Learning from experience: To win is to fight to the end

This is a short interview looking at the experience of a migrant worker who has become a labour activist, and was involved in the successful self-organised strike by the Schroders cleaners in October 2008.

Submitted by Jason Cortez on March 6, 2009

Alberto has been working as a cleaner in London and fighting for better wages and conditions for over 10 years.

Like many from the immigrant community, he came to the UK to study and to look for a better life. Soon after his studies, he fell into the ranks of many immigrants doing low paid work.

He said: “In the morning, you see all the Africans and all the Latin Americans on the bus. After eight, you see more of a mix of people going out and that is normal. But I hope with time, with my son, with the new generation, that things will change. What we want is just the same opportunities as all other people.”

As Alberto's story unfolds, I get the distinct feeling that he will be one of the catalysts for change.
He got a job as a night cleaner at Enron at the time when Enron imploded, causing a ripple effect that resulted in him and 22 other cleaning staff being sacked. They received no redundancy pay from the cleaning company Lancaster, who had been outsourced by Enron, and were told to leave the premises immediately.

Shocked, Alberto and his colleagues said they wouldn’t budge unless they got a letter of explanation. The management threatened to call the police. Because some of the workers did not have all their papers, they left. But instead of meekly going home they went to Lancaster's head office.

A group of 22 cleaners arrived to lodge their complaints. Alberto said it had quite an impact. Probably for the first time, managers saw the angry faces of the usually anonymous ranks of the night shift.

They were shuffled into a side room and offered coffee and food in an attempt to calm the situation down. They tried to gently get them to leave by offering to cover their cab fare.

Alberto said: “We said no. We want our jobs.”

And so the months long battle began. The cleaners pursued all the tactics they knew of. They wrote letters. They sought legal advice. They met with the company. They contacted the Latin American Workers Association. They all piled into a meeting at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

They tried to create the necessary links with anyone really willing to fight for their cause. Due to a lack of experience and tiredness, the 22 workers shrunk to 10.

In the end, they managed to get their redundancy pay but more than half of them lost their jobs. Alberto, who still works for Lancaster at the Schroders site, said that if he knew then what he knows now they could have saved all 22 jobs.

The remaining 10 cleaners are now dedicated to trying to teach the lessons learned to other workers in struggle.

Now they are all members of the (T&G) Unite union. Alberto describes himself as a dedicated member but not officially part of any group or campaign. He says he is "just a worker who likes to give his solidarity to other workers when they are fighting".

With the advantage of an office and computer Alberto and colleagues began doing voluntary work for the union. Without salaries and paying their own expenses, they gave advice to other cleaners and migrant workers, in the process bringing in a number of new recruits to the union.

When trying to help other workers he would follow the advice of the union and pursue all the traditional methods of struggle. Legalities, letters, copies to the union, copies to the company, petitions, negotiations and more meetings with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau were utilised, but many of the root problems of the workers were not being addressed and they faced a growing number of unsolved cases.

As time passed Alberto was beginning to realize the limitations of what the trade union was willing or able to do. He wasn't getting the results he really wanted from the bureaucratic methods of the current union officials.

He said: "It works from top to bottom. It shouldn't be workers for capitalism. It shouldn't be like that. It should be workers for the workers."

Eventually the union brought over some organisers from the Justice for Cleaners campaign in the United States and established the UK counterpart. Alberto was heartened. He participated in their demonstrations all over London like at Goldman Sachs and Barclays. There were victories and wages were improved.

He said: "Cleaners around London were beginning to realize that yes; they had rights and could get action from the unions."

However Alberto began to realize that once again, there were limits to how hard the union was willing to fight for its members.

A recent case in point was the struggle of the cleaners at Willis, an insurance broker in London. Cleaners employed by the sub-contractor Mitie were dismissed after protesting against being forced to work full time hours at night.

In a letter Alberto received from the company he discovered that the union had signed an agreement banning workers from demonstrating outside company buildings.

He said: "How can you sign an agreement like that without telling the workers? They act like the Human Resources department for the company."

The last demonstration held on 14 February was subsequently deemed 'unofficial' and not supported by the union.

In another instance one year ago, Alberto and his co-workers began a new struggle at Schroders for a pay rise from £6.00 per hour up to £7.45 – the London living wage.

They were united and all 40 cleaners signed a petition. At first, the union responded enthusiastically saying that they would help and a demonstration in front of Schroders was planned.

Just before the demonstration went ahead however union officials said they would enter into negotiations with the company. The cleaners agreed. Disappointingly, the result of the first round of negotiations achieved nothing.

Alberto began to understand that they could pay their union dues and they could campaign for their rights but companies always seemed to have more leverage.

Without any results, the cleaners warned the union, "Either you do it, or we do it". With or without the union, they were going to fight for the living wage.

The company responded with an offer to cut night shift workers from 30 to 9 and change the hours of work from 4 hours to all night shifts. It was seen as an effort to destroy their unity and undermine their demands so a date was set for a demonstration - Friday, the 17th October, 2008.

Once again, it was stopped by the union in favour of negotiations. Alberto said: "let's play the political game. Let’s see what will happen."

Unfortunately the union officials returned from negotiations with nothing more than the promise of legal arbitration.

The cleaners were more than disappointed. Alberto noted "The people from the union, they talk high but, they never go to the sites of the workers. They never talk to the workers to see what they have to say".

In response the entire group of Schroders cleaners decided to go to the main offices of (T&G) Unite to see what the union had to say to the workers themselves.

The huge group was ushered into a meeting room. Paul Davis, one of the organizers of the Justice for Cleaners campaign, told them that the union would support their demonstration.

Alberto said: "Everyone saw him as a fighter because he was from this big campaign".

Mr. Davis went on to warn them that they should be careful on the demo. Anything could happen. He then recommended that they wear masks on their demo to hide their faces in case there was some form of unexpected retribution.

Some of the less experienced workers began to get nervous, wondering what the ramifications of demonstrating could be. Alberto was shocked: "We are not criminals. We have nothing to hide. We are just asking for our rights. That's it. We are not killing anyone".

Mr. Davis assured the union's support and set a new date, Wednesday, for a bigger demonstration with all the union organisers present.

The cleaners decided to keep their original date for the demo - Friday - in their back pockets.
When the Wednesday arrived, the union was there to stop it with their normal excuse that the company wanted to negotiate. This time, the workers refused.

They demanded a letter from the company that would promise not to dismiss any workers, to increase their wages and not mess with their hours. If this was not granted they would to stop work and demonstrate every day beginning on the Friday.

On Friday the demonstration went ahead. The workers from Schroder's were joined with employees from Amey who were fighting against unfair sackings after an immigration raid at the government’s National Physical Laboratory.

The company called for direct negotiations with the workers. The cleaners sent in a contingent consisting of one Polish worker, an African, a Bolivian, one Colombian and someone from the union to represent the 30 workers. The deal on the table from the company was to give the pay rise but reduce the workforce by two to be able to afford it.

The cleaners voted to reject the offer and sent a new letter to the company.

In the next meeting with management all of the worker's demands were met without a single cleaner losing their job.

Management asked if they were happy but the cleaners remained stone faced until they could bring the offer back to the rest of the workers. Only then was the offer received as a total victory for the cleaners of Schroders.

Now that the (T&G) Unite has ended the Justice for Cleaners campaign Alberto and his colleagues are organising around three different campaigns. These are Schroder's (Lancaster is the cleaning subcontractor), the Government Laboratories (using subcontractor, Amey) and Willis (who uses the company Mitie for their cleaning staff).

Alberto recognizes the huge benefits the Justice for Cleaners campaign has brought. It has raised awareness of the issues of low paid migrant workers and brought together a group of employees who can now share their experiences.

Alberto believes that the new orientation of the work for London cleaners is not Justice For Cleaners, "a justice that someone else will get for us - but, Cleaners for Justice. A justice we want to get for ourselves."

Alberto firmly maintains that despite their limitations "we need to have the unions. What we need to do is appropriate them, to get inside the unions and win these spaces."

Currently, Alberto and others from his community are planning to do just that and are collecting signatures to hold an election.

Originally appeared on Socialist Appeal, interviewed after the first demonstration on the 12th of February in support of the five sacked cleaners by Mitie/Willis.