In the aftermath of the UNITE leadership’s capitulation at Grangemouth, a key issue socialists need to address is that of how to effectively organise workers. The RCN and the commune organised the 3rd Global Commune conference – ‘Trade Unions- Are They Fit For Purpose’ (see Trade Unions In The Twenty First Century) – in which a number of approaches were considered. These included rank and file organisation within existing unions (see Jerry Hick’s response to Grangemouth at AFTER GRANGEMOUTH – WHAT NOW FOR THE LEFT IN SCOTLAND?) and the possibility of organising independent unions. This article from the Industrial Workers of Great Britain provides a robust defence of this position in the light of attacks from Max Watson, UNISON NEC member.


The Independent Workers Union (IWGB), in our activities organising mostly migrant cleaning workers, has gained wide recognition and respect. Professor of industrial relations Gregor Gall, recently wrote that:

“The IWGB is attempting to show in practice parts of the rest of the union movement that not only can what are commonly described as ‘difficult to organise’ be unionised but that they can be unionised in such a way where they play a greater than usual role in their own organising. But, of course, this takes guts and determination as well as a long-term orientation to do so.”(Frontline, an independent Marxist journal from Scotland, June 2013)

Gregor recognises it is true some union branches have organised cleaners: “But what the IWGB shows is that so much can be done with so little in terms of resources. If the same method of using their greater resources was applied to their work in the sector by the established unions then, presumably, so much more could be achieved.”

Our activity has raised important questions regarding present day trade unionism and how we organise in the workplace. Including the very need for the IWGB at all, we welcome a serious debate on these issues. The case against us was argued recently in Socialist Review by Sandy Nicoll – “Are ‘Pop-Up’ unions the way forward?”. The IWGB recently debated these issues at a seminar hosted by the Independent Workers Union (Ireland) in Belfast. It was a fraternal and mature discussion – a lesson for some of the ‘comrades’ in England on how to conduct themselves. For it is clear that rather than engage in a discussion on these matters some people would rather engage in abuse, spread untruths and blacken the name of the IWGB. We have sought to abstain from responding to abuse disguised as criticism and instead concentrate our efforts on the fight with the employers, to develop a culture of comradeship and spirit of solidarity.

However the recent article by Max Watson IWGB: Two small unions?, and the stance taken by some associated with him cannot go unanswered. It is not that Watson has articulated a view on important questions better than others or that he is a very important person due to his post on the UNISON NEC. We are responding because Watson has openly belittled and maligned the struggle and achievements of cleaners themselves – directing his venom at the John Lewis cleaners and the locked-out NTT cleaners. To read this from someone who describes themselves as a “Socialist & trade union activist” is beyond disappointing.

Fabrications that seek to divide us

Before addressing the issues within and surrounding Watson’s article let us make clear in summary that contrary to his fabrications:

  • It is a lie that IWGB has a strategy “focused on recruiting members of other unions” or of “poaching”
  • It is a lie that IWGB accused Max Watson and the London Metropolitan University Branch of UNISON of racism
  • It is a lie that IWGB “attacked” Max Watson at the same time he was under attack by his employer, the government and officialdom

Indeed until recently the IWGB has never issued a single word of criticism or correction of Max Watson’s statements even though we would certainly be within our rights to take action in pursuant of the Defamation Act 1996.

It is the case that much of Watson’s tirades against IWGB arises from the fact a cleaner sent a private text message to another cleaner which included criticism of him. In addition to his at times irrational and arrogant demands for an apology from this migrant worker, there is a more disturbing agenda at work. Watson and friends are seeking to discredit the IWGB and to drive a wedge between us and other members of the Labour Movement, especially those unions who cooperate with the IWGB. The decision of the UNISON United Left influenced by Watson not to support the 3 Cosas campaign for equal sick pay, holiday’s and pensions for University of London cleaners, who are poised to ballot for strike action, is testimony of the divisiveness of such methods.

Buried within Watson’s article which is peppered with personal abuse, is the more significant question of forming news unions – that is does the IWGB have a right to exist at all. We are provided with an opportunity to address this before presenting the truth about the slanders against us.

New unionism – renegades or renewal

The IWGB is criticised by Watson for not being affiliated to the TUC, that our “view is basically: UNISON is a Labour-affiliated, sell-out union full of right wing officials so there is no way we should join them.” Facts show otherwise, for example Alberto Durango IWGB Organiser was until his victimisation also a UNISON Shop-Steward in the NHS. We continue to have members who are also active in other unions including UNITE, UCU, PCS, RMT and UNISON to name but a few.

Watson is disingenuous in his modesty declaring “All of this stuff may be important to those thinking about the wider issues of red unionism or whatever. I’m no historian, and I’m not a dialectical materialist who likes to hypothesize with my pen all night and day.” This is after writing over 3000 words attacking the IWGB and posting on the internet he holds a Master of Research, Labour & Trade Union Studies supervised by the historian Mary Davies, and a BA: Politics and Modern History. Watson has publically attacked the IWGB for “Red Unionism”.

History is indeed relevant though not his warped view of the old Red International of Labour Unions. Watson’s problem is not lack of knowledge but his dogmatic view of historical development. For Watson the current organisational form of the trade unions is fixed rigid, it should not be altered as to attempt to do otherwise would result in a creating a “sectarian personality cult”. But history shows otherwise.

Life does not stand still, and the development of our movement did not begin or end with the forming of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in 1867 or the General Federation of Trade unions (GFTU) in 1899. Our own time has some similarity to conditions which gave rise to the ‘new unionism’ before the upsurge of the years 1888-1914. The “old unions” were elitist, there was bigotry towards migrant workers, unskilled workers and woman were neglected. Millions were unorganised. The workers desire for change gave birth to new unions – the General Railway Workers’ Union (now the RMT), Matchmakers’ Union, the Amalgamated Society of Gasworkers, Brickmakers and General Labourers, National Federation of Labour, the Dockers Union, the National Sailors’, Firemen’s Union, and the Industrial Workers of Great Britain to name but a few.

The view of the old unions’ leaders was the same as that of Watson and his co-thinkers – hostility. TUC leader Henry Broadhurst denounced the new unionism as causing “disruption” and to “hound these creatures from our midst.” The organising of the new unions was assisted by militants of the then radical socialist organisations, despite their own sectarianism. A lesson important for today.

Many who pioneered or were influenced by the new unionism played a leading role in building the rank and file shop-stewards movements from 1915-1926, taking action within and when necessary independent of the established unions. By taking a tunnel vision view of our history many of today’s activists, some calling themselves Marxists (poor Marx!) have come to view activity within established unions as the only acceptable option – completely ignoring the whole experience of new unionism and the Great Unrest.

The case for a new unionism is relevant now

It was certainly true in the post-war period where the trade union movement expanded to 13.5 million members by 1980 covering 55% of the entire workforce, that there was little scope or justification for creating new independent unions. Then rank and file/shop-stewards movements played a pivotal role. But thirty-three years later the situation in the UK is dramatically different.

The number of union members as a proportion of the total 29 million in work, has fell to 26.0% in 2011. In the private sector the number in unions fell to 14.1 in 2011, in the public sector 56.5%. The number of overall workers covered by collective bargaining between unions and employers stands fell to 31.2% in 2011. The new organising campaigns like Justice for Cleaners that began in the 1990’s, was meant to start organising the ocean of unorganised workplaces. Today only the RMT has continued with a sustained campaign of organising cleaners on the railways. Elsewhere it has been at the initiative of local branches whether cleaners and outsourced workers are organised. Amidst the deepening crisis of capitalism key unions such as UNISON and UNITE opted for a siege mentality of holding on where they were already organised in ‘brownfield’ areas as opposed to ‘greenfield’ initiatives.

This hold onto what we’ve got mentality has not halted the membership decline even in the strongholds of union organisation. Indeed with 61% of all union members in the public sector, as outsourcing intensified from the 1990’s many of those previously unionised workers, such as cleaners found themselves virtually abandoned as unions sought to hold onto their stronghold amongst the “core” workforce.

Today union organisation hardly exists in the hotel, restaurant, fast-food and leisure sectors. The service sector, especially retail which has three million workers is similarly poorly organised; the union presence stands at 11% of workers. At a time when 47% of union members are in professional occupations whilst the movement is failing to expand amongst three million of the lowest paid, “vulnerable” workers of the economy then the similarity to the situation faced by new unionism in the past is obvious.

The IWGB considers that there is an urgent need to organise the 70% of workers not organised and neglected by the old guard of the labour movement. That does not mean abandoning all existing unions, we have never argued that. But it does mean recognising that the scope for new unions such as IWGB has arisen again. This can be seen not in the more recent struggle of cleaners in London but the North Sea oil workers.

After the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 the workers formed the rank and file Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) frustrated with the failures of the smaller established unions. In 1991 they established themselves as an independent union. They were denounced by the Labour Party, the AEU, EETPU and GMB and many on the left. Today they continue as OILC- RMT Offshore Energy Branch.

This past and recent experience shows clearly it is false to put a barrier between the established movement and new initiatives from below by workers organising themselves. It is equally wrong to consider the emergence of independent unions as counter-posed to a rank-and-file shop stewards movement to transform the labour movement.

Solidarity or Slanders: Watsons Fiction Pulped

Max Watson has an obsessive disagreement with the IWGB because a cleaner criticised him in a private text message. This condition has grown worse following the decision of the vast majority of outsourced workers and others at the University of London to join the IWGB. The IWGB did not call on anyone to leave UNISON; this decision was an exercise of the workers own right to choose how they organise. We defend their right just as we would a member of TSSA joining RMT. We completely reject a mentality that views “the members” as a kind of property, one which sees sovereignty in a union not with the workers themselves but with the union as an institution.

The decision of the workers at the University of London has been ably explained and defended in articles by Jason Moyer-Lee and Daniel Cooper. Since the IWGB branch was formed there has been an electrification of the cleaners struggle at the University, coupled by a hysterical scare-campaign by certain Full-timers, alongside efforts by university bosses to ban protests and use the Police to supress dissent.

The IWGB branch is engaged in a struggle with the University and Balfour Beatty bosses. Our members are now prepared for a campaign of industrial action. The UNISON United Left which Watson is a leading member stands for “Solidarity with UNISON members and other workers in struggle.” Yet the attacks by Watson on the IWGB cleaners facing banns and arrests of their student supporters, is in contradiction with these professed principles. We appeal for the UNISON members to continue to cooperate with their fellow workers in the spirit of solidarity.

Instead of solidarity Watson engages in slanders. To strengthen his disagreement over the events at University of London he has fabricated a story of what were in fact very minor events at London Metropolitan University. This includes contemptible attacks on cleaners who have stood up to their bosses.


The IWGB is not engaged in a strategy of “Poaching”. In the vast majority of workplaces we have organised there are no other unions, in some places the sub-contracted cleaners were not organised by unions representing ‘in-house’ workers, an example is the Barbican where we have sought fraternal relations with other unions and the GMB has shown solidarity with our recent strike. It is true at St Georges, University of London in Tooting we had a disagreement with UNISON. All the cleaners joined IWGB in a successful struggle against cuts and for the London Living Wage. One person joined UNISON; the employer behind our backs signed a recognition deal with UNISON and tried without success to break our union. This was an exception.

The fact is the 1939 TUC Bridlington Agreement against poaching between unions has long been unfit for purpose and regularly ignored. What is needed is a solidarity agreement, not crossing each other’s picket lines and supporting fellow workers in struggle.

The IWGB did not attack Watson when he was being victimised. This is simply a work of fiction. Watson’s obsessive disagreements pre-date his own recent suspension by the London Metropolitan University bosses.

The NTT Cleaners Fight was a Victory

The IWGB in its past or present form has not set out to undermine UNISON at London Metropolitan University. How did it come about that we have cleaner members at the University? Watson denigrates these cleaners and their achievements as having been in “collusion” with the employer, mocking, that they ‘got themselves transferred’ and were wrong to claim a victory in their fight.

In February 2012 the cleaners at NTT Communications, employed by Dynamiq protested – in response the entire workforce was locked out by NTT and told they would be made redundant. The unity of our members stopped the dismissals, forced Dynamiq to agree the workers would stay together in alternative jobs, be put on the London Living Wage and relocated on TUPE conditions. In the end all the workers were transferred to the Moorgate and North Campus site of London Metropolitan University where Dynamiq had the contract.

Watson claims this was ‘behind our backs, so in effect in collusion with the employer’ – is he seriously saying workers, who had never even heard of Mr Max Watson and not in UNISON, should have asked his permission to save their own jobs? Is he saying forcing an employer who wants to sack everyone to find them jobs with a pay rise is class collaboration? Sorry, are you mad, Max?

The Patriarch of London Met

At Moorgate site there was no UNISON presence amongst cleaners, the other cleaners were very impressed by the new workers accounts. But there was no decision to go on a ‘permanent recruitment drive’ as claimed.

Our union did set out to work with Watson organising cleaners at London Metropolitan. We had no plans to organise there at all. It is no doubt true UNISON did organise cleaners in the past, it was also the case many cleaners informed us activity had lapsed. The cleaners already at Moorgate certainly had no engagement with UNISON. This is not a criticism just how things were felt by cleaners.

Watson first contacted the IWGB and spoke at a cleaners protest at Reuters in Aldgate. He offered cooperation – he also raised working together and “no poaching” – it was never on our minds. At a meeting of all cleaners, Alberto Durango emphasised that there was already a union organised and they should be part of it – that is UNISON! A meeting of cleaners was held which elected reps to represent all cleaners, regardless of their union membership. One of our cleaners’ branch activists was one of them. She is a political refugee with a respected history of activity in Colombia. Someone who has seen close family members languish in prison and her own life under threat.

Why then did Watson become so upset with us? From the start we made clear to him it is important in working together that we do so as equals and with mutual respect. Instead we and our members were treated condescendingly. Watson became incensed because:

  1. A joint union leaflet was not produced to meet his deadline
  2. Alberto Durango attended a meeting with the cleaning contractor, Watson did not know in advance he was coming
  3. Some leaflets informing people who our union was had been distributed in the UNISON office – he was there it was hardly a secret

All because of these minor things Watson was angry, telephoning Chris Ford arrogantly damming our whole union as “unreliable” and engaged in some-kind of campaign to undermine UNISON. It was an over the top paranoia coupled with a control freak mentality.

Watson writes that he emailed Chris Ford IWGB Secretary ‘to try to resolve our conflict at London Met’. This is not the case. Watson sent long emails which bore the hallmarks of an obsession with a text in Spanish by the women activist mentioned above – to another cleaner’s rep. She also felt Watson took advantage of her poor English. That was entirely her prerogative. She certainly did not make the assertions in his wild claims

Watson persisted in arrogantly demanding this cleaner issue an apology. We had no intention of engaging in a ridiculous hounding of this worker all because she was critical of the UNISON Branch Chair. Indeed she was a member of the UNISON Branch at the time. Does Watson hound other members of UNISON to apologise for being critical of him?

Watson notes we were too busy with the John Lewis cleaners strike to answer him. Firstly all our activists are volunteers who do not get paid time off work to engage in union activities and the strike at John Lewis was more important. Secondly contrary to his paranoid fantasies we were not engaged in an organising drive at London Metropolitan University so it was not on our list priorities.

Watson embellishes his fable about London Met with a slander Chris Ford played ‘no positive role’ in the London Living Wage campaign whilst a lecturer at that University. In fact he had only just started working there and was a member of UCU not UNISON. However even though Chris was a part-time PhD student who worked a mere couple of hours per week as an Hourly Paid Lecturer he was the only HPL in his Department taking strike action and encouraging others to join UCU. He was sacked and represented by UCU who considered he was victimised, losing his job and his student position. These facts Watson is aware of but chooses to ignore.

It is bizarre indeed that Watson should cite some anarchists associated with the IWW approvingly to attack us. During a brief period the old Latin American Workers Association and Justice for Cleaners joined the IWW. The people Watson cites against us engaged in constant attacks on us for amongst other things they thought we wanted to become like “just another TUC union”, we were denounced for having legal strike action, and “getting into bed with Labour MPs”, meaning our friendship with John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. And Watson thinks we are “laughable”.

Contemptuous Attack on John Lewis Cleaners

From his high office Watson not only belittles the NTT cleaners and an insubordinate woman who criticised him – but contemptibly attacks the John Lewis cleaners struggle. In order to justify branding their achievements as “hyper-bollocks” he simply lies about the campaign of the John Lewis cleaners.

The cleaners of John Lewis in Oxford Street are 100% migrant workers from Latin America and Africa employed by the contractor ICM. From December 2011 until August 2012 they struggled with the employers to stop compulsory cuts of a third of the staff and cuts in their hours. They added to their campaign the demand for the London Living Wage.

Having kept the bosses at bay for months, without a penny in strike pay, the cleaners took two days of strike action in August 2012, the first at John Lewis since 1920. The militant strikes were accompanied by protests and direct action. Poised to take a third strike the employers agreed to a settlement which saw, no job cuts, no cuts in hours, reinstatement of two workers, re-organisation of excessive shift-hours and a 9% pay increase. This was followed by the same pay rise for hundreds of cleaners in John Lewis across stores in London. At this time there were job cuts and austerity measures across the country, including many at London Metropolitan University. Against this background IWGB Secretary Chris Ford was right to state the cleaners “achievements are not minor – they are almost unheard of in the current period of austerity.”

For the cleaners this was a ceasefire, the campaign has continued for the full Living Wage and is escalating towards new strike action. Instead Watson belittles the statement as “laughable” and even worse condemning the cleaners as giving in when they should have won writing that “others had been winning the Living Wage elsewhere and to be quite honest, with an employer like John Lewis? Talk about open goal missed.”

By any decent trade unionists standards Watson’s statement is contemptible – Max Watson writes that of the John Lewis dispute: “If that is not hyper-bollocks then my name is Jim Larkin.” No your not – perhaps a word from the Mad Max of the big screen: “Look, any longer out on that road and I’m one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I’ve got this bronze badge that says that I’m one of the good guys.” Indeed.

Our movement is at a crossroads, we urgently need a new unionism which meets the challenges of the 21st Century, the seeds of that new unionism are germinating in the struggles of today – the IWGB is a part of this process and we urge genuine trade unionists to support and assist the Independent Workers Union.


Also see Report On Two Ongoing Industrial Struggles And Campaigns

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