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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Class war with a mop

by New Worker correspondent

THE ORIGIN of the phrase ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ has long been debated. It does not actually appear in the Bible, but it is often credited to John Wesley, who founded the Methodists in the 18th Century. Our concern, however, is not with theological niceties but with recent struggles involving cleaning and related staff.

Cleaning is a low-paid job. In most cases it does not require any great skills or physical strength, and historically it was a female occupation. This has changed due to an increasing number of male migrant workers from Latin America and Africa.

Life is grim for those who work in what is now largely an outsourced industry. The response of many employers on being forced to raise wages is simply to cut hours or employ less workers – easily done in an industry notorious for people constantly coming and going. All sorts of businesses have long since removed their cleaning staff from their payroll and contracted out cleaning and security services. The NHS and the civil service, airports, local authorities, banks, businesses large and small have all gone down this money-saving route. Even some trade unions have also done so. The outsourcing companies are not ‘man and a van’ outfits but multi-nationals such as Serco with a £3.885 billion turnover or Mitie with £2.18 billion coming in.

Several unions have recently been involved disputes involving cleaners. Three small street unions, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the United Voices of Workers (UVW), have all been active, sometimes winning pay rises and securing a reversal of outsourcing. General unions such as GMB and Unison have fought for cleaners in wider battles for low-paid workers in the NHS and elsewhere. But the existence of the three independent non-TUC unions is in part a reflection of a failure of the big established unions to organise or properly represent insecure low-paid workers.

The RMT appears to be the only major union making a sustained effort to recruit outsourced cleaners in the transport industry. It can be a difficult task. Many migrant workers come from countries where unions are few and far between and so they are a strange concept. Others who have had a bad experience with one union are unwilling to have another go.

Another problem is that some union leaders switch sides when the lure of a decent salary proves irresistible. About 15 years ago this correspondent joined a picket line outside one of the University of London Bloomsbury colleges, demanding that outsourced staff be taken back in-house and paid the same as directly employed staff. One of the organisers of the picket gave a rousing speech to inspire the strikers. Now he has a leading role in the outsourcing.

Whilst RMT does a great deal of recruitment work, their normally energetic Press Office seems to be very modest about reporting any major increases in membership. Unite the union has a habit of launching well publicised recruitment campaigns that soon end when they do not bring an instant flood of recruits.