Cleaners from across London and south east trains employed by outsourcing company Churchill went on strike to demand £15 an hour and better conditions. John McGrath reports from their rally in Parliament Square
Hundreds of people gathered outside Parliament on Wednesday 23 February in support of the striking rail cleaners who withheld their labour on a 24 hour walkout. They were joined by representatives of trade unions who spoke in solidarity and MPs of the Socialist Campaign Group.
The demonstration outside of Parliament was part of the Justice for Cleaners campaign and was coordinated with cleaners picketing stations in other parts of the city and the South East.
The striking workers clean trains and stations on Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern, Southeastern, Eurostar and HS1 services and are employed by the outsourcing company Churchill. The underpaid workers, who are represented by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) have toiled heroically throughout the Covid-19 crisis and are the epitome of the much praised but rarely compensated "essential workers".
For the most part, cleaners currently earn either the National Minimum Wage of £8.91 an hour or the so-called Living Wage of £9.50. As a result of soaring inflation (Retail Price Index inflation hit 7.8 % in January 2022) and the cost-of-living crisis, a recently-published study by the RMT illustrates that these workers are more than £1,200 worse off than they were 12 months ago. The rail cleaners demand a more just wage of £15 per hour and occupational sick pay and travel compensation equivalent to other rail workers.
One of the striking cleaners told us they only get two weeks holiday a year, which is very difficult for the largely migrant workforce with families abroad, which is why they're fighting for four weeks. She also spoke about how they worked through the pandemic and many of them got very sick as a result. Another striker, addressing the rally, said,
“We're going to fight for £15 an hour and we are gonna get it. In the union we have found our strength. The best thing they could have done is join us all up together - money-hungry people on four contracts have united the cleaners. We are the workers on the bottom ground and we are going to fight for what's right and we're gonna get it. I hope to see you all again on the picket lines.”
Richard Burgon spoke passionately at the rally, invoking the memory of Saltley Gate which was recently commemorated and telling the strikers they too can make history: “in 50 years, people will be talking about the great victory of the Churchill cleaners!” Apsana Begum highlighted the cost-of-living crisis and how it's affecting the working class in her remarks outside Parliament Wednesday, highlighting the need for workers to coordinate their disputes:
“Collective action and sticking together throughout these fights during the cost-of-living crises is ultimately going to make sure you all win the rights you all ultimately deserve. Solidarity!”
The dispute highlights the importance of a fighting union such as the RMT, a leader in the UK's trade union movement. Without their protection and intervention, Churchill would continue to exploit the cleaners and profit from unchecked greed. Last year while the UK was suffering some of the worst effects of the pandemic in the world, rail cleaners put their life on the line while Churchill Services Ltd. recorded profits of £11.1 million and paid a dividend of £12 million to its parent company. In fact, Churchill's pandemic profits alone would cover a 50% pay rise to over 1,000 of its exploited rail cleaners.
The rail cleaners made up a majority of the crowd on Wednesday, and the enthusiasm was high.
As RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch puts it:
“The support from Churchill cleaners for the action this morning is extraordinary and shows that these vital members of the rail team are prepared to stand up and fight for workplace justice. Pickets are out in force in London and South East and it’s now down to Churchill and their host companies to take note and offer these key workers a fair deal.”
The cleaners’ dispute emphasises the need for the rails to be reclaimed by public ownership and for wages to be negotiated without the mitigation of companies like Churchill which syphon profits with no benefit to the public or staff. As Jeremy Corbyn said: “In the longer term, the only answer to this is total, public ownership of the entirety of the transport system.”
Wednesday's strike followed a ballot where the cleaners voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action (in two of the ballots the majorities in favour of action were 100%).
In related news, RMT members on the London Underground will be striking across the network next week as planned. The dispute is over Mayor Sadiq Khan’s continued refusal to give assurances on jobs, pensions and working conditions in the midst of an on-going financial crisis driven by central Government.
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