Thursday, July 31, 2008

Solidarity night in Stonebridge!

The equality of Mercy is not strained

LAST night I went to Stonebridge Park, in NW London, for a meeting called by Brent Trade Union Council in support of the cleaners employed by contractors on the London Undergound system who are fighting for better treatment, and a decent wage.

We heard from Clara Osagiede, chair of the RMT union's cleaners' section, how workers on no more than the national minimum wage were struggling to survive in London, and had to pay their own fares when travelling to work at a distant station. How workers who had been paying tax and national insurance(NI) contributions for years were suddenly told there was something wrong with their NI record when management wanted to intimidate or get rid of them. How those intimidated into working during the strike had been told to lie down on the floor of vans when being driven past the pickets, reminding her of the history of the slave ships. "This is not just about money, it's about dignity", Clara said, to applause.

A cleaner from Stonebridge Park described how cleaner had been told to clean under carriages, using various chemicals, without being advised about the hazards or provided with adequate protective clothing.

Ollie New, a train driver and member of the RMT executive, told how a cleaner who took a cloth overall cap (value 38p) from the store to protect his hair from grease and dirt was reported by someone who saw him wearing it, and sacked. "Third party sackings" -where you are told someone has complained or requested your removal, without hearing who, or even why, or being able to argue your case, - are common. Ollie pointed out that behind the bullies on the job stood big companies making millions in profit around the world, and the government which had pushed privatisation. His union intended exposing the fat cats who were doing well from exploitation.

Several people spoke from the floor, including cleaners, a Metronet engineer who supported the cleaners' fight, the Unison branch secretary from Park Royal hospital, and a TGWU Unite member who handed over a cheque from a collection among his branch colleagues.

One invited speaker failed to make an appearance. Labour MP Dawn Butler whose Brent South constituency covers Stonebridge had said she might pop in to the meeting, but it seemed she was going walkabout with the police in the area that evening, and could not spare time for the cleaners. In fact, one of the meeting's organisers reported that when he had phoned the MPs office that day her staff seemed much concerned when he referred to firms using workers' immigration status as a threat to hold over them. They asked him more about the employment of "illegals", and he got the impression they were not so much angry over exploitation as anxious that the MP should not be seen in a meeting with such people.

If that is true, perhaps the GMB union, for which Dawn Butler worked before she became an MP, ought to ask some questions of its former organiser. The GMB, as well as TGWU Unite, has been organising cleaners in some of the big City offices, with similar problems to those on the Underground. It is also sponsoring MsButler as a Labour MP, subsidising her office as well as funding the Labour Party. If she does not want to be seen in the wrong kind of company at a cleaners' meeting, maybe the union should spare her any further embarassment by stopping its cheques.

About 40 people attended the Stonebridge meeting, including several young people whose sense of justice has been fired by the cleaners' fight.
We heard that a woman cleaner and union rep from Queens Park was that night facing a disciplinary hearing at Stonebridge depot, and that management would not allow a union officer in with her. Most of the meeting trouped up to the depot, and as a vehice was leaving we rushed in through the gates.

Outside the hut where the disciplinary was due to be held we met Mercy, the cleaner, and took up a chant "Justice for Mercy! Justice for the cleaners!" , and so forth. Then we waited nearby while the hearing was held. The manager conducting it decided he could after all allow a union representative in with Mercy; and after half an hour or so. he decided that the hearing should be adjourned. Indefinitely, it seemed.
Ollie New said we had achieved something, the union man was well pleased, and Mercy was exuberant. "I never knew I had so many friends behind me! ", she said, hugging the nearest supporters.

Let's hope word spreads. It could give some very downtrodden and exploited workers encouragement to stand up for themselves, and give over-cocky management pause for thought. It also shows that despite years of being told we must put up with privatisation and anti-union laws, and media propaganda attacking trade unionists and immigrants, solidarity is alive, and people are waking up to new ways of showing it.
Let's have more!

For more info and news from the RMT:
For more info about Brent Trades Union Council

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