David Broder of the UBS Cleaners Defence Campaign outlines the problems faced by migrant workers when they try to organise

On February 12th almost a hundred people demonstrated outside Swiss bank UBS’s London headquarters in protest at the victimisation of Alberto Durango. A Colombian migrant worker, Alberto was sacked by cleaning company Lancaster almost as soon as they took over the UBS contract.

Given the state of our movement it might seem surprising that so many people would turn out on a wet Friday lunchtime in defence of one man’s job – indeed, a worker who is not supported by his union, Unite.

But the fight is not just for Alberto’s reinstatement. Rather, it fits into a wider pattern of disputes in the capital in recent years, touching on a number of issues: low-paid cleaners being attacked by the world’s wealthiest institutions; the border controls regime; blacklisting; and the passivity of unions towards migrant worker struggles.

Lancaster and Alberto Durango

UBS is the second largest bank in Europe and has ten offices in London. Having previously used both Mitie and Lancaster for their office cleaning, in recent years UBS has favoured the latter, with February 1st seeing the last office come under Lancaster’s responsibility.

The bank’s interest is to choose the contractor best able to keep down costs, and thus it is UBS who are ultimately responsible for the conditions under which cleaners are employed. This issue was particularly sharply posed after the successful struggle for a ‘living wage’ in 2008, and the bank and its hirelings sought to push down costs.

They did so by making each worker do more work in less time. Mitie moved full-time workers on to part-time contracts, started taking breaks out of workers’ pay, and reduced staff numbers in order to claw back the money lost through the 2008 wage rise. This was all before the change in contractor.

Legally speaking, under TUPE cleaners had a right to the same terms and conditions under Lancaster as with Mitie. At the 20th November meeting where workers were told of the change in contractor, and in a 29th January letter from Mitie, workers were assured that their conditions would remain the same.

However, in a 15th January letter Lancaster declared their intention to cut the hours from 8 to 7 for some workers, and 4 to 3 for part-timers. These were ‘proposed’ changes, a ‘consultation’ to satisfy TUPE. Yet in a meeting workers were told that they had to accept the new regime or lose their jobs.

For some workers, childcare responsibilities made it impossible to work the new timetable; some among the workers could simply not afford to get by on a shorter shift; others, already angry at previous attacks on conditions, refused to cave in. The Unite shop steward who told the workers to keep their heads down was voted out, and replaced by Alberto Durango, who advocated a grievance against the proposed changes.

Alberto is well known to Lancaster, since he was involved in the 2008 fight for the living wage at their contract at Schroeders bank. There demonstrations by 32 workers forced the company to cave in spite of a near total absence of union backing. In punishment for this, in May 2009 Lancaster reported Alberto to the UK Borders Agency and he was arrested over allegations of working under a false name. The company then sacked him, although they were later forced to admit that these allegations were untrue.

Alberto himself today has stable immigration status, but when this was put into question by Lancaster last May he was arrested and his home raided by police. The officers quizzed him on his employment at Mitie/Willis, even though he had never worked there. This ‘mistake’ was clearly the result of his prominent role in the demonstrations outside the Willis building, and pointed to the possibility of industry blacklists going beyond even Lancaster’s hostility towards Alberto.

Unsurprisingly, given Alberto’s past organising efforts, the previous victimisation and the fight over cuts in hours, Lancaster quickly moved to oust him. Having taken over the contract at the UBS office where Alberto worked on February 1st, they suspended him on the 2nd and sacked him at a kangaroo court on the 4th.

Unite is unresponsive, and worse, even telephoned Lancaster on the day of the February 12th demonstration to assure them that the protest was not backed by the union. Given the contrast between Unite’s antipathy and the level of solidarity from others, a Cleaners’ Defence Committee has been established as an ad hoc support group, demanding Alberto’s reinstatement and the maintenance of existing hours at UBS.

Organising strategy and the employers’ tactics

Although often housed in large, gleaming buildings, workplaces such as bank offices often have only a handful of cleaners. The small groups into which cleaners are packaged by cleaning companies; competition between contractors to drive down costs; and the intimidation of migrant workers, even if legally resident in the UK; pose significant obstacles to organising.

The T&G (now part of Unite) started the Justice for Cleaners campaign in an effort to organise these workers en masse, imitating the Justice for Janitors campaign in the United States. The union’s strategy was to target the biggest buildings with some of the best-known companies in the City of London and Canary Wharf, and thus chalk up some headline victories. In the campaign’s first year the likes of Barclays, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley conceded the ‘living wage’, at the time set at £7.20 an hour.

At the time the Latin American Workers’ Association was key to the organising drive, initiating a ‘papers for all’ march and providing services to the cleaners, such as English classes. Moreover, the union saw Justice for Cleaners as somewhat of a flagship success story and in 2007 recognised LAWA’s contribution with financial support and the provision of office space.

However, there was also a tension insofar as Justice for Cleaners was heavily focused on winnable headline successes. Unite were unwilling to put time and resources into organising smaller buildings, so many of these cleaners who joined the union were effectively organised by LAWA instead. Moreover, the regional industrial organiser, Jose Vallejo, was outspoken in his opposition to the ‘papers for all’ demand, to which Unite has counter-posed straightforward support for London Citizens’ campaign for a conditional ‘amnesty’ for sufficiently hard-working, non-criminal and English-speaking migrants.

Moreover, the initial wave of success of Justice for Cleaners was only in part built on real organisation and empowerment of the workers themselves. Flash demonstrations and exposing employers certainly have their place, but victories which do not leave in their wake a real culture of organisation will surely be ephemeral. This central flaw in the Justice for Cleaners organising strategy is typified by the agreement for a wage rise in exchange for a guarantee of no further demonstrations, tying the workers’ hands. Of course, as in the UBS case, the employer can thus cut hours, lay off staff and victimise activists in order to claw back the wage rise by other means.

A campaign which prioritised the union’s image above all else, Justice for Cleaners proved indifferent to many smaller grassroots struggles such as the campaign for the reinstatement of five cleaners victimised at the National Physical Laboratory, and indeed the Schroeders bank demonstration. While doing nothing to support the 2008 cleaners’ strike on the London Underground, nor defend those victimised in consequence, Justice for Cleaners sought to claim credit for its successes.

Moreover, in the fight for the reinstatement of five workers sacked by Mitie at the Willis insurance building in the City last year – victimised for protesting a switch from day to night-time work – Unite attempted to suppress a struggle prominently supported by LAWA. They were not afraid to resort to outrageous smears to help undermine the struggle: the cleaners and their supporters were accused of being “paid by the cleaning bosses to attack cleaners”; attacked “tiny groups seeking to undermine our united campaign”; at a United Left meeting a vote was held to the effect that Alberto should not be allowed to speak. LAWA’s office space was taken away. The cleaners who had been the foundation of Justice for Cleaners’ successes in the last few years were now subject to vicious slanders from union officialdom.

The insincerity and vacillation of the Justice for Cleaners campaign, which appears ever-less-active, is particularly abhorrent given the high stakes for many of the cleaners involved. Not only is life for any cleaner in London precarious – often working varied shifts at different workplaces on low wages – but the employers have often resorted to immigration raids to settle scores with unruly employees. In summer 2009 this occurred both at the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Willis building.

Solidarity with migrant cleaners

The recession has seen increasing anti-immigration sentiment in British society, but also many in the labour movement advocating ‘keeping our heads down’ until the economy picks up – these two factors, combined with the inefficacy of Justice for Cleaners and the concomitant attacks on cleaners’ conditions, sharply pose the need for better organisation.

There are already a myriad of community organisations such as those gathered in the Coordinadora Latinoamericana, as well as activist groups whose members are regularly involved in solidarity work, for example Campaign Against Immigration Controls, No Borders, Feminist Fightback and London Coalition Against Poverty. These all play an important role in raising the wider – and often ignored – political themes amongst the whole movement, in particular many activists’ unease about explicit opposition to all border controls.

What does not exist, however, is a forum which brings together these cleaning workers as workers, across community and language divides as well as across workplaces. The T&G attempt to recruit members among cleaners on the London Underground in 2006 – yet in 2008 failing to do anything in support of the RMT-led strike – pointed not only to that union’s failings but also the divisiveness of petty squabbles for ‘ownership’ of a group of workers.

Mere propaganda is insufficient. The ‘Hands Off My Workmate’ conference staged by the SWP in October opted not to discuss existing cleaner campaigns and what is wrong with the unions, but rather to keep the left of the bureaucracy on board with just general anti-racism – not even opposition to border controls as such. Even the name ‘Hands Off My Workmate’ points to the idea that this is a campaign for lecturers, not for migrant workers themselves.

As against such top-down conceptions, some activists involved in recent campaigns are discussing the desirability of some sort of cleaners’ forum existing literally ‘above and beyond’ unions – both members of UNISON, UNITE, RMT, and so on, as well as non-unionised members. This approach has been exemplified in the UBS and Schroeders disputes – demanding the union’s organisational, financial and legal backing, but not waiting on this or prioritising making the dispute official over grassroots organising itself.

What is most important is that the cleaners themselves are empowered to take charge of decision-making and the direction of any campaigns that emerge. The ‘base group’ concept of organising – whereby activists from ‘outside’ a given workplace take direct action or carry out practical tasks such as flyposting or leaflet production, which cleaners might be afraid to get involved in, but take themselves direction from meetings with the workers ‘inside’ – is clearly of use here.

Activists ‘privileged’ in terms of immigration status and nationality, cultural capital, class background and experience should do everything in our power to solidarise with these struggles and make loud and clear the points raised to the whole workers’ movement, but without treading on the toes of the cleaners’ autonomy.

Support the UBS cleaners

Already many have rallied to the UBS cleaners’ cause, with dozens of organisations, union branches and prominent figures in our movement sponsoring the demonstrations. A legal fund has been established (details below) for Alberto’s legal case against Lancaster, and the Cleaners’ Defence Committee is urging all those committed to working-class solidarity and support for migrant workers to help raise the necessary funds.

The struggle at UBS raises important questions for our movement in terms of solidarity with migrant workers; how we can build and ensure the success of unofficial disputes; and combat blacklisting and victimisation. The banks want to get cleaners to work harder and harder for peanuts; the cleaners are refusing to let them get away with it. It is vital that we mobilise behind this struggle, and moreover, show that we can resist the recession: show that we can win.