Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Getting into the Union

The priorities of the Latin American Workers Association:

"It is important for migrant workers to have an independent base from which to organise.
"Since 1981 LAWA has had paid workers. The idea grew out of the Latin American Advisory Committee which was a charity and could not take on a campaigning role. LAAC did case work on employment problems, wages, holiday pay which had not been paid, and so on. (Initially the Latin American Advisory Committee led by Colombians and Chileans meet at North Kensington Law Centre, and later at the 510 Community Centre, Paddington)

"We decided to get involved with the trade unions and to organise within them. So we contacted the Transport and General Workers Union - International Branch. At that time we were quite naive and many of us were unwilling to get involved in the union because we had immigration problems. LAWA is campaigning for workers with these problems, and to get support, being in the union could help. This proved to be the case.

"The T&G was reluctant at first to have us as members because of our immigration problems; it could not give the legal back-up which was necessary because we could not go to court. Their help can only go halfway. The district official has been helpful though.
"In the end we succeeded in getting into the T&G as members. We felt that to simply have a legal advice centre was paternalistic and was in fact against the organisation of workers. We need to organise against deportations too.

"The T&G saw some potential for increasing membership in the cleaning sector where membership was declining, so they allowed us to join. We do not expect the union to do our work for us. It disagrees with some of our policies. For example we are against all deportations and immigration controls and we want a political debate about these issues.

"We do not agree with the government that 'unauthorised' workers (workers without work permits) are committing an offence. It is not an offence to work. The unions should fight for a process of authorisation for these workers. After all, 90 per cent of all workers in hotels, catering and cleaning are unauthorised, and there is widespread instability with few staying for lone in one job.

"The main achievements of LAWA are teaching Latin Americans how to organise under conditions where they were very scared by raids by the immigration authorities. In November 1985 13 unauthorised people were taken from a club at three in the morning. There were only eight people there, police were asking for names and when someone did not understand they were taken away. In the majority of cases the deportation order had already been issued, as soon as the visa expired the computer does it automatically.

"Unfortunately there is no unified anti-deportation campaign because of political differences between organisations; our experiences also differ. The Turkish community has an anti-deportation campaign and they were involved in the dispute at Wimpey (a chain of hamburger restaurants). The
Union of Turkish Workers was in the T&G International Branch but they have now left. They are concentrating on strengthening their own organisation. The GMBATU has appointed a Turkish worker as a part time officer and they are recruiting Turkish workers directly into the union.

"Cleaners have been organised in DH Evans, Debenhams, Sel fridges (all large stores), the Hilton and a casino and some other hotels in central
London. We had recognition in all these places by the end of 1983. But we have now lost recognition in most of these because new contracts have been introduced."

Unions in Shop Cleaning Selfridges
Roberta, who was a shop steward at Selfridges, talked about the development of unionisation at the store.

The TGWU 1/1647 branch first won recognition for 160 cleaners at Selfridges during a union campaign which ran between 1981 and 1982

"At the height of organisation 50 to 60 workers would attend union meetings. But when action was needed there was no way that workers with immigration problems could take part in a picket, so we had to negotiate. During the years of organisation there were four strikes against Exclusive (Brengreen). They were aimed at forcing the company to change to two-weekly payment of wages at the beginning of 1984 (monthly payment of wages makes keeping up with rent and other commitments much more difficult); a wage increase in July 1984 (this was won within half an hour of the cleaners stopping work); preventing a clocking-in system (considered by the workers to be "inhuman" - if they do their job what more does the company want?).
"After these three successes the union was very strong, with almost 100 per cent membership. The company then started to try and split the workforce by employing more Moroccan workers who they thought would not be able to communicate with the Latin American shop stewards and would not join the union. But after producing information in Arabic for the Moroccans they started to join. Exclusive employed a black supervisor who was told that the Latin Americans were "racist" so they should not be employed. By August 1985, 20 Moroccans had joined the union."

A few months later the union suffered a crushing defeat at Selfridges when Brengreen lost the contract to Pritchards who refused to recognise the union, and would not take on most of the previous work force, bringing in new workers. The work force has been cut to 80 cleaners but Roberta believes that there is a possibility of organising there in the future. Exclusive has moved many of the Selfridges cleaners to other contracts where their union experience will help them to form new branches. There are possibilities of recognition at Army and Navy Stores, DH Evans, and
Charing Cross Hospital. However, in the summer of 1986, Brengreen was taken over by BET (see table p3).


Selfridges and Debenhams store cleaners' union bulletin

El Mopo (The Mop) is a regular bulletin produced initially by the Latin American Workers working in contract cleaning in big stores along Oxford Street, it is produced every three weeks in Spanish and occasionally in English. The print run started at 100 it was by the mid 1980's up to 350Combining the style of a community and trade union paper, El Mopo keeps members informed about negotiations and pay disputes. Discussion is not just on work place issues, but also about wider political issues. It takes the message about unionisation into the community. Producing issues in English too is considered important so that British workers can learn more about what migrant workers are facing.

Some extracts from El Mopo:

"We live an unstable and worrying life, caught between intransigent, greedy and exploitative employers and inhuman governments' laws. Wages shrink from day to day, there is massive unemployment, and there is poverty.
"Cleaning is not covered by the wages councils. As a result the only law there can be is that of the union agreement. Without a union there is no law. Wages Councils set minimum wages at £1.89 an hour for supermarkets, £1.74 for hotels, and the government wants to reduce them!"

In another issue El Mopo writes about cleaners in Merseyside (in the Northwest of
England). Five hundred of them cleaning public buildings had joined the T&G to fight wage cuts when the Fair Wages Resolution was abolished. After a six day strike they won a wage rise instead of the threatened cut.

A charter for contract cleaners was drawn up following this victory, including the demands that when a cleaning company lost a contract the T&GWU members should stay; and a two week minimum holiday.

El Mopo said that three years ago it would have seemed only a dream that the Selfridges and Debenhams cleaners could have organised themselves to "discuss with their powerful managers directly." One of the last mass meetings had elected a Moroccan worker as one of their shop stewards - management attempts to divide them had failed, but the contracting system had got them.

Achievements of the Union for Selfridges Cleaners

A room for cleaners to rest and talk
1983 wage rise
Refusing the clock
Three weeks holiday pay for full-timers
Two weeks unpaid holiday for part-timers and the guarantee of their job back afterwards More job stability
A friendly atmosphere for the cleaners who organised parties and trips
Advice sessions
Overcoming the racism between some cleaners.

In 1972 a group of Portuguese hotel and catering workers members of a community association called the Portuguese Educational & Cultural League came up with the idea of a separate branch for Portuguese workers and set up initially a Portuguese TGWU branch but soon renamed the International Workers Branch of the TGWU as more. The Portuguese community are still working as part of CGIL (abroad)

Much of the work for TGWU unionisation of cleaners in Oxford Street was based on the experience of the Garners Steak Houses strike in the 1970's spearheaded by Westminister Trades Union Council and Phil Pearson.

A "Night Cleaners Action Group" organised by May Hobbs a cleaner with the support of socialists and feminists between 1970-1972 had some success in highlighting the plight of low paid women workers and even organised two strikes which secured pay rises (Sheila Rowbotham)

Bel Mooney The Night Cleaners Campaign, The New Statesman 12th May 1972

Michael Walker

Notes from Twilight Robbery by Philip Pearson and Beyond the Pail by the Transnational Information Centre (London) Jeremy Landor (The later dedicated to Ever Marin, London cleaner, union organiser, human rights worker, murdered by right wing death squad in Columbia while on visiting home in Columbia 10th October 1986)