United action by teachers and cleaners at Lister school in Newham, east London, has won the reinstatement of Lorraine Mngadi, an activist in the Unison union.
The news came 48 hours after she had been dismissed without notice from her cleaning job at the school.
Lorraine, who is currently standing for the national executive of Unison, was dismissed from Lister – one of three schools where she works for Newham council each day – on Tuesday of last week.
Cleaners are often not given proper contracts and find they are moved about from school to school without notice – sometimes having to travel many extra miles at 5am.
In the schools where Lorraine works, cleaners have begun to organise.
On Wednesday morning a petition drawn up by Unison members began to circulate in the school.
The NUT teaching union rep used his breaks to circulate it among teachers, who were appalled to find out how the invisible army of workers who clean their school before they arrive each day are being treated.
NUT members lobbied the head and the senior manager in catering and cleaning – which gave the cleaners confidence to act themselves.
“We are ready to do anything now,” said one cleaner. “We have been talking among ourselves. We all feel too sorry that this is happening. We know Lorraine had a permanent job. She has been here for months. She does a good job.”
A colleague added, “We have no dignity and this is too much. We are ready to stop work.”
After discussions it was decided to organise a meeting of all the morning cleaners with a Unison rep half an hour before their shift ended on Thursday morning and to look for action on Friday morning, asking the NUT members to make and display a banner in support of the cleaners.
Everyone came to the Thursday meeting – including the cleaner who had been moved into the school to replace Lorraine, and the supervisor, who joined the union on the spot.
As the meeting started, the news broke that Lorraine had been reinstated – so the discussion turned to the way solidarity had made victory possible, the need for unity and the problems of institutional racism and casualisation of work that the cleaners face.
When the NUT rep arrived, unaware of the victory, to express solidarity and discuss further action, the cleaners thanked him and expressed their delight at the support.
But emboldened by their success, the cleaners had no hesitation in also demanding that in future teachers speak to the cleaners and invite them to events such as the Christmas party.
“We just want to be treated as human beings,” one cleaner said.