Tribute to Ernesto Leal, a founder of the London migrant cleaners' movement

Tribute written by members of the Latin American Workers' Association (LAWAS) in 2009 after the death of Ernesto Leal (11 January 1938 - 22 October 2009), Chilean communist exile who eventually moved to London, working as a cleaner and founding LAWAS. In the same days of Leal's death, Unite the union purged LAWAS, leading cleaners to join the IWW and eventually founding IWGB and UVW, which continue to organise cleaners and other low-wage migrant workers in London's service sector. We republish it here from The Commune (now defunct) in light of the recent historic victories of migrant cleaners at LSE and SOAS.

Submitted by bisognasognare on August 23, 2017

October was a sad month for Latin American workers residing in London, for two reasons. First came the death of Ernesto Leal, a Chilean committed to the cause of migrant workers, who was a founding member of the Latin American Workers’ Association. The other reason – shamefully coinciding with this loss – was the decision of the Unite union to kick out that same organisation our comrade Ernesto Leal helped found.

Given his dedication and his experiences it is worth revisiting a little of the history of this class fighter. He was born in far-off Chile in the late 1930s, son to a family devoted to the militant social struggles of the Chilean Communist Party. This political commitment on his parents’ part brought on their heads merciless political persecution, forcing them to live clandestinely and constantly change address.

After many months of moving from one place to another the family relocated to Talcahuano, a small industrial town on Chile’s west coast where there is a naval base. This was where Ernesto was born. His father worked organising committees to support communities and to help secure clean water, better living conditions and education.

Ernesto grew up in a family which was passionately committed to the fight for freedom and human rights. He inherited his communist ideas and belief in a better world from his mother and father. At 17 he joined the Chilean Navy, and would probably have remained there for many years had it not been for the Naval Police catching him in possession of forbidden literature, including some of the works of Karl Marx. This was an offence in naval law and he was court-martialled and expelled from the Navy in 1960.

Returning to his home town of Talcahuano he began working for his father’s business servicing boats for the Navy. At the same time he joined the Liga de Juventudes Comunistas (Communist Youth League) and was elected its political secretary. The early 1960s were a tumultuous period in Chilean politics, with Salvador Allende initiating his ultimately successful campaign for the presidency. Ernesto quickly assumed political responsibilities at local and regional level in the young communists’ central committee.

In 1964 he got married to Sonia Riquelme, also a political activist and a militant in the students’ union at the Universidad de Concepción, a university renowned for its leftist activism. Together they had four children, Ernesto Jr., Juan, Rosana and Sonia.

During the rule of the Popular Unity government led by Salvador Allende Ernesto began working for the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile (CUT; the national trade union federation). However, like all Chileans, his life was changed for ever by the coup d’état of 1973, where the military took power by force, at the cost of many lives including Allende himself. In 1976, after a brutal campaign of repression, Ernesto was arrested and tortured by the Navy. He never fully recovered from the beatings, electric shocks and other methods of torture he suffered at the hands of his captors.

He was later freed but on condition of exile, with the threat of the death penalty if he returned to Chile. He went to Argentina and stayed in a small frontier town called Neuquen to wait for his family before they together relocated to Buenos Aires.

In 1977, with the support of Amnesty International, the United Nations and the British trade union movement he was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom, where Scottish trade unionists helped him move to Cowdenbeath, in Fife.

Ernesto began working as a welder in the Leith shipyard and joined the GMB union. But this was in the time of Margaret Thatcher, and the shipyard was soon shut down. Ernesto then found work at the Faslane naval base, only to be dismissed when it became known that his wife was participating in the anti-nuclear weapons protests outside.

He took part in several union campaigns against shipyard closures, for which reason he was black-listed by bosses who considered him a “problem” worker. In the late 1980s he moved to London and became a welder in the construction industry. When the peak of the industry had passed he lost his job and took work as a cleaner in the building which was at that time the Evening Standard‘s offices. Becoming aware of the way cleaning companies treated the cleaners, he realised the necessity of organising this group of workers. The fruit of his efforts was the birth of the Latin American Workers’ Association.

This association became close to the T&G union (today part of Unite), which gave it an office, telephone and computer, by which means it initiated a large-scale and successful campaign of unionising Latin American migrant workers. Under the leadership of its various committees – of which Ernesto was always part – and the efforts of its many voluntary workers, not only did it bring more than a thousand Latin American workers into Unite, but its work was key to the creation of the Justice for Cleaners campaign.

But on 20th October, at the same time as Ernesto left this world, Unite, relying on lying and far-from-transparent arguments levelled by the regional Unite organiser José Vallejo, took the decision to remove the Latin American Workers’ Association from its offices.

Our association has written to Unite, unmasking one-by-one the lies of the organiser, explaining and giving clear evidence of the lack of transparency in that same organiser’s handling of union financial affairs, and denouncing his nepotism in inserting his own family members into union positions. Unfortunately, several days later Unite has still not responded to our letter, and we now believe they are never going to. They have good reasons for this – they cannot think up any valid or rational arguments to contradict our evidence.

For this reason, many of the members of the association who attended the funeral of our comrade Ernesto felt disgust and embarrassment seeing and hearing this same Unite organiser associate himself with the thoughts and struggles of Ernesto and his example as founder of our association, when in practice he has disdained the struggles of migrant workers, the fight which Ernesto lived for and dedicated himself to throughout his life.

The Latin American Workers’ Association, saddened by the loss of one of our founding members and also saddened by the betrayal of the union which considers itself the union for migrant workers in this country, pays tribute to Ernesto Leal. Rest in peace, comrade.

Hasta la victoria siempre, comrade Ernesto Leal. Every victory of our association will be dedicated to you, whose great heart rewarded us with your experience and steadfastness.

We will keep on fighting, true to our class principles.