Feminism and the Tube

So, why is the tube cleaner’s plight a feminist issue? Well, for a start most tube cleaners are wome

Most readers inside London will have heard of the tube cleaners strike. Some will have been inconvenienced and annoyed. A few will have picked up the rubbish on order of the intercom. Others, however, will have actively littered in solidarity with the cleaners. These others count Feminist Fightback among their ranks; a diverse group of feminists dedicated to women’s liberation and a democratic, classless society. They are a fairly new group, with a founding conference in 2006, and are news to a feminist scene which has lacked presence in the workplace in recent years. A tube worker and group member explained that “lots of activism hasn’t really been concerned with working class women’s issues” but now Feminist Fightback are “filling the gap”.

So, why is the tube cleaners' plight a feminist issue? Well, for a start most tube cleaners are women and Feminist Fightback feel that cleaning has been “underpaid and devalued as a ‘women’s industry’”. At £5.50 an hour, tube cleaners are certainly underpaid and undervalued. The 700-800 RMT members have a list of demands that brings shame to Transport for London (TfL) and its cleaning sub-contractors. They want a living wage, sick pay, 28 days holiday, final salary pension, free travel and an end to third party sackings. As well as the expected level of unpleasantness involved in the work, tube cleaners claim to face grim conditions: on-the-spot sackings, having to clean faeces with their bare hands, using unsafe cleaning chemicals and cleaning eight stations at a time on their own. On top of this, many workers face intimidation over immigration status. Despite Transport for London’s insistence that the strike was “completely unnecessary” it is about much more than the simple pay dispute TfL claims to be fixing.

Feminist Fightback certainly see it that way. One tube worker in the group believes that this kind of industrial action “shows the way forward for other women”. Many women in underpaid “pink-collar” jobs are made to feel powerless by managers and given no practical help from mainstream feminist organisations. By organising in day-to-day struggles, in the workplace or community, women (and men for that matter) can make improvements and gain a sense of empowerment. This is a basic part of Feminist Fightback’s activities, that women’s liberation isn’t merely a statistic or piece of legislation, but an experience.

With solidarity from groups like Feminist Fightback, women battling poor pay and working conditions can get support where it has been denied by anti-union laws. To this end the group have been attending pickets and staging protests. On the first day of the strike a dozen members cleaned up the London underground offices whilst handing out leaflets to staff and the public. In the recent 48 hour strike, the group dumped rubbish outside the offices, chanting “Transport for London – clean up your act”. Clara Osagiede, RMT cleaner’s grade secretary, says the demos and picket support have been “very useful” and are much appreciated by the workers.

Although their activities are fairly small scale for the moment, these activists are optimistic, one member explaining that “this kind of action gives us a boost and a model to build on”. With the 80th anniversary of universal female suffrage this week, it seems an appropriate time for feminist groups and activists to be getting back to direct action.