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ON Saturday morning, eight weeks into their indefinite strike, workers from the Clichy Holiday Inn, Paris, demonstrated outside the investor-class InterContinental Hotel in London.
The Clichy hotel is operated by InterContinental Hotels Group, by revenue the biggest hotelier in the world — the InterContinental is a group flagship.
An overnight Paris-London coach was co-organised by the CGT’s (Confederation Generale du Travail) hotel workers’ section and the CNT (Confederation Nationale du Travail).
Clichy workers came to London to protest against the British-based firm’s appalling employment practices. Their major demand is to be brought in-house.
Saturday was their 59th consecutive strike day. Management has hardly acknowledged them — hence the London demo, and their call for support.
CNT worker-organiser Mirabelle said they launched the Clichy campaign after a colleague was involuntarily transferred: “That triggered it. Enough was enough.”
The majority of chambermaids, housekeepers and kitchen porters at the Clichy hotel are employed by a subcontractor, Hemera. Now, the Clichy workers are demanding direct employment, that all hours worked are paid for and that their contracts are respected.
Outsourcing hurts workers in two ways.
Subcontractors will bid for contracts — to clean a hotel, say — and then attempt to profit through lowering wages and worsening terms and conditions.
Outsourced workers at the Clichy hotel don’t get meals like in-house staff — maybe the hotel saves €2, with Hemera getting a cut.
And, with subcontractor after subcontractor across the workplace, organising against conditions gets harder. Workers suddenly have different employers, with responsibility seemingly everywhere, and so nowhere.
The argument is that outsourcing improves efficiency — it allows firms to further specialise. In fact, it’s a tactic for ensuring that value goes to profit, not wages.
InterContinental Hotels Group, which contracts Hemera, paid out $400 million in dividends this year, from an operating profit of $707m.
“But our hours weren’t being paid, our contracts weren’t being respected, and neither were our basic rights,” says Mirabelle.
Earlier this year, after an indefinite strike campaign, United Voices of the World (UVW) cleaners at the London School of Economics (LSE) were brought in-house, with doubled sick and holiday pay.
There’s a received idea that universities are relatively hospitable to trade union activity — they’re public institutions, and so relatively pro-worker, with a “liberal” ethos, or at least branding. How hospitable were they to UVW cleaners’ organising?
University management spent a fortune on private security officers’ overtime on strike days, with the police always there too, sometimes together outnumbering striking workers three to one.
UVW’s hand was helped, and management’s worsened, by strong picket-side support from a minority of students. Some of the same students were there on Saturday, too.
But the majority of LSE students came to blame the cleaners for the disruption to campus life. with the Student Union’s inactivity leaving the sentiment to spread and deepen.
And one national-level union’s LSE branch disgraced themselves, not once, but twice — first by standing with management against UVW, physically standing with them across from the picket, and, after, by claiming credit for the win.
It was UVW workers’ weekly strike days, their disruptiveness and their credible threat of escalation that forced management to the table.
Forget the branding — universities are hostile to workers organising, and so the lessons of UVW’s win at LSE are more general than the campus locale might suggest.
The University and College Union LSE branch’s pledge of support for UVW, six long months into the dispute, was important; management found it couldn’t necessarily rely on recognised unions against the cleaners.
The most exploited, most oppressed sections of the working class were organising where others weren’t — and the support of more enfranchised, longer-organised workers was crucial.
“Yes, support from other unions and our colleagues is very important to sustain a 59-day strike,” said a Clichy worker.
And what do you need now? “Most importantly, we need support, financial support, but also that people listen to us.”
It was very cold, nearly freezing, during the Saturday demo.
Despite organising such a long strike, Claude Levy, general secretary of the CGT’s hotel workers’ section, said: “We need to be modest.”
“We’re present in perhaps 0.5 per cent of hotels. In France, in the private sector, maybe 3 per cent of workers are organised in a union. That’s all the unions together. Yes, there’s struggle, but it’s very, very small.”
Outsourcing divides the working class — that’s the point. Differences of nationality, language and legal status can do the same.
The CGT and the CNT aren’t the only ones organising against IHG, nor UVW the only union organising in predominately migrant workplaces.
Unite’s Hospitality Branch organised a demonstration in early November against IGH’s Whitechapel Holiday Inn.
Unite regional officer for food and drink Dave Turnbull explains that the “subcontracted housekeeping model is used by IHG at all of its London hotels. In 2012 they committed to phasing in the London Living Wage.
“They have not delivered on this commitment and many housekeeping staff remain trapped on minimum rates.”
Workers’ power is at a historic low — but that means that capital and its managers are getting complacent.
UVW’s LSE campaign showed that even limited organising across nationalities, payscales and unions can do real damage. And, against cross-national firms, cross-border organising can do the same.
“We’re preparing for May 1 2018, for a Europe-wide demonstration,” Levy added, “against this modern form of slavery in the hotel sector.”
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