migrant cleaners and organising solidarity

by David Broder

The recession has seen increasing anti-immigration sentiment in British society, but also many in the labour movement advocating ‘keeping our heads down’ until the economy picks up – these two factors, combined with the inefficacy of Justice for Cleaners and the concomitant attacks on migrant cleaners’ conditions, sharply pose the need for better organisation.

After the partial success of the dispute at Swiss bank UBS in the City of London, it is worth considering the way ahead for the migrant cleaners’ campaign, which in its various forms has challenged border controls, casualisation as well as the established unions. For more background see this article on Latin American cleaners in the UNITE union and this report on the UBS campaign.

Political objectives

Often left coverage of migrant and low-paid workers’ disputes portrays such workers as ‘vulnerable’: a word implying not only that they are subject to attacks and abuse from management, but that they are powerless, unable to raise their heads above the parapet. There is an element of truth underlying this – given their casual contractual status and the threat of immigration raids. But cleaners as well as migrants generally are of course divided by different strata of experience, organisation and confidence. It is patronising simply to assume that they are collectively powerless and in need of “our sympathy” as reflected in liberal slogans such as ‘I ♥ Migrants’.

Rather, what is important is to create an active dialogue between migrant and non-migrant workers, casually and more stably employed workers, not only to guarantee solidarity with cleaners’ disputes but also to channel some of the energy, confidence and political radicalism of the existing struggles into the wider workers’ movement.

This requires in particular the sharp advocacy of opposition to all immigration controls, opposition to sectionalism and ‘skilled-ism’ hostile to migrants, but also focussing on the lessons of particular struggles led by migrants. In reply to charges of patronising behaviour, the left often invoke the idea that there is a collective and historic experience from which to draw lessons: true, but in reality, it is often the so-called ‘vulnerable’ workers who have the most to teach everyone else.

In this sense the cleaners’ dispute at UBS bank was particularly valuable in that it challenged the ‘keep your head down’ mantra of many unions during the recession. Facing the second-biggest bank in Europe and without any UNITE union support (such that they could not ballot for industrial action) the cleaners nonetheless stymied management attacks and forced them to stop halfway with their sweeping assault on conditions.

Moreover, a vibrant solidarity network initiated by the Cleaners’ Defence Committee brought together over a hundred people, from across trade union, community and political group divides but nonetheless on an explicitly anti-borders and militant class struggle basis. The ‘communism’ latent in even such a small-scale, short dispute is how it challenges sectional divisions and allows us to look at broad systemic characteristics of the dispute, for example the connection between imperialist rapacity, resultant population movements and the resistance of immigrants in the heartland of finance capital.

Cleaners and the unions

The T&G attempt to recruit members among cleaners on the London Underground in 2006 – yet in 2008 failing to do anything in support of the RMT-led strike – pointed not only to that union’s failings but also the divisiveness of petty squabbles for ‘ownership’ of a group of workers. We need an alternative to this model.

It is important that we start from working-class reality on the ground. The ‘Hands Off My Workmate’ conference staged by the SWP in October opted not to discuss existing cleaner campaigns and what is wrong with the unions, but rather to keep the left of the bureaucracy on board with just general anti-racism and anti-BNPism – not even opposition to border controls as such. Even the name ‘Hands Off My Workmate’ points to the idea that this is a campaign for lecturers, not for migrant workers themselves.

As against such top-down conceptions, some cleaner activists involved in recent campaigns are discussing the desirability of some sort of cleaners’ forum existing literally ‘above and beyond’ unions – both members of UNISON, UNITE, RMT and so on, as well as non-unionised members. This approach has been exemplified in the UBS and Schroeders disputes – demanding the union’s organisational, financial and legal backing, but not waiting on this or prioritising union support over grassroots organising itself. This can in part alleviate the problem posed when union inaction undermines the value of the workplace’s unionisation, and thus demands a ‘political’ campaign to force the employer to back down.

Moreover, to shore up workplace organisation and legal rights the Latin American Workers’ Association has debated the desirability of a new union or else supporting efforts to create an autonomous space in the IWW. An IWW cleaners’ branch has already been created, which will afford cleaners the ability to make decisions for themselves and no longer be burdened by the dead hand of the bureaucracy in unions like UNITE. However, there are still other challenges, for example the small size and operational means of the IWW and the hostility it may face from TUC unions. This initiative is very new and its effectiveness thus remains to be seen, although forthright outside solidarity could help avoid its isolation or marginalisation by more established unions.

How solidarity is organised

There are already a myriad of community organisations such as those gathered in the Coordinadora Latinoamericana, as well as activist groups whose members are regularly involved in solidarity work, for example Campaign Against Immigration Controls, No Borders, Feminist Fightback and London Coalition Against Poverty.  Many activists from these organisations participated in the Cleaners’ Defence Committee, which was an ad hoc body, but effective because of its focus on a living dispute involving migrant cleaners.

What is most important is that the cleaners themselves are empowered to take charge of decision-making and the direction of any campaigns and disputes that emerge. The ‘base group’ concept of organising – whereby activists from ‘outside’ a given workplace take direct action or carry out practical tasks such as flyering or leaflet production such as cleaners employed there might be afraid to get involved in, but take direction from meetings with the workers ‘inside’ themselves – is clearly of use here.

Activists ‘privileged’ in terms of immigration status and nationality, cultural capital, class background and experience should do everything to solidarise with these struggles and make loud and clear the points raised to the whole workers’ movement, but without treading on the toes of the cleaners’ autonomy in practical terms. We also need to be aware of the risk of taking decisions on behalf of others and merely seeking their consent, rather than engaging in mutual and constructive dialogue. Nonetheless it is important for revitalising the politics of the left and workers’ movement in London that the Cleaners’ Defence Committee seeks to build on the work already done, draw the lessons of the UBS campaign and bring such support to other workplaces.

The next Cleaners’ Defence Committee meeting takes place on Thursday 3rd June in London: email uncaptiveminds@gmail.com for venue details