Notes on an inquiry of the cleaning sector in London and grassroots resistance by
Achille Marotta, Lydia Hughes
The cleaners’ struggle at the London School of Economics (LSE) had a resounding effect on the radical and trade union left. How could it not? The cleaners seemed to reverse history, beating the tide of precarity and outsourcing ‘at a time of stigmatization of migrant workers and weakening of trade unions’. After ten months of campaigning with United Voices of the World (UVW) – including seven strike days, several demonstrations, and two occupations – the cleaners not only achieved their demands of equal terms and conditions with in-house staff, but forced the LSE to employ them directly.
The struggle was spectacular, in every sense of the word. Black, migrant, precarious workers rebelled against exploitation and invisibility in the belly of the neoliberal beast. It was their turn to speak – and they did so outside of Unison and the official trade union recognition agreement. The student-run Justice for Cleaners campaign helped to organise this spectacle, which publicly shamed the university and disrupted its day-to-day functioning. This was the winning tactic. But however many solidarity breakfasts we organised, however long we spent on the picket line, we maintained a feeling of cluelessness. This turned into an awareness that the picket line – the spectacle – was only half of the story.
Deliveroo, Foodora, Giovo. The success of these companies depends on the exploitation of an invisible precariat. Now, against all expectations these workers are mobilizing across borders to claim their rights.
A strike by Deliveroo workers London in the summer of 2016 was the first sign that food delivery platform workers were capable of mass collective action. The strike spread from Deliveroo to UberEats, and then around the UK. A year on, that struggle has spread transnationally. Food delivery platform workers have now been on strike in over ten cities across the UK, Italy, France, Spain and Germany.
Their struggles have both won victories and faced serious setbacks, but the fact remains that a transnational movement of precarious labour has emerged from what appeared to be the most unlikely of circumstances. Workers who were supposed to be weak and powerless have spread their antagonism with capital across borders in militant, unmediated action. This transnational circulation of struggle provides an example of how the changing composition of the working class can provide new opportunities, even as it demolishes old certainties.
In his classic 1967 article “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” E. P. Thompson described English workers’ everyday struggles against the capitalist regimentation of life. Workers of many sorts resisted the very designation of time as the proxy for work, and time measurement as the measure of labor; people still held onto earlier, alternative ideas of work, time, and leisure. In studying pre-capitalist societies around the world, Marshall Sahlins and later anthropologists have documented other cultures’ similar prioritization of a richness of social interaction over that of material goods. In what Sahlins called the “original affluent society,” affluence was measured by leisure rather than by the accumulation of wealth.
The union movement pushed for reduced hours until the apparent failure of the campaigns in Australia for a 35 hour week. This happened as the”neo-liberal” order reasserted itself via the oil crisis and what those on power called the crisis of democracy (ie there was just too much of it going on for them to be able peacefully accumulate anymore!)
Eva Swindler in Monthly Review last year asked “why did organized labor stop fighting for shorter hours? No one seems to know. Clearly this choice coincided with other deeply conservative union developments, including purges of leftists from the ranks. A desire for free time was even painted as an effeminate demand of the weak and women. Whatever the causes, however, it is clear that since organized labor ceased its push for shorter hours, work hours leveled off and then began lengthening, despite ever-increasing worker productivity. If work time is to be reduced again, history shows that it is workers themselves who will have to accomplish this.
Scandinavian countries have been a shining light for worker and social rights, but the evidence is that globalism has undermined equity and workers rights. Asbjørn Wahl looks at what has happened and what are some paths forward.
In our European surroundings, the level of unionization has almost halved over the last 30 years, and labour rights, labour laws and collective agreements have systematically deteriorated and/or been completely abolished. Most things are worse than here in Norway, but that does not mean that we are unaffected by this development. Much is going in the wrong direction here, too, even if it unfolds more slowly than in most of the rest of Europe. There is no doubt that Norway is still on the upper deck of the global welfare ship, but much indicates that it is the upper deck of Titanic.
In short, we can summarize that the inequalities in society are increasing also with us, and more authoritarian relations are emerging at the workplaces, including through an Americanization of organizational and management models, as the public Work Research Institute has so well documented. Wage growth for those at the bottom of the ladder has stagnated.
A newsletter published by the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) summarized this development quite well in a recent article, based on a new report from the independent research institute Fafo:
“If the trends continue as they are today, Norway will soon have as great inequalities as Germany and Great Britain. A new Fafo report shows that Norway is no longer a country of low inequalities. Norway is changing rapidly, and the lowest paid are the losers. Wages of the lowest paid in the private sector has virtually stood still since 2008 (…) fewer and fewer of those with the lowest wages have a collective agreement” (11/09/2016).
A massive, nationwide strike caused major disruption to India’s economy on 2 September, popularised as Bharat Bandh (literally ‘India closed’ in Hindi/Sanskrit). Some unions have claimed this was the largest general strike in history, with up to 150 million workers involved and costs to business of around $US 2.7 billion.
A significant feature of these strikes was the involvement of thousands of temporary workers, very few of whom have representation or support from trade unions. Another important strike took place recently in Bengaluru (Bangalore) where up to 400,000 workers emptied the city’s garments factories and flooded the streets in response to government changes to state pensions (the Provident Fund or PF). Key features of this strike included its primarily ‘wildcat’ character—local CTUOs were taken by surprise, despite having organised their own, much smaller response to the changes—and that the strikers were overwhelmingly women. This massive protest succeeded in deferring the Modi government’s plans.
Given that women tend to work outside the male-dominated structures of most trade unions, another highly significant development occurred in the tea plantations of Munnar in Kerala in September 2015, when female plantation workers established a new women migrant-led union—Pembila Urumai (‘Unity of Women’ in Tamil)—to break with male-dominated unions that had virtually ignored their interests.
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Over the past few weeks, thousands of South Korean transport workers have gone on strike to protest against government “reform” proposals that would make it easier for employers to fire workers, weaken seniority protections won through collective bargaining and privatize some state-owned industries.
The strikes, and the South Korean government’s fierce crackdown on labor, have generated an unprecedented response from global unions over what they see as clear-cut violations of workers’ rights to freedom of association.
Tim Shorrock reports