woodley and Dromey.
> • On February 4th a meeting was convened between the workers and the
> company with the RIO present. The one stipulation laid down by the
> company was that the picketing of Willis could not continue whilst
> negotiations were ongoing.
> • After consultation with various people, including the Justice for
> Cleaners Branch, the RIO informed the workers picketing Willis that
> the Union could not support their protest; but, would carry on
> negotiations with the company should those involved wish so.
> • The demonstrations continued and sadly as a consequence Mitie ceased
> any further dialogue with the cleaners involved in picketing action.
> • So, following all this the two sacked workers and their supporters
> tried to persuade others to join their campaign, but to no avail; even
> the Justice for Cleaners Branch declined involvement.
> • In May this year a supporter of the sacked cleaners attended a
> meeting of the cleaners Branch. This Branch represents 1500 cleaners;
> and, the supporter was given the opportunity to put his case to the
> Branch Committee of 11 members.
> • The supporter asked the Branch to support the ‘campaign’; and, after
> much deliberation the Committee unanimously rejected the appeal,
> supporting the union’s part in throughout the dispute.
> How exactly has the union betrayed these two workers? They, quite
> rightly, approached the union for help originally; and, as far as I’m
> concerned the union entered negotiations on their behalf in good
> faith. The fact that the two workers then ‘dismissed’ the union
> insisting they had their own people to negotiate on their behalf was
> in my view foolhardy; but, it was their prerogative.
> While it is the prerogative of any union member to waive the advice
> and representation of their union; they can hardly cry ‘Foul’ when
> they do this whilst negotiations are ongoing. To accuse their union of
> betrayal before it has had a chance to make full representations makes
> no sense at all. Had the company refused to meet with them; or, if the
> outcome had been predetermined I’d say they had a point. But, these
> were not factors in this equation. It would seem the sacked workers
> were made an offer they couldn’t refuse by someone else.
> How many times have we as shop stewards experienced the disgruntled
> member who when they don’t get the answer they want search around in
> the vain hope that someone else will say ‘yes’ to them – invariably a
> ‘no-win-no-fee’ shyster; or, in the case of the Willis cleaners lefty
> opportunists looking to hijack a situation from which to hang the
> tatters of their dubious ‘cause’.
> When the Remploy factories in London were closing it was us, the shop
> stewards and Branch Officers, who copped the blame. The same people
> who had led the Campaign from the front; criss-crossing the country in
> all weathers to march and rally. Yet, we had sold them out. What had
> they contributed to the campaign? For the majority, I’m afraid it was
> only their £2.60 odd a week union dues.
> At no time since the Willis dispute began, 18-months ago, have any of
> the sacked cleaners attempted to contact either the T&G’s Broad Left,
> the Amicus Unity Gazette, or Unite’s ‘United Left’; that is until 18th
> June. However, this did not stop them turning up uninvited, and making
> demands from an organisation they didn’t belong to.
> The On Thursday 18th June Alberto Durango and Chris Ford turned up at
> Unite’s L&E United Left as representatives of the sacked Willis
> cleaners, a company neither had ever worked for – Alberto, a cleaner,
> had been sacked by a company named Lancaster; and, Chris Ford, a
> member of Unite for a matter of weeks, is quite simply someone who
> doesn’t like trade unions, their officials or their structures – or,
> at least those he can’t control or become a FTO of.
> The meeting that night had an extremely full agenda, including
> extended disputes reports, committee officers’ elections, discussions
> on the up-and-coming sector committee structures, a debate on the GS
> hustings, and, a discussion around the People’s Charter.
> Like all such meetings discipline is called for. That evening a small
> group of malcontents decided to continuously disrupt the meeting;
> thus, when somebody proposed allowing an uninvited visitor to speak on
> an issue, an issue by the way whose main players had walked away from
> the union, the Chair declined – did the Willis cleaners act in the
> same disrespectful way at the NSSN last Saturday?
> After several minutes of disruption, and outpourings of disgraceful
> language from a couple of those out to cause trouble at any cost, the
> Chair asked the meeting to decide whether the Willis campaign reps
> should be given the floor.
> 27 voted to hear the Willis campaign reps, and, 39 voted against – at
> the time there were around 80 people in attendance.
> Seán McGovern
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