|A picketer outside the IWGB’s ‘battle bus’ in London this week|
The Industrial Workers of Great Britain‘s ‘3 Cosas‘ (‘3 things’ in Spanish) campaign has concluded three days of strike action against the University of London and cleaning subcontractors Cofely GDF-Suez. Having achieved their first two wishes (holidays and sick pay) at the end of last year, the cleaners were going for their third – pensions.
The success of the rank and file union was one of 2013’s bright spots – harnessing the solidarity of London radicals and workers, and winning significant improvements to the lives of the largely female and Spanish-speaking workforce. However, they still face significant challenges, not least due to the role of the Unison union as the bosses’ first line of defence.
The 3 Cosas campaign has made use of innovative strategies over the past few months, which have served them well and are worth replicating across other movements. The IWGB has put out many press releases via its 3 Cosas WordPress, plus YouTube publicity videos featuring the striking workers themselves. Some videos promote the strike fund, which raised £6,000 for workers during the last stoppage, and encouraged them to go all out for three days this time. A 3 Cosas ‘battle bus’ has made a whistlestop tour of prominent London locations, and the self-produced ‘Open Book’ strike bulletin has also gone towards getting the workers’ perspective out there among the wider public. All of these efforts – whilst cementing internal solidarity – have caused great embarrassment to the employers.
From the beginning of 3 Cosas, the cleaners’ former union – Unison – has tried to sabotage the grassroots campaign at every turn. In late November, when 3 Cosas workers struck against the university, Unison and the uni tried to maintain a public fiction that it was Unison who had secured the concessions. As Harry Stopes wrote at the time:
Cleaners and supporters outside Parliament
“Both the university and BBW [former contractors Balfour Beatty] have said that the concessions were made following negotiations with Unison, and had nothing to do with the IWGB or 3 Cosas. In one sense this is true; only Unison has been invited to meet with the employers, and the deal is the product of their negotiations. The University of London tweeted that the agreement was ‘a great result for Unison, the voice of moderation and constructive two way dialogue’, and that ‘constructive dialogue’ had triumphed over ‘staff intimidation’. But it can’t be a coincidence that the deal […] has only been offered after several noisy demonstrations and a well attended strike, all organised by the workers through the IWGB.”
Now the Unison sub-plot thickens still further. Today, it has been revealed that two cleaners are to be disciplined by management for attending a picket, and according to an IWGB Twitter account “it was the UNISON rep, who doubles as the Cleaning Services Manager, who sent out the investigation meeting letter!” Apparently the same woman had told a picket that she “didn’t believe in striking”.
Sharon Bracey – the cleaning manager/Unison organiser in question – perfectly illustrates some of the contradictions which often exist within corporate unions. Sure, she is a low level operative, and reps in many workplaces would not be similar. But Bracey is the cleaners’ manager within the business world, and strives to manage their anger at her own actions too. In one hat she is supposed to squeeze ever more profit out of them, and in the other she seeks to facilitate this through her union position.
As yet, IWGB 3 Cosas’ response to this latest attempt at intimidation has not been made public. But one thing is for sure – 3 Cosas cleaners will be asking for more solidarity in the weeks to come. Meanwhile, their story is a practical illustration of the argument that workers need to control their own struggles, through their own organisations.