United Voices' New Ambition

Whether UVW and IWGB’s militancy coheres and spreads is now one of the more pressing and increasingly practical questions not only for them, but the wider labour movement.

“Thank you very much for your contribution. As I mentioned, this is a meeting to discuss a planning application”, said Councillor Quentin Marshall.

This was Marshall’s clipped response to activists’ interrupting a Planning Committee meeting (“you’re treating cleaners like your servants”), on Kensington Town Hall’s second floor - the interior was familiar from footage of Grenfell protests - following cleaners’ afternoon picket in the quadrant below.

More heckles - “this is the forum to discuss cleaners’ demands, because you haven’t given them another forum” - and Marshall’s chairing was over, with his and two other Conservative councillors’ retreating through a sidedoor (“is he coming back?’; ‘um, probably not, no”).

There was then an argument with the audience for the by-then-postponed meeting, with one dapper man amongst them vouchsafing the intrusion (“I support your methods, and your cause”), dismaying the Very Kensington rest. Questions, interruptions, and the tension and embarrassment forced a remaining bureaucrat to promise negotiations between ‘as many as possible’ of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s (RBKC) Leadership Team and the striking cleaners themselves - ending, in under ten minutes, three months of ignored demands.

The next morning, an occupation of the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) Petty France building’s foyer forced its Head of People to guarantee face-to-face talks over more than 1000 outsourced workers’ pay and conditions, across three MoJ sites.

The two negotiation offers came within 36 hours of the start of UVW cleaners’ Triple Strike campaign. Pickets and protests against MoJ and RBKC started last Tuesday morning; both are planned against Health Care America (HCA) - the biggest private health firm in the world, with sites across London - later into the month.

MoJ management have been disciplined, reflecting the higher stakes; weak and rich, RBKC will likely quit quickly; the unknown quantity, HCA are assumed by activists as less sensitive to bad press, with a wealthy clientele, and no votes to lose.

The campaigns are legally distinct, though all the workers are making the same demands: for the London Living Wage (£10.20 per hour), for beyond-statutory sick pay, and for parity of employment terms with directly-employed staff. All the cleaners across all three targets are employed by subcontractors, and all of them are from overseas.

Speaking through a Portuguese-English interpreter a week before the strike, five MoJ workers described what one called the ‘disciplinary culture’ of the workplace - ‘how’s the supervisor?’; ‘so long as do you exactly what he wants, he’s okay’ - with OCS’s taking the contract from Amey earlier this year meaning more work, under harsher rules, for the same money (the firm’s major innovation: to ban the entirely migrant workforce from taking annual holiday over consecutive weeks).

But, OCS are only worsening what was already near rock-bottom. Those five workers, with a combined service at the MoJ of twenty-five years, reported having not taken a single sick day between them, ever. One said they underwent an operation at St Thomas’ Hospital but, with statutory sick pay beginning on the fourth day of absence (and entitling you to £92.05 week), he could only take two days’ holiday and return to work. Their pay has risen with statutory increases over the last decade.

Since getting union status in early 2014, UVW’s winning streak in both industrial disputes and casework hasn’t stopped, and like its sibling union, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), United Voices is growing at an astonishing rate (IWGB may have accounted for nearly a quarter of all union membership growth between 2016-2017, even). But amongst both unions’ activists there’s a recognition that the number of workers directly affected by even their bigger wins - UVW’s Harrods win in early 2017, say - has been in the mid-hundreds, maximum. And so, for some time now, the question has been how to scale up some of the most successful workplace campaigns over the last few years, without losing the industrial militancy and the internal democracy that’s generated them.

Across workforces and workplaces - a first for cleaners, at least at all recently - with 1,000-plus MoJ workers’ wages and conditions being contested, the Triple Strike is UVW’s answer. This new ambition has attracted attention from across Labour and the labour movement (and a huge press interest) - how did UVW get here, and where’s next?

“Not Just Solidarity”: UVW and the unions

UVW cleaners’ campaign at the London School of Economics (LSE) over the winter and spring of 2017 began bad-mannered, with even the first pickets heavily policed - on some days there were more officers than striking cleaners - and management ordering security to keep striking cleaners out of university buildings, even to use the toilet. Brat students moaned, including SU officers.

All of the unionised cleaners on campus had been represented by Unison, with a long-standing recognition agreement with LSE. But, after a UVW staffer successfully intervened in a worker’s disciplinary in spring 2016 - a manager from subcontractor Noonan flew from Dublin, they argued, Noonan lost, and the ‘LSE Three’ were reinstated - the majority of cleaners broke from the larger union’s branch.

Throughout the campaign the bigger union’s reps worked against the workers striking, saying it was disrupting productive negotiations with management (now infamous was a Unison rep’s standing shoulder-to-shoulder with management, opposite the picket). But the cleaners’ strike won parity of sick pay, holiday pay, parental pay, and pensions with directly-employed staff - and with the bottom-feeder contract even less profitable, they were in-housed as of March this year. They’ve now likely got the best benefits of any comparable workforce in the UK.

Cleaners’ ‘anti-everyone’ organising won it, but a supportive motion in June from the LSE branch of the University and College Union (UCU, the major higher education workers’ union) - passed after pressure from pro-UVW activists in the branch, with controversy over UVW’s non-recognised status - was a clear inflection point. Support from the national-scale UCU Left in the same period was a boon, too. Partly reflecting the division of labour and worth on campus - however bad things are for lecturers, cleaners rank lower - an assumption amongst activists was that UCU’s cross-union solidarity was highly beneficial, even decisive.

Since then, UVW got several smaller-scale wins. The Orion recycling plant campaign earlier this year was stupendous - UVW supporting nine workers’ wildcat strike saw working conditions transformed - and over the spring several higher-profile employers folded near-immediately.

Through March, cleaners at The Daily Mail’s offices were bracing for a gloves-off dispute, expecting that the newspaper would see their organising as a Barbarians-At-Our-Gates opportunity. But, like UVW’s campaign at Bank of New York Mellon the month after, the Mail’s cleaning firm accepted workers’ demands in full, leaving all of them £6000 per year better (on the Mellon win, UVW noted that the 30-hour long campaign broke their previous record, of 96 hours).

Neither would have happened without the workers’ efforts, and both meant substantial wage gains - and it demonstrated again that wins grow unions, with RBKC cleaners reporting that it was through the Mellon victory that they heard about UVW. But the retreats left the union restless for picket-and-protest campaign. The RBKC meeting was public, but was there still the thrill of trespass, at least of industrial dispute norms. But can you build a strategy around Tory councillors’ fluster?

Especially after LSE, activists and organisers from across the Trade Union Congress (TUC) affiliated unions have took more interest, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not. An organiser for a major general union explained that amongst a layer of the TUC unions’ more senior officials:

There’s a suspicion of the ability of the methods that UVW IWGB use to build power - for so long, through lived experience, through organising their own campaigns, there’s the view that self-sustaining power is not something that you can do with a few demos.

And, they added, there’s the question of scale:

Yeah, you can embarrass an employer in a fight they weren’t really looking for, but without a collective bargaining framework underpinning that, you’ve got fuck all - and so there’s this cynicism, asking, “are you a trade union, or the political wing of the Living Wage Foundation?”

The rub though is that those bureaucrats’ own branch members are now routinely seeing campaigns from UVW and IWGB members resulting in big wage gains. Going from the misnamed National Living Wage (£7.83, for workers over 25) to the cost-of-living-adjusted London Living Wage (£10.20) is huge: “and so why are you spending all this money on leaflets and surveys, that don’t really mean anything, and delivers fuck all, whereas the people are doing for themselves, and winning?” as the same organiser put it. “It’s about both not taking them [UVW] seriously, but also seeing them as a threat - this might sound contradictory, but that’s the view of some senior officials”, they added.

The trend this year has been for both the activists and a layer of less senior, more militant organisers from across the larger unions to actively collaborate with United Voices, with invites to pickets, meetings, and parties increasing in both directions. UVW are scaling up, at the same time that as branches of certain unions are now talking about developing a new militancy in tandem - at the industrial campaign level, even - with the smaller unions.

At the Tuesday picket at Kensington Town Hall, three women from Unite Hospitality’s TGI Fridays campaign said: “We’ve been striking since May, and it’s nice to come to these events, to keep our morale up, and inspiring to see that we’re not the only ones”, with another saying after that “before the water reaches boiling point, we’re all jumping out”.

Earlier that morning, outside the MoJ’s Petty France building, PCS National Executive member Candy Udwin told the crowd: “I am here officially from the London Regional and London and South East Regional committees to show our support. You have also have the support of workers in the MoJ from PCS workers” (note difference from only a year ago at LSE). She added:

They’ve just had a pay offer, and PCS and some of the other unions are recommending a rejection of their own pay offer - so we need to talk, not just about solidarity, but how we can work together.

And an RMT rep at the same demo said privately that their union’s “not been particularly steadfast or active” in building relations with UVW, but “as part of the renewed drive to empower our own cleaning members, we’re helping to forge links with this kind of milieu of small, precarious, worker-led unions”. They added that the contract for cleaning the Underground was unified this year - four subcontractors split the management and the profit previously - making organising on a cross-Tube basis easier.

UVW and the Labour Left

A second opportunity comes from left-wingers across Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, with different layers now actively supporting UVW’s campaigning. Oddly, it’s so far been the more senior figures that have stepped up, with base-level activists still distant.

Before the strike MoJ workers spoke with Richard Burgon MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, who’s backed Jeremy Corbyn since the first leadership bid in 2015. A former employment lawyer - his advisor spoke with an Ecuadorian MoJ worker in Spanish, after working for the left-wing PAIS Alliance - Burgon asked about hours and pay, before tweeting a formal letter to the Secretary of State for Justice the Thursday after (“you should ensure that everyone employed as a cleaner at the MoJ is paid at least the London Living Wage”). Last Wednesday, the rain pouring, Burgon spoke to workers again at the MoJ picket.

And with John McDonnell having spoken at IWGB’s June 5 protest against outsourcing at the UoL (‘we’re not going away!’), there’s a feeling of growing support from frontbench, left-wing politicians, despite the unions’ remaining without any formal link with the Labour Party (or indeed the formal labour movement). Given that both IWGB and UVW has so far relied less on full-blown work stoppages than relatively modest strikes in combination with protests (plus a knife-twisting social media presence), each of these frontbench interventions is potentially huge for unions - frontbench support means television exposure for the unions, and of the assorted councillors, supervisors and managers.

And for the first time, with the Triple Strike campaign there’s been concerted support from Labour councillors, with an open letter signed by over 70 at the time of writing.

But there’s no substantial relationship from either the Constituency Labour Party (CLP) level or Momentum branches for either UVW or the IWGB, itself part a wider trend - at least in London - of left-wing Labour activists struggling to develop radical politics outside of election campaigns. On-the-ground campaigning was crucial to robbing Theresa May’s Tories of their parliamentary majority last year, but Momentum’s movementist promise remains largely that.

One left-wing Labour councillor and signatory of the open letter said, “people are very positive about UVW, and people from the CLP have come to protests”:

It’s often not more than lip-service, basically. You can use that to your advantage, when it’s migrant cleaners, you know, people will sign stuff. But, there’s a long way to go, to getting CLP members actually active in rank-and-file trade unionism.

But, they added, “there is now a climate of opinion that is much more favourable to left-wing arguments” that hasn’t yet been translated into activists “trying to change the direction of their own union branch”.

One advisor to a pro-Corbyn leadership-level figure reckoned that political pressures against Corbyn at the CLP level have meant internal fights took priority - “the calculus often seems to be that [Momentum] resources are better off directed into party reform” they said, adding that “as the campaign over the HDV [Haringey Development Vehicle] shows there is a real, necessary space that Momentum groups can have within local self-organising”.

There are exceptions. It was Labour activists’ successful campaign that prevented a (Labour) council from flogging Haringey social housing (and several of them signed the councillors’ letter of support); Momentum fundraised for and helped promote BFAWU’s McStrike; more recently, Momentum’s presence at the anti-Tommy Robinson demonstration suggested activists’ eyes are open to need for beyond-elections organising. But if Labour is going to develop in tandem with increased trade union power (the only way for a Corbyn government to mean much), its new cohorts - tens of thousands of activists - have to appreciate the power of knocked-out-the-park industrial campaigns, through workshops to picket-support coaches to direct actions to themselves successfully striking, ideally in some relation to what are becoming the unexcelled schools of workers-versus-bosses trade unionism in London.

The exuberance of Corbyn’s first leadership campaign; the huge membership increase; Momentum; the Chicken Coup (just say ‘Owen Smith’); the General Election campaign and result; increased left-wing power over CLPs, in Parliament, and the Party bureaucracy; the JME interview, Stephen Kinnock’s post-election face; Jewdas’ Seder - none of this had a parallel in the labour unions over the same period.

Amongst the light and heat of UVW and IWGB’s contract-shredding campaigns, it’s easy to forget that the working class in the UK is still living through a three decades-long period of workplace defeat - according to the ONS, there have been fewer strikes every year since 1991 (620) than in any year in the preceding six decades before then. And, the annual number of stoppages hit an all-time low of 67 last year, with a record low of workers involved (33,000).

And, meanwhile, the modestly democratising efforts from both the leadership and base level of the Labour Party - John McDonnell’s insistence on the need for democratic control over public institutions; both Momentum and CLP groups’ arguing for the mandatory re-selection of MPs - have no analogue in the national-scale trade unions. The most recent democratising effort in a TUC union saw UCU officers launching a strike of their own - that is, against their own members’ even discussing a leadership change.

Assuming that there’s some relationship between Parliamentary radicalism and the working class’ power in the workplace, a politically meaningful Corbyn-led government will likely require far sharper breaks from status quo unionism than deposing a middle-ground General Secretary. Centrism’s dead, in the unions too.

Amongst all this, UVW’s Triple Strike is miniscule. Approximately 1000 workers would directly benefit from a win at the MoJ - compared with the 50,000-odd involved in UCU’s paused campaign. In terms of the number of likely days lost to strike action, the “Triple Strike” will be barely noticeable in the annual statistics. But even if it’s partly successful, the broader campaign will prove two things. First, that the least remunerated, most subordinated, most oppressed section of the working class in the UK are not only able to organise at work, but win; second - and this would be new - they’re able to develop beyond single-workplace campaigns, and strategise towards multi-workplace, multi-workforce victories. This, plus their internal democracy - raucous General Meetings, with a willingness to strike as-and-when workers consider it necessary - makes the union an exemplar of what might be more generally (sector-wide, London-wide, nationally).

To mark the end of the Triple Strike’s first week, UVW activists smashed a pig piñata outside the MoJ’s Petty France offices. Invites to speak, interview requests, offers of donations, membership, PMs, even requests from branches to join en masse - all of this exploded over the three days. How and where all this settles - whether UVW and IWGB’s militancy coheres and spreads, likely first amongst the worst paid and least represented workers in the UK today - is now one of the more pressing and, with their growth, increasingly practical questions not only for them, but the wider labour movement.