by Chris Kane
The cleaners’ struggle at Swiss bank UBS has extracted some significant concessions from the bosses, thanks to a determined campaign.
As reported in previous issues of The Commune, in February UBS switched to cut-price contractor Lancaster, effectively meaning a 10.75% pay cut for cleaning staff in its City of London offices. When the immigrant workforce protested this injustice, their elected shop steward Alberto Durango was fired by Lancaster in a blatant act of victimisation.
Legally speaking, UBS switching contractor ought not to have affected the workers’ conditions, but in reality they bulldozed through the changes. What they did not count on was the workers’ resistance. For almost three months low paid migrant cleaners challenged Europe’s second biggest bank, refusing to turn up for their new shift patterns or to sign the new contracts.
Moreover, in spite of the total lack of support for the cleaners from the Unite union, there was a vibrant and broad solidarity campaign from other quarters. Four lively protests outside UBS’s HQ at London’s Liverpool Street attracted as many as a hundred people, with loud chanting and militant speeches. The demonstrations involved workers across trade union divides, from cleaners to builders and teachers. There were protests across the world, from Edinburgh to New York and from Kyiv to Buenos Aires.
The resilience of the workers, and the solidarity initiatives, went some way to embarrassing the bank and its hireling Lancaster into a settlement. The concessions first filtered through around the time of the 23rd April London protest, although the details are still subject to a legal embargo. We hope to be able to publish more information shortly.
Coming out of this phase of the campaign at UBS we can consider that there have been some significant achievements, including the organisation of the dispute itself. Since Unite’s effective abandonment of the Justice for Cleaners campaign it has been difficult for migrant cleaners to fight back against attacks on conditions, as displayed in the Willis and SOAS cleaners’ disputes in 2009, both of which ended in defeat. As the recent deportation of a cleaner at another UBS office shows, the employers, their state and the borders regime still have very powerful weapons against us.
Despite the difficulty of workplace organising in the face of Unite’s refusal to take action, the UBS campaign means a new type of organisation. A cleaners’ branch of the IWW union is being established so that these workers can have both legal protections and their own autonomous organisation, and not need the permission of full time officials.
Moreover, the Cleaners’ Defence Committee set up to organise solidarity protests has proven successful in pulling together diverse forces around a radical cause – the intransigent defence of much-stigmatised migrant workers.
We can take heart from the UBS campaign, and the defiance of migrant cleaners and their allies who proved that it is possible to resist even the most powerful employers.