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

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain