Cleaner activist Alberto Durango reports on a strike which shows that direct action works
According to the website of London’s Guildhall, it was designed to show the power of London’s ruling elite. This tradition is continued today by annual speeches by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England. The most recent event was a dinner in tribute to the new Ronald Reagan statue attended by the Foreign Secretary, Condoleezza Rice and other dignitaries.
Though regularly hosting wealthy patrons of this ancient and prestigious venue, they fail to pay the cleaners for the hours actually worked. Even when paid the cleaners get only £5.95 an hour, far short of the £8.30 ‘living wage’ calculated for one of the world’s most expensive cities.
In June of this year, 34 cleaners employed by Ocean Contract Cleaning London struck for two days because of many workers receiving underpaid wages over the last three months. On average two weeks of wages were missing. The company promised to pay the overdue wages by 20th June and so the dispute was suspended.
But when the cleaners received their last pay packets, the company failed to keep their promises. Therefore the cleaners called a new strike day for 15th July.
The workers raised a collective grievance to review the salaries for the past six months but Ocean Contract Cleaning London ignored it, refusing to participate in any collective bargaining process.
The strike day
We met at Guildhall at 5:30am. Many people came to give solidarity: the workers shouted slogans like “No pay, No work”, they painted their hands with the word ‘stop’ and, with their hands up, shouted “Stop the abuse”
The police approached us and told us we could not protest in an area facing the front of the reception, but we could do it in front of the area where the art gallery was because it was a public space.
Solidarity came from cleaners from other sites, Colombia Solidarity Campaign, Unison and workers and students from SOAS and UCL in addition to the presence of several representatives from other IWW branches. The local priest offered coffee and use of the toilet to the strikers and their supporters.
After 8am the client from Guildhall call us to negotiate. Two workers and two IWW union representatives went into Guildhall. He asked us to move the people from the area where we were demonstrating because it was supposed to be private property(the police had informed us earlier that it was not). As to facilitate the negotiation, and with the approval of the workers, the demonstration moved to the street side of the Guildhall.
Protesters remained firm and resolute, continuing to shout. This clearly irritated Guildhall management, who sent some of its representatives to invite us to go to a conference room and stop the protest. The workers refused and continued shouting slogans in Spanish and English.
After a long wait and negotiations, Ocean gave us evidence that they were solving the problem of unpaid wages, worker by worker and the figures – which we take as a small victory.
The best thing about this protest was the determination and unity of the workers. Despite the intimidation from the managers they always remained solid.
This is just the beginning of this struggle. The workers are determined to fight for the living wage.
Thanks to all who supported us, both at the protest and with the solidarity messages.
Victoria, compañeros – venceremos! (Victory, comrades: we shall triumph!)