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Tube cleaners show the way

While Londoners struggle to get about on the Tube system each day, workers who keep the carriages and stations clean are enduring Dickensian conditions and employment practices. An heroic three-day strike by mostly migrant workers belonging to the RMT transport union has exposed how the employers run a brutal hire-and-fire, low-wage system.

At a rally at the House of Commons earlier this week, London Underground cleaners’ leader Clara Osagiede denounced contractors as “feudal lords”. Managers behaved like characters out of Dickens’ Oliver Twist towards their workforce. “While Tubeline and Metronet make record profits and managers earn £600 per day, cleaners work under terrible conditions,” she said. The 700 cleaners voted almost unanimously for a strike in pursuit of a London Living Wage and to end wage rates as low as £5.50 an hour.

The strike, she said, was also about dignity and fairness, as well as improved conditions including free travel. Cleaners needed this especially as they sometimes had to move between stations during their work. The London Underground is one of the most notable transport systems in the modern world, Osagiede said, and yet cleaners were treated as if they were slaves. She herself had been suspended from work a number of times for her trade union activities.

Tube cleaners were bullied, denied sick pay and pension rights and “looked upon like non-entities until the RMT union came to their rescue and educated them”, she told fellow trade unionists and anti-privatisation campaigners. She thanked activists from Feminist Fightback and others for supporting the cleaners with direct action and on the picket lines. She denounced the leadership of the Unite union which had allowed its members to be used as strike breakers.

At the packed meeting, called by the Labour Representation Committee and sponsored by MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, RMT president John Leach stressed that contractors like ISS, ITX, ICM and GM were not “cowboy outfits”. In reality, the Mayor of London and the government stood behind them. RMT research had revealed that Tubeline was making £1m in profits per week for the three lines it managed.

Yet cleaners not only endured low wages, they did not even have the right to a disciplinary hearing but could be sacked without knowing the reason. Conditions had returned to the days of casual labour, when the first workers to queue up each morning would get a day’s work and the rest dismissed. He believed that the struggle for rights would “get harder before it gets easier”.

Matt Wrack, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, pointed out that bonuses paid in the City of London were higher than the yearly government spending on the fire and emergency services. Wrack spoke of the link between the struggle against racism and for trade union rights. “This year is the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, who was supporting a strike of municipal workers in Memphis when he was killed,” the FBU secretary said. “Today, under New Labour, a city-wide strike of workers in solidarity with the cleaners would be illegal.”

The solid support given by cleaners to the RMT’s strike call and their courage in the face of suspensions and racist discrimination proves that even the most downtrodden and vulnerable workers are ready to respond, given leadership. A World to Win salutes their courage. At the same time, as a number of speakers emphasised, they face the full brunt, not only of London Underground but the New Labour government acting on behalf of cleaning companies, many of which are now part of global corporations.

Securing the most fundamental rights today means working for a system in which anti-trade union laws have no place. As other unions get drawn into the struggle against rising prices and sackings in the gathering economic storm, A World to Win calls on all trade unionists to support our festival for rights on October 18.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win Secretary
10 July 2008

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