Socialist Worker

Bold strikes mean cleaners are winning big

by Alistair Farrow
Issue No. 2622

UVW members on strike at Kensington and Chelsea council

UVW members on strike at Kensington and Chelsea council (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Cleaners across London have got bosses running scared.

Decades of privatisation and outsourcing of services have led to the downgrading of cleaners’ pay, terms and conditions. But strikes and protests have forced bosses to think twice and, in some cases, back down.

Successful, militant campaigns by smaller unions have pushed the issue into the mainstream press, and often shamed the leadership of larger unions into action.

But members of those unions have been fighting for years, and winning too.

At Soas, University of London, Unison union members recently won their long campaign to be brought back in-house.

And at a recent meeting Kings College London (KCL) management debated bringing cleaners in house.

They are looking at recent workers’ victories in London nervously. The final vote will take place on 26 September. Alex Nightingale, branch chair of KCL Unison, told Socialist Worker, “We’ve been organising and building the branch for about five years.

“It started off with the living wage campaign, but in the last year we’ve seen the most traction. If this vote goes in cleaners’ favour, it’s down to the campaign.”

Some say smaller unions are more effective at winning their demands because of new and innovative ways of organising.


Unions such as UVW have been more willing to strike and protest, and have sometimes got dramatic results.

Bosses came down to negotiate on the picket line at Kensington and Chelsea council after activists stormed the council chamber the previous day.

Victory at Soas as workers beat outsourcing
Victory at Soas as workers beat outsourcing
  Read More

Workers eventually won their demand for a pay rise and management said they may be brought back in house later this year.

At a strike rally at the University of London earlier this year, Petros Elia from UVW argued that workers’ numbers were not as important as a will to fight.

That appears to be true at first glance when looking at UVW’s recent list of victories.

But numbers do matter. Large numbers of people in the bigger unions are spread across Britain.

Smaller unions, while militant, can’t reach them in the same way. And it’s not the case that these millions don’t want to fight. Unison members at Soas are a key example of this.

Strikes have shamed bosses into paying the Living Wage. When it comes to above-inflation pay claims, or better terms and conditions, bosses may fold less swiftly.

They key issue is using strikes, not just propaganda campaigns or stunts.

The relationship between UVW and activists in larger unions such as Unison shouldn’t be hostile, however. Many look to the militancy of smaller unions as an example.

“It’s a great inspiration what’s happened at the LSE,” said Alex, referring to UVW’s victorious campaign for equal pay and conditions.

“It’s turning into a real movement and the tide is starting to change. Ultimately management need to realise that in house needs to be the solution.”

And there’s potential for that movement to grow outside London.

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