Today in London radical history: cleaners win strike in Ministry of Defence buildings, 1972

The Cleaners Action Group was set up in the early 1970s by women who were working cleaning large office blocks and other buildings, as a focus for any cleaners trying to improve their wages and conditions. Then, as now, cleaning contracts were worth millions to the contractors, but profits could always be jacked up by paying rock-bottom wages, making cleaners work long hours (mostly overnight) with few breaks, often using fewer workers than was physically practical to do the job.

The women behind Cleaners Action had all worked as cleaners in various parts of London. May Hobbs, one of the driving forces behind the group, describes how they started getting organised:

“One night over the dinner break I said to the others ‘You’re always moaning. Why not do something instead?’ So we decided to join the union, but this time we were not going to put up with the male trade union officers of the T.G.W.U. just doing a little bit for us when it suited them [May and others had been sacked before after striking in support of a black cleaner victimised by a racist superviser, and the union reps had dragged their feet in helping them]. Once we were paying our dues we looked on that as contributing a part of their wages. We also decided that I would phone the manager to say we wanted more money and more women on the building [they were cleaning an annexe of Hornsey College, with three women cleaning a building supposed to have twelve on shift!] So I phoned the manager to say we wanted to see him and that we would not go into work that night until he came. Down he came and I told him I would not work on that building with only three women, and besides the money was diabolical.”

Winning a raise on this job was only the beginning; getting sacked, having to fight for their full back pay, finding new jobs, kicking up a fuss there about pay and conditions… before long May herself found herself blacklisted. “From that moment going around and organising the cleaners became a full time job for me, especially the night cleaners, who to my mind were the worst exploited. I enlisted the help of anybody who would be willing to give up an hour of their time once a week to go around the office blocks and stat talking to the cleaners themselves. We formed ourselves into the Cleaners Action Group, and printed leaflets saying that all cleaners should join the union, while at the same time pointing put they should not expect big increases overnight and would have to do their bit to keep the union on its toes. Otherwise the union would just accept their dues and leave it at that.”

“The main area of concentration for office cleaners was in the big blocks in the city of London. The contractors find it more profitable to make it night work, because he type of person they get to do it is someone who needs the money for such luxuries in life as rent and food for their family and who is hence in a poor bargaining position.”

“In our first two months it was amazing the way people rallied to help. It was a new thing to them. People had not realized the way women were working all through the night to keep life turning over for others. We got quite a few buildings organized as union labour, and as soon as the contractors woke up to the fact that it was not only some five-minute wonder in came the strong-arm gang.

They would send in their managers to issue warnings that if it was found any woman had joined a union it would mean her instant dismissal…”

Such sackings, threatening phone calls and like tactics couldn’t intimidate the group, however, who won an early strike on the Board of Trade Building, Sanctuary House (“the first building to become unionized”). After this “Companies House and Shell-mex House at Waterloo were also unionized. The Sanctuary house cleaners elected their shop steward and deputy shop steward, and the two of them were sacked at once on some flimsy excuse. So we had our first major strike, with Companies House coming out in support.”

Winning this strike, beginning to gather support from women’s liberation groups, as well as other unions, the Cleaners Action Group was on a roll.

“Our first big confrontation came at the end of July 1972 when cleaners came out at the twenty-six-storey-high Ministry of Defence building, the Empress State Building, in Fulham. They were demanding a rise of £3 a week on their warnings of £12.50 for a forty0five hour week, and recognition by the employers for their union – in their case, the Civil Service Union. Cleaners Action and Womens Lib co-operated to set up round the clock pickets and messages of support and solidarity came pouring in. The spirit that existed on that picket line was really beautiful, and the wonderful shop steward they had on the building, Maria Scally, worked all out to help the women stay united.”

Sheila Rowbotham draws an evocative picture of the atmosphere that built up around this strike:

“These were militant times and the striking cleaners received instant trade union support. The T&G lorry drivers refused to cross our picket lines and supplies began to dry up in the Ministry of Defence, most crucially the beer for the bar. Inside information from sympathizers in the Empress State Building was that lack of beer was having a terrible effect on morale. Post Office workers refused to deliver mail; printers, railway workers and clothing workers sent donations. The local Trades Council came along with good practical advice about whom to contact in the area. One odd encounter was with some men at the Admiralty building one night who insisted we had to let them in because they looked after the tunnels. The tunnels, they explained, had to be kept in good order because the Queen and other important people would escape down them in the event of a nuclear attack. The Cleaners’ Action Group was clearly threatening the very defence of the realm!

At the Empress State building in Fulham, the picket began to assume a carnival atmosphere. A nearby Italian restaurant allowed Lusia Films to use their electricity. The film makers rigged up a screen and began to show films, most notably Salt of the Earth, Herbert J. Biberman’s wonderful 1953 film of a strike in a New Mexico mining community in which the women played a key role. Passionate, sensitive, humourous, Salt of the Earth resulted in him being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, whilst the Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas, was repatriated to Mexico. The cleaners, several of whom were from the Caribbean and Ireland, loved this drama in which class, race and gender interacted in ways that related closely with their own experience. Lusia Films had been inspired by the activist film making of the May events in Paris during 1968 and by early Russian revolutionary films. They were part of a creative new wave of documentary film makers who were just beginning to take off in Britain at that time. They raised money by doing advertisements and showed their films at meetings. Whilst some took a straightforward newsreel style, Lusia was experimenting with new forms of communicating..

Cleaners and feminists picketing, singing and dancing at the Ministry of Defence made a good story and the strike was covered widely in the media. Our targeting of high-profile government buildings brought results. The CSU was able to get the contractors to recognize the union. The strikers obtained a raise of £2.50 per week and a 50 pence night allowance. The women were joyous and at Empress State remained so confident that they were able to push their wages up to £21 a week, well above the average women’s wage of£12…”

May Hobbs again: “The strike lasted into the middle of August, with, on the one 6th, twenty women on the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall also joining in with the same demands. The General Post office engineers stopped servicing their telephones, the dustmen left their bins full, no mail went in and there were no deliveries of bread, milk or beer to the canteen. The whole thing really snowballed, and on the 13th twenty more came out at the Home Office’s Horseferry Road annex over the sacking of a superviser.

On 16 August there was a meeting chaired by the Ministry of Employment between the Civil Service Union and the contractor’s representative. It was agreed: £16.50 a week plus a 50p night allowance for a normal week’s work and no victimisation. The superviser at Horseferry Road was reinstated. On the next day the girls were back at work.

It was a big victory, all right, as most of the newspaper headlines said. The only thing which spoilt it was that the cleaners at the Old Admiralty building got notice to quit almost at once as the contract there was falling through. When some of them reapplied to the new contractor, surprise, surprise, there were no jobs available. Which just goes to show, one victory does not win any war.

The great thing was we had won in this case and shown what might be done. We had got the whole subject aired in the press and in the House of Commons by such M.Ps as Lena Jager and Joe Ashton and people knew a bit more about what went on in their offices, while they were snugly tucked up in their beds, to keep things nice and civilised for them when they got in for work.

Meanwhile the struggle goes on and we have to work harder as the employers go on getting more cunning. It seems a lot of the time that we are not only up against the contractors and their spies and their ruthless methods in breaking up a group of cleaners as soon as there is a union nucleus. We are also up against the big bureaucratic unions, who seem to suck closer to the government and get more away from the working class every day. They are as bad as the capitalists as they go about it in a way that will bring them in the most money without considering the situation of the individuals in the movement.”

May Hobbs wrote those words in 1973: anyone working in cleaning now will no doubt recognize that if May and her comrades improved wages and conditions immensely in the early ‘70s, much of the gains won have been reversed over succeeding decades. A whole generation of cleaners have had to struggle hard over the last decade to win much of this ground back.

Most of this post was hoisted wholesale from May Hobbs excellent book, Born to Struggle, which recounts her life growing up in Hoxton, accounts of class solidarity and ducking and diving, as well as lots more about working and unionising in the cleaning industry and elsewhere.

Another account, from Sheila Rowbotham, of some of the work of the Cleaners Action group and beyond, can be read here

and another here

And here’s a short account of more recent cleaners struggles in London

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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