New dawn for the workers

Migrant cleaners at rich banks are today organising for a living wage. It's reminiscent of the 1889

Canary Wharf, London, 2004

The woman holding the leaflets clutches them tight against her duffel coat. At street level, Can ary Wharf is like a wind tunnel. The small group of activists in high-visibility bibs is dwarfed by the skyscraping headquarters of investment banks: Morgan Stanley, Lehman Broth ers, Barclays and tonight's target, HSBC. The activists are not supposed to be here; this is the new financial heart of London and even the public space is privately owned by the development company. They know they can be thrown off the street.

By day, Canary Wharf teems with men and women in suits; the average salary here is £60,000. During business hours, upwards of 80,000 people come and go, surrounded by glass, steel and sky, and the picturesque waterways that used to be London's main docks. By night, it is deserted, except for security guards, cleaners and this small group of Living Wage Campaign leafleters organised by the TGWU and the East London Community Organisation.

Those the leaflet is meant for arrive in small groups, by bus. They are the cleaners who sluice the toilets, dust the desks, swab the telephone mouthpieces with antiseptic wipes and empty brown apple cores from thousands of waste baskets. They are almost all migrants - not from the settled Caribbean and Asian communities of inner London, but from among the new arrivals: Somalis, Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans, Kurds, Col ombians, Iraqis, Afghans, Bolivians, Cubans, Spanish and Portuguese. Benedita Gonçalves, a Portuguese cleaning supervisor at a major bank, describes the way the cleaners are treated by the office workers: "The cleaners clean the rubbish and we are like rubbish for them - apart from some who work at night and start to know us and sometimes say, 'Good evening.' For the rest, we are no one.We are rats, we come in the night."

Migrant cleaners always talk about being "looked through" by office workers who don't see them as people, let alone workmates. In most cases they work for subcontractors and are not part of the core workforce. Cleaners also say they are always the first to be accused of stealing if something goes missing, but their recurring problem is an absence of respect. "I started my battle in the first week I was there," says Bene dita, "because the management were horrible. They showed lack of respect to the employees. Everything you did was wrong. They sent people home for no reason - just because they didn't need them. Another thing is the shouting, calling names, saying, 'You are crap; you are no one.' Something like that happened with me and so I started my battle against them."

For Juan Rodriguez, the biggest issue is contracts, or the lack of them. He says when he started work as a cleaner at News International six years ago nobody knew what the official hours, wages or even status were. Now their employer, a cleaning contractor, has tried to get them to sign individual contracts but they have refused. "One hundred per cent," he says, "even the ones not in the union." For Juan, the problem is "respect and money" - respect first, but with the cleaners earning on average £200-£300 a week, money comes a close second. "Management harass the staff, blackmail the staff - and the worst thing is, which is very, very sad, people with no documents are afraid to make comments. Some of them are even against us - the ones who are afraid of the union."

Martin Wright, a black British cleaner at the Royal London Hospital, echoes the complaint. After three years of organising, he's managed to get the hourly pay raised from £5.50 to £7.50 an hour and the contract taken in-house so the cleaning managers have to answer to the hospital managers. But there are still problems: he's having to deal with constant tensions between workers from Nigeria, Ghana and Somalia. "Martin Luther King is my hero and I tell them we are all brothers and sisters; all our ancestors came from Africa." Juan and Benedita have both encountered similar conflicts. "Some people," says Juan, "because they come from a background where there is civil war, they still have in their mind just to kill! One guy working with us came into the room and said to another guy, 'If you were in my country I shoot you,' and we said (we were all shocked), 'What are you talking about?' And everybody in the room realised this guy, in his head, was still in the civil war."

When I ask them how they overcome these divisions, the word they all use is patience. "You have to be patient and very understanding with everybody," says Juan. "Try to learn from each one their background and then explain the difference between your country and their country." He says Africans are harder to organise than the rest, Latin Americans the easiest because they have a left-wing tradition. "One guy from Cuba thought he's gonna be shot for joining," says Benedita, laughing.

I ask Juan if he knows there was a major strike at News International, which publishes the Times and the Sun, and that it was a famous strike. "Long, long ago, way back, I heard that, yes," he says. His mouth drops open wide as I tell him the story of the year-long Wapping strike of 1986, when the power of the print unions was broken. In fact, it opens nearly as wide as my own mouth did back then when I saw a bunch of highly paid and supposedly "aristocratic" printers turn over a truck at the main gates and set it on fire. "This information you are telling me is very powerful information," he nods, still stunned. Up to now, this unassuming Spaniard with broken English has had no idea he is trying to organise a union in the very place the union movement suffered a symbolic and shattering defeat. The cleaners, by their own admission, know nothing about the history of east London; many are still struggling with the geography. But the organising team know the irony of what they're doing at Canary Wharf. Their union was born here; it grew by recruiting unskilled workers whom the unions at the time believed were too ignorant to be organised. And the strike that started it all began within yards of where the HSBC skyscraper stands today. It is small compensation to the activists, stamping their feet to keep warm as midnight approaches, but they are treading in the footsteps of Tom Mann.

London, 1889

Tom Mann has been blacklisted as an engineer and is so poor he's had to sell his violin; Victor Griffuelhes is a shoemaker trudging the lanes of southern France in search of work; Bill Haywood is a cowboy in Nevada; Eduardo Gilimón is wandering through the slums of Buenos Aires preaching the non-existence of God; James Connolly is an embittered British soldier in Ireland. The year is 1889 and working-class history is at a turning point. Between now and the outbreak of the First World War, the labour movement will go global, creating mass trade unions and popularising a new "union way of life". But the men who will make this happen are, in 1889, anonymous loners on the fringes of the workforce.

Over the next 20 years, their names will become well-known in the tabloid newspapers and police stations of the world. They will cross continents and oceans in pursuit of a twofold dream: trade unions for unskilled workers and inter national solidarity between them. The idea is known to history as syndicalism and is rough and ready, like the unplaned wood of the railway boxcars it is born in - and it will infuriate socialist intellectuals.

But why will it spread so fast? The answer lies in the giant transformation under way in business and politics in 1889. It can be summed up as the three Ms. Monopoly - the rise of heavy industry has created a few big companies which can swallow up the rest; these are companies with absolute power over suppliers, the workforce and even the politicians who are supposed to regulate them. Management - the generation of businessmen that will build the Eiffel Tower and the Titanic need scientific methods to run the workplace. They need control over it as well as harmony within it. They have started to think scientifically about ways to manage people at work. Militarism - the industrial powers are engaged in the scramble for colonies that will lead to war in 1914; everywhere nationalism is solidifying. Military face-offs and minor wars give warning of the storm ahead.

This is how globalisation looks the first time around; it is not the same as today's version. By 1889 a global system of trade, transport and exchangeable currencies has been created, making international solidarity between workers in different countries a practical question instead of just a high ideal. New Zealand wool makes shawls to keep the heads of British mill girls warm; Chinese migrants undercut the wages of white Dutchmen in the gold mines of South Africa; beef from Argentina ends up in the spaghetti of a Bolognese engineer. And there is mass migration. From Sydney to Seattle, workers are on the move, not just from the farm to the factory, but across land and sea. The footloose syndicalist agitators will always find an audience in the steerage class of ocean-going ships, or in the cattle trucks of trains.

Traditional trade unionism, born in a century of small strikes, small firms and local economics, cannot cope with this new world of giant things. Its power against monopoly is non-existent; scientific management is undermining its control over training and wage rates; and the vast mass of working people have no way into - indeed, see no point to - trade unions.

A small core of activists has struggled to keep alive the principles of anarchism and socialism but it's an uphill struggle. "Marxist ranters" pay fleeting visits to the Salford streets that had throbbed with republicanism at the time of Peterloo, but the reception is now hostile. Robert Roberts, who grew up there in this period, remembers: "We were battling, they told us (from a vinegar barrel borrowed from our corner shop), to cast off our chains and win a whole world. Most people passed by; a few stood to listen but not for long: the problem of the 'proletariat', they felt, had little to do with them."

The "class struggle", Roberts will recall acidly, is something that goes on within the working class: between the skilled, the semi-skilled, the unskilled, the unemployed and the irretrievably drunk. Sociologists are struck by this layer cake of misery, above all in that glittering central hub of global trade, the London docks. It is the mass strike there that will change everything.

It was the hot, late summer when trouble broke out. It was a pathetically irrelevant dispute over pay rates on a single ship. The men involved laid siege to the nearest union office they could find and pleaded for help. The man they found was Ben Tillett, and he sent for his mates Tom Mann and John Burns, both socialists who had been grumbling about union inactivity on the docks for months. Together they set about pull ing the whole of east London out on strike.

The docks had their own notorious class system: above the docker ranked the stevedore, who acted as a makeshift gangmaster. Better than the stevedore was the waterman - entitled to wear a ludicrous pink uniform while surviving on next to nothing. At the bottom of the pile were the women - little better than slaves. In normal times, you were lucky if you could persuade members of these urban castes to drink in the same pub together, but these were not normal times. Within a week, 30,000 dockers were joined on strike by an equal number from "allied trades".

There was a mass meeting every day, then the strikers would set off in an orderly procession around the banking district. The smart office workers of the Square Mile preferred their poor "deserving", and the dockers, with their liking for drink and violence, expected a hostile reception. So they staged tableaux and carried effigies to provide a visual sociology lesson. They carried effigies of a "docker's cat", which was thin, and a "boss's cat", which was fat; likewise the docker's child and the boss's child, both depicted by rag dolls on sticks. The watermen wore their pink uniforms. Tillett recalls collecting "pennies, sixpences and shillings from the clerks and City workers, who were touched perhaps to the point of sacrifice by the emblem of poverty and star vation carried in our procession". The Salvation Army - sternly anti-socialist but a potent force in its east London homeland - had no option but to support the strike. The Catholic Church also weighed in.

What tipped the balance was Australia. The powerful Australian unions used the issue of the London strike to inflame animosity against the English upper classes. By the end of the strike, a total of £30,000 - at least £2.7m in today's money - had been wired via the Australian dockers' union. Sixty thousand dockers were now joined on strike by another 60,000 of their drinking buddies and daughters from the rat- infested streets along the waterfront.

On 28 August, the strike committee issued a manifesto calling for a general strike across London - for the workers officially and purposefully to pull the plug on the "great machine". The call was withdrawn a day later for fear of losing public sympathy. A few days later, following the intervention of City bankers, shipowners and a Catholic cardinal, the dockers won. History records that they won the "docker's tanner"- sixpence an hour instead of five. But they had won much more. Burns wrote: "Labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organise itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything . . . Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors."

To the social reformer Beatrice Webb, the emergence of solidarity in the East End was "a new thought . . . modifying my generalisation on dock life". It dawned on a whole layer of middle class do-gooders that workers might not have to wait for betterment to be handed down through legislation and lectures. The same thought also dawned on tens of thousands of unskilled workers who rushed to join trade unions. The railway union grew from nothing to 65,000 in a year; the bricklayers' union doubled in size, the shoemakers' tripled; the miners formed a national federation. The movement was labelled New Unionism. Its aim was to draw the unskilled workers into industry-wide unions that would cut across the petty job descriptions that, in the strike, had been made to look irrelevant.

Paul Mason is business correspondent for BBC2's Newsnight. "Live Working or Die Fighting: how the working class went global" is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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