By mute, 18 December 2013
Image: Cleaners' demonstration LSE, London, 2012. Photo: Pete Marshall

Translation by Liz Maxwell and Lorena Cervera Ferrer


You should not hate else who betrays a nation who betrays the common good, or who leaves the general salvation for the sake of their own salvation and enjoyment

- Cicero / Francesco de Miranda [1]


In the last ten years, while the British state dominated subjects and borders with the violence of the alleged 'anti-terror legislation' and the economy peaked, then collapse and begin to burn, some workers of the lower classes of the labor pyramid they fought and managed to improve their wages. These same workers who improved their employment status have been intimidated by both contracting and by the unions and by the border police, in their jobs and in their homes. Often suffer a situation of lack of sleep, the risk of poverty and destitution, have been betrayed, under covert agreements to racist abuse, sexual harassment, arrests and exile. However, they won. This is a story about the militancy of the cleaners in London and the roots of that membership in a global struggle. [2]

In office buildings and institutions around London, the labor is divided. On the one hand, employees are white collar workers called 'internal', employed directly by the hospital, bank, school or university, generally, union representation, wage agreements agreed at national level (in the case of public employees) and a complete package of pay, including pensions. On the other hand, there are cleaners, waiters, janitors, security guards and maintenance personnel, whose employment depends on multinational subcontractors. The cleaners are the most likely to be the lowest paid of all workers in a building, usually earning the minimum wage. They do not have any trade union representation and no benefits beyond their immediate payment. This situation has become so widespread, it is often considered as an inevitable part of capitalist organization. But it is not natural, even within capitalism. It is a historical question.


In the nineteenth century, the rampant globalization of capitalist industry caused the increased dependence of vast networks of communication in order to expedite the shipment of orders 'stock' through mail services. The concurrent increase in the number of administrative employees meant that there were too many to be accommodated in the factories. So they were transferred to new office buildings. The high price of land meant that the blocks grow vertically rather than horizontally. Here the tower of flats full of typists. Were responsible for the new labor costs, rising in the 1930s, two quite ancient ways: first, the recruitment of women with lower wages and, on the other, the automation of jobs. . The result: rows and rows of clerks typing women [3] But there were some jobs that were - and still are - cheaper for the capitalist if they are performed by a live machine for a dead body. In factories, the cleaning work had been done in general by the existing workforce. The nature of work, requiring the use of the whole body and mobility through the factory, was similar to the work of other workers in the factory. But the office work was sedentary; It was more productive for capitalist leave office workers at their desks and use a separate labor to clean the building. Thus, the offices were divided into two types of work: informatics and cleaning. An amalgam of the great machines that have come to dominate much of the life of the twenty-first century, and in turn, a form of work that still remains outside of computerization. We still expect the machine to clean every corner of an office more cheaply than a human being or, in fact, an office that cleans itself.

However, to understand the persistence of low wages in the cleaning sector we have to look at how the negotiations led to wage increases in nationalized industry after World War II, to the detriment of non-industrial work, not nationalized. After the war, the Labour government maintained emergency laws preserved from the times of war that threatened the strikers with imprisonment. For many members, this was the true spirit of 1945. But despite this, many workers supported the strike. Agitated not to build the NHS and welfare state (in contrast to the state of war), but for wage increases and reduced working hours without reducing wages. [4] Thus, the post-war agreement in the UK From the beginning, there was a greater social assistance from the state but national agreements for more money with fewer working hours. But these national agreements extended only to those industries were nationalized, in which increased wages actually resulted in low wages with a series of 'state benefits'. Workers who were scattered through non-nationalized sectors, such as hotels, restaurants and, of course, office buildings, had his salary regulated by the Wage Council. Therefore, the labor of two levels became an integral part of the "social contract" of the war: low for all but with full union wages in big industry. In any place where these two levels work closely together, the national division of the working class became a division within the same work place. This division was increasingly dominated by racial division. Rhetoric and explicitly racist policies of the governments of the postwar period, and in many cases the unions (as well), served to keep the polarized class.

The proletariat, however, not only hired migrant workers around the world, but also many women who came from unpaid household work from home as a wife and mother and entered the offices and factories. In the new wage situation, women were organized into a new and larger scale. In the same year the 'Equal Pay Act' (Equal Pay Act) in 1968, the government made deep cuts to public administration, including the outsourcing of 4,000 cleaners. This led to one of the first strikes cleaners, organized largely by a woman named May Hobbs, a cleansing of East London. In early 1970, Hobbs and the 'Cleaners Action Group' (Action Group Cleaners) won several victories high importance, demanding that the government keep its promise of fair wages. [5] The situation of contractors in the UK changed dramatically in early 1980. Under the new Conservative government, the city of Wandsworth reacted to a strike by garbage collectors by outsourcing labor, a strategy that was soon followed by municipalities across the country in a wave of 'privatization' he became synonymous with Thatcher. The 'Fair Wages Resolution' (Fair Wages Resolution) was roundly abolished and many cleaners found their wages cut by 10% almost immediately. In March 1984, 92 Barking hospital cleaners were subcontracted by the mega-contracting Crothalls, which meant a pay cut of 35%, reduced vacation and no sick pay. They went on strike; a large police presence helped the scabs to enter the building. Barking cleaners, despite months of struggle, they were all fired. 

But legislation from above was not the only change. From below, the class was also already changing many political activists were forced to flee the military regimes backed by the new global agenda. The Latin America formed the Latin American Workers 'LAWAS'. With the support of Organisations as LAWAS and branch of hospitality union 'T & G' (also known as the international branch), migrant workers working in department stores and hotels in London, not only those who came from Latin America, He won several victories in the decade of the 80. The Task Force cleaners 70 was formed by May Hobbs, a white woman working class 'underground' Hoxton antagonist was paved for a long time and who performed cleaning work when I was a young mother, and was organized with others who knew in East London. LAWAS was refounded by Ernesto Leal, a Communist of Chile who was tortured and exiled in 1976 and then found refuge in the UK, with the support of the labor movement. Both Leal and Hobbs were born in 1938 and embodied the changes in the cleaning sector and new militancy which accompanies each recomposition of capital and class. [6]

Off Campus Cops demo, University of London, December 2013. Photo: Oscar Webb


A global loop / path resistance

Twenty years ago, the Wages Council was abolished, paving the way for Contracting massively undermine the wages of unionized workers in the public sector. In that year, 1993, SOAS cleaners were subcontracted. Four years later, the introduction of the national minimum wage guaranteed a steady supply of low-wage workers, bypassing trade unions negotiations on the minimum wage pay. More importantly, this created a legal and illegal wage. For years, the lowest paid work has been performed by migrant workers could not fault the breach of national regulations for fear of deportation. So, in a very real way, border police guaranteed benefits and productivity despite an ostensible regulation.

These low wages for migrants in the UK continued to fall globally. The international alliance of rich states, operating through the IMF, World Bank and WTO, realigned the overall composition of the working class. SAPs were the order of the day to force nation-states in the South, often only a generation after decolonization, to develop a much more aggressive and without any state subsidy worst free market for workers Paid - forcing millions of people to choose between resistance and migration and, often, both. Burning barricades at the gates of the Nigerian universities to water wars in Bolivia, the intense class conflict pushed millions of workers to the international labor market. The boom in the UK in the 90s was built on the back of such state terrorism and wage repression, and the militancy of this century depends on migrant labor as well as the future capital works. Hand capital plunged into the labor reserves, scattering waves of resistance across the globe.

A man who suffered this maelstrom was Alberto Durango, a Colombian worker who has taken a leading role in fighting in recent years. After years in the student movement of the schools in Colombia, Alberto moved to banana plantations in Urabá, where only in 1995, about 1,000 people were killed by right-wing paramilitaries paid by the state and landowners. Tens of thousands of workers and supporters fled the region that year. One day, two armed men approached and asked Alberto if he knew where was Alberto. He said, 'I'll go get him.' He left the plantation and fled to England to live with her aunt. He did not return to Colombia, even for a visit, for ten years. In 2002, he was cleaning the offices of the London-based giant Enron. When Enron collapsed, all thirty cleaners working in their offices were sacked. Alberto and the rest of the workers got into a taxi and headed to the suburban home of contracting, where they began negotiations for fair compensation for unemployment. Caught between falling profits and zero-hour contracts, Alberto and his comrades, however, began to win.

Alberto Durango, Columbia 1972


Around the same time, the campaign 'Justice for Janitors' in the USA was being hailed internationally as a success story in terms of the trade union. [7] In the UK, a group called Citizens of London tried to emulate the success of 'Justice for Janitors' and established the campaign for 'London Living Wage'. Wage The wage is calculated by the campaign to cover the minimum amount needed to live in London above the poverty line. In the following years there were some extraordinary victories. As citizens of London had its roots in East London, this is where the campaign began, and by the end of 2002, had been established in five hospitals in London and demonstrations led by local churches were organized. The strikes in the spring of 2003 began to produce the first victories in Whipps Cross hospitals, Homerton and Mile End, and also in Queen Mary University in Mile End.

A large part of the organization of the citizens of London and the union 'T & G was made by young organizers brought from Brazil, Canada, Australia and the US to promote the campaign. Many were veterans of the movement 'anti-globalization'. After distance of the wave of struggle, many new activists resorted to labor organizations as a way to stay involved in politics of global resistance. The new activists T & G found waving next to the cleaners, ten years ago, had inspired, and to some extent initiated the protest movement against the WTO and the IMF, in which activists had been based. And in that sense, the tactics of the groups protesting today against the dismantling of the British welfare state, in particular, the student movement, which considers it necessary to work outside the unions and political parties, can trace their political heritage rebellions of La Paz and Calabar.

The raids and repression

The organizers were competent. Barclays and Goldman Sachs finally promised the Minimum Wage in 2007 the alliance of the citizens of London and the T & G had the courage to negotiate an agreement areas through Canary Wharf, and could claim victory for about 5,000 low-paid workers . [8] However, the Living Wage agreements, ultimately, had to be offset by companies in other ways, usually meant laying off workers or reducing their hours. Alternatively, the contractors were simply under pressure from its main employer to reduce costs to keep his job, manifested as increased vigilance and haste. The large number of articles published about the effects the minimum wage could not prevent the most basic tendency of capitalist employment relationship: pay him at least as much work as possible [9].

Image: Papers for All 'Strangers into Citizens', London 2009

And while the city of London seemed to shine more and more thanks to the success stories told by the Press of London Citizens, underground fights subway cleaners were more discouraging stories. Inspired in part by the fight in the City of London, the cleaning of the Metro network stepped up their own campaign to increase wages. [10] In 2007 and 2008, hundreds of Metro cleaners went on strike, trying to force the contractors to fulfill their promises of a Living Wage. But in 2009, it seemed that the contractors had had enough. While the global financial crisis clashed with the benefits of the contractors, employers collaborated with the police and UKBA to several high-profile raids in workplaces, trying to frighten the sector and retaliate for their achievements. In January, two Nigerian organizers, Clara Osagiede and Mary Boakye, were suspended by the ISS, and more than 50 cleaners were dismissed following inspections by the Social Security number. The raids and repression later spread throughout the city. In March, the repression continued against six union activists who were dismissed from the Willis Group last year. In April, just days after the SOAS cleaners won a recognition agreement, the most prominent activist Unison was suspended. In May, Alberto Durango was arrested on suspicion of working without papers.

Support came from many unions and organizations, but not the T & G, now called Unite. It was becoming clear that Unite was turning his back on a movement that had become too militant and supporting all migrant workers, not only disciplined. Later, in June, the direction of SOAS, together with the contractor ISS, invited everyone to a meeting cleaners. Once they were all closed doors and immigration officials they came out from behind the curtains. Eight people were deported the same day. In July seven cleaners were arrested after a raid on Willis. In September, Unite LAWAS started their offices, shortly after the death of its founder, Ernesto Leal. His comrades remembered him well: ". Hasta la victoria siempre, comrade Ernesto Leal Every victory of our association is dedicated to you, whose great heart has rewarded us with their experience and consistency will continue to fight, stick to our principles of class.." [ 11] In the spring of 2010 it was clear that Unite was systematically undermining the organizations of Latin American cleaners. The long dispute continued in the UBS after Alberto was fired and added to the blacklist, and the UCL rivalry Unite and he developed LAWAS bitterly.

Abandoned by Unite, the near LAWAS workers decided to join the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), which had just won official certification by the certification office of government. 'Industrial Union 640', the international code for cleaners IWW became a force to be reckoned with - but not only by employers, but also by the IWW itself. During the next two years, considerable new branch became a center for the activities of the IWW. Despite this, after a few months in the new union a division in which non-cleaners were excluded from the branch and taken by the Branch General IWW members it emerged. Simultaneously, some of the militants abandoned LAWAS organizers.

Although the division came about the first real industrial challenge that the branch had to face - in the Guildhall - new workers recruited in the IWW were not aware of the growing bitterness in that bitterness sucursal.nLas reasons were, first because some cleaners felt that non-maids were of a different economic class and should not have a say in how campaigns directed cleaners, felt LAWAS was becoming more like a human rights organization and less like a democratic movement for workers . On the other hand, some of the excluded members of LAWAS considered the division as a top-down affair, directed mainly to exclude women from the noisy voices of the branch. And these were not the only problems of organization. At the same time, political tactics cleaners also came into conflict with the purists of the IWW anarchists because campaigns cleaners still clung to the principles of Citizens of London, building broad support - including parliamentarians.

During 2011 and 2012, the Guildhall dispute continued for many months, with internal disputes in the union as a constant effort militants labor background.


But in the summer of 2011, cleaners Senate House in Bloomsbury, demanding the Living Wage, began to organize to strike. [12] In a way, it was a campaign of Traditional Living Wage, but this narrative was broken when workers Senate House decided to also require that wages paid incompletely months were finally paid. With notice of one day, they organized an unauthorized strike forty people. After the first hour, they told the workers to return to work immediately if they wanted to avoid any retaliation. After the second time, management said they were willing to negotiate if the workers returned to work. After the fourth time, a temporary office was established to record and deal with the issues on the back pay of each worker. During the next two weeks, workers received more than £ 6,000 in unpaid wages. This militant action spurred confidence cleaners and showed that the strike threat was real. In the fall, the branch was prepared for an official strike - and gave direction to the demand of the Minimum Wage.

In the summer of 2012, after a year of discussions within the IWW, activists in the branch cleaners separated. Starting at John Lewis, a new union was formed, 'Britain's Independent Workers' (IWGB). But while workers, organized by the IWW and IWGB began to change course away from the years of raids and suspensions, he began to imitate Unison Unite to turn against Bloomsbury cleaners. When workers Senate House proposed a new campaign for the local branch of Unison, demanding three things - sick pay, vacation pay and pensions - the idea was vetoed by some members of the commission, clearly under the influence of bureaucrats paid union. After months of a campaign (the campaign 'Three things') outside the union, the workers organized a list of electoral candidates to retake control. Unison regional officials tried to disrupt the elections at each stage, slandering against candidates and trying to discredit them. However, the elections went ahead and, apparently, the list of candidates organized by the workers won, but a month after the vote, the elections were declared null and void by management. Enraged by the victory that had been taken from them, cleaners and their allies decided to leave the branch of Unison and join the IWGB. However, the IWGB is not a group of workers from South America, nor are all members outsourced workers: those involved come from the landscape of class struggle in the United Kingdom, which is changing by the variety of languages ​​spoken - from Yoruba the Czech to Arabic - and complex operating systems that run through differences in language, race and gender. Members are more aware than any of his critics that the independence of the main trade unions have serious financial and legal problems. But IWGB now has over 400 members across London, almost all of which are outsourced cleaners, and with this broader support branch of IWGB University of London went on strike in November this year. [13]

The strike not only demonstrated the need for outsourced to run the building workers, and the union's ability to remove that job, but the pickets at the door of Senate House also showed that the union of contract workers could invoke a vitality which the largest unions were probably exhausted. The strike was successful: in the afternoon of the second day, the Management of the University announced that all contract workers would receive higher payments for sick and vacation. Surprisingly, however, the management tried to avoid any loss of prestige to say that this success was due to negotiations with Unison, absolving any connection between its submission to the demands and the strike IWGB. Unison, of course, worked happily in this duplicity.

The antagonism that fragment of the capital, which is also known by the name of 'leaders', has become the fabric of what it means to be a militant in the metropolis in recent years, and the conflict between workers University of London and the traditional union leadership has become a well-defined thread, interlaced between those of antagonism against the police and against the patriarchs. Each thread can be extracted, but, seen from a distance - and certainly from the point of view of the authority itself - is certainly unmistakable mix. The attempt by a group of militant students to hold a sit in the Senate House building, partly in support of the demands of workers and the subsequent violent eviction of the sitting by the Metropolitan Police, spurred a series of protests demanding that the police seia prohibited from entering the university campus ("Campus Cops off '), which have attracted much attention. Equally important, the success of outsourced workers so far are putting pressure on the main trade union branches at the University of London to act with a force that could play such achievements. In the context of a national dispute over wages affecting all internal staff of universities, it is significant that it is the supposedly weakest it has had some success. It remains to see the power of these achievements, while IWGB branch of the University of London prepares for strike three days in late January. As far as I know, this was the first strike by contract workers at a university, by persons not belonging to one of the two main unions - and, unlike the years London Citizens, workers now have the ability to organize to achieve lasting victories. [14]

Image: Strike, University of London, 2013

The ghosts

it's posible


Whenever words are treated

As enemies

Not enemies - but Ghosts

Who have gone mad

In meters

And of course in the institutions

And banks. If you catch them

One by one, proceeding


Cautiously, they will be restored

I hope the meaning

And the sense

- George Oppen [15].


Emilse, one of the militants in Birkbeck, told me about the ghosts that populate the controls; when he spoke of the need to abolish the cleaning sector in its current form, we said we have to stop this 'drug' cleaners. That word, drug trafficking, taken from the vocabulary of his native Colombia, perhaps reveals more than it seems at first glance. Because from a world of insomnia, forged documents, fake names and invisible people, perhaps the global cleaning industry is not really that far from a ghost exchange circuit and narcotics. Robinson, a militant in Senate House, told me that after moving to London, "only existed for four years, did not live." Emilse well as the cleaning industry is like a ghost and drug circuit for Robinson is a half-life, a life-zombie.

But cleaning the living outnumber the dead. Cleanliness is high labor costs, the cost of wages is often more than 80% of the balance of the contractor. This means that competition between the contracting occurs almost completely by limiting the wages they pay their employees. This has four major consequences. The first and most obvious, it is that companies try to keep most of the workforce on minimum wage and no benefits. The second is intended to dispense with supervisors, being workers who do not accept the minimum wage. The third is to try to reduce costs to hire advertising through word of mouth. Finally, managers are trying, in various ways, to withhold wages. Altogether, this means that just a labor of migrants who accept low wages for fear of intimidation from the immigration police, who come from the communities themselves, and are only slightly supervised the work itself. This results in a volatile labor work, mainly because migrant communities, as I hope I have shown, often born of stories of courageous resistance. This is the crisis that the cleaning industry, made even more explosive by decreasing undocumented workers from the financial crisis it faces. [16] demands that require these workers are a real threat to profit margins contractor.

And there is yet another crisis facing the cleaning sector. [17] The cleaning is part of the process of appreciation of modern bank and the modern university. Consumers should look, smell and feel the product value. In the field of Higher Education commodified, where content will yield increasingly important to the packaging, presentation is everything. And why is that cleaning is a symbol of courage? Because it requires work - exhausting, repetitive and strenuous work. Because it represents the resistance defeated. Bright objects are not expendable, essential part of contemporary capital luster is manifested competition. Each university could become covered in dirt and grime, but the hallways are kept clean - until, that is, the production of the-undead become less desirable than polished floors. The possibility that this crisis causes the abolition of cleaning or cleaning has not yet been decided.


Richard B <richardb AT> 



[1] This was the motto of 'El Colombiano', the first Bolivarian newspaper which originally printed in London in 1810. It is an extract from 'Sumo Sumo Good and Evil', Cicero. Francesco de Miranda printed the quote in Latin: " Nec magis quam est communis vituperandus proditor patriae utilitatis salutis deserter aut aut propter suam utilitatem salutem. "

[2] I thank all the people who have told me about the struggle of cleaners and associated policy, and also to all those with whom I have fought, especially Emilse, Robinson and Sonia. Since my first contact with the struggle of the cleaners was as a student in Bloomsbury, are those comrades who have given me more information and details of the text inevitably reflect - however, I do not think that this has harmed the analysis. Thank you very much also to Liz Maxwell, probably without this text has not been written.

[3] For a discussion regarding development of computers as a result of the class struggle, see George Caffentzis, 'Marx, Turing Machines, and the Labor of Thought', in Letters of Blood and Fire , 2013 Oakland (http: / /

[4] See the Syndicalist Workers' Federation, Labour How Governed, from 1945 to 1951 , Direct Action Pamphlets no. 5 (, as well as
any history of trade unionism acceptable this time.

[5] See the short memory of May Hobbs: Born to Struggle , 1973, part of which is available at: There should be a reprint of this little inspirational book. See also the deep compressive analysis Sheila Rowbotham, 'Cleaners' Organizing in Britain from the 1970s: A Personal Account' at Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 38, 2006 which also covers the events of the film Nightcleaners . If anyone reading this knows what happened to May Hobbs, I would be very interested to know!

[6] For more information on this period see Jill Sullivan, The Brush Off , 1977 (War on Want 'Low Pay Unit'); Transnational Information Centre, Beyond the Pail , 1986 (fondado by GLC), Jan Paul, Where There's Muck There's Money , 1986; Gelmira Salazar, Cleaning the London Underground , 1987. All above leaflets are available at the Bishopsgate Institute

[7] It is worth mentioning that this campaign has caused far-reaching implications for contemporary work organizations in the United States, as were the subsequent disturbances in the SEIU which led to the split within the trade unions and the formation of the federation 'Change to Win'. See, and Steve Early, The Civil Wars in US Labor , Chicago 2011.

[8] A more detailed history of this period can be reconstructed through back issues of The Commune ( The chronology of this period is in Jane Wills, 'Making Class Politics Possible: Organizing Contract Cleaners in London',  International Journal of Urban and Regional Research , 32, 2008.

[9] For example Jane and Brian Wills Linneker, 'The costs and benefits of the London living wage', 2012,

[10] The history of the struggle of cleaners Metro has been admirably documented in Tubeworker,

[11] See Ernesto Leal's obituary in The Commune , November 2009,

[12] I remember a meeting of activists on a summer night when Bloomsbury, after organizing shifts to distribute leaflets and posters, we all handed out fairly quickly to join the crowd at Tottenham.

[13] Within the Trotskyist left continues the discussion on the implications of these developments. Consulte:

[14] disputes the cleansing of the University of London are documented in two blogs:  
There is also an extensive piece of Julie Hearn and Monica Bergos, 'Latin American cleaners
fight for survival: lessons for migrant activism ' Race and Class , 2011.

[15] Taken from 'A Language of New York', 1965. George Oppen, an American communist who spent the 1950s in exile in Mexico (due to McCarthyism). Although he had been a promising young modernist poet, Oppen wrote no poetry in the late '30s, and during his time in the US Army in the Rhineland, or in Mexico. The poem is a reflection on the political situation in New York in the explosive years of the 60s when Oppen was established and started writing again.

[16] The innovations in immigration laws often directly express attempts by the ruling class to control the developing proletarian resistance. In this sense, it was the application of penalties for employers, not only threats to workers who in 2006 had the eventual consequence of making workers 'paperless' a greater burden for the instability of 2008.9 Along with this were the best (peer malignant) employment prospects in developing countries to which many undocumented workers moved or turned.

[17] The aspects of the problem of automation and the double face of the crisis which the labor movement cuts both ways, are explored in Peter Linebaugh: 'Crisis in the auto sector,' whose title adopted.