Around fifty cleaning workers, their families, and thirty supporters marched through Kingston, in south west London, on International Working Women’s Day (8 March), with red flags flying.
We marched from the train station to Kingston University, for an event organised by the London Cleaners and Facilities branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the same union whose University of London branch has been has been waging the high profile “3 Cosas” campaign. A contingent from the University of London IWGB branch, including Workers’ Liberty members, joined us later in the day.
Kingston University’s University and College Union branch hosted the event. Kingston was chosen because of university management’s decision to “honour” former student Ruby McGregor-Smith, now the CEO of outsourcing firm Mitie, which employs many of the cleaners and has a foul anti-worker, anti-union, anti-migrant, and anti-women record. IWGB women wanted to organise an event which, in the spirit of the original International Working Women’s Day, would honour the solidarity of working-class women against the exploitation and abuse of capitalists like McGregor-Smith.
It was a great day. All labour movement events should be more like it.
There has been a lot of discussion in the student movement recently about “intersectionality”. This was an extremely “intersectional” audience and “intersectional” event: majority women, majority Latin American, racially diverse, with discussion focused on the connections between different forms of oppression and struggles against them.
Once we’d arranged and decorated the room, things kicked off with a welcome speech by Lewisham UCU activist Rebecca Galbraith and the main address from the IWGB’s Marlene Jimenez. Rebecca discussed the working-class origins of International Women’s Day; Marlene explained how the class system of capitalism works and argued for a movement which organises working-class women to struggle for their rights against the “privileged class”, alongside working-class men. Her speech touched on many issues including sexism, racism, migration, education, war, and the destruction of the environment.
A number of women cleaner activists spoke about their experience working for Mitie and other companies, and their experience of organising in the IWGB. Everything was translated so that it was in English and Spanish. We watched a video about the IWGB’s campaign against abuse of cleaners working at law firm Clifford Chance.
There were also speeches from lecturers and students from Kingston Uni’s surveying and planning department, who are fighting against their management’s attempts to close it down, sacking 15 workers and pushing hundreds of students out of the university. A researcher from Corporate Watch spoke on Mitie’s expanding role in running “detention centres” (immigration prisons) and its abuses there.
But it was not just a day of speeches. There was a piece of theatre about sexual harassment in the workplace, with audience discussion and interaction shaping the outcome. This included discussion of the problems and challenges which mostly precarious, migrant women workers face in such situations.
There was also plenty of time for questions and discussion from the floor. Workers’ Liberty industrial organiser and London Underground worker Daniel Randall talked about ISS cleaners’ current fight against the introduction of biometric booking-on (fingerprinting machines) on the Tube.
There was lots of food and socialising. The room was decorated with banners, with anti-Mitie cartoons drawn specially for the IWGB and with a mural created by the English/Spanish language exchange the union runs. The day finished with a Peruvian folk dance routine created by the Expresion Inka group and performed by IWGB members’ children.
This was an excellent opportunity to discuss the politics of working-class women’s struggles, and the relationship between the labour movement and women’s liberation. Activists from other unions and organisations who took part hopefully learned something about how to organise events that are enjoyable as well as politically productive.