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THIS October United Voices of the World (UVW) will be taking on seven major employers across London by organising multiple strikes on an ongoing, indefinite basis.
For those comrades who are unaware of UVW and what we do, we are a non-hierarchical, member-led campaigning trade union that exists to support our members to move as quickly as possible towards direct and strike action to put an end to their exploitation.
The majority of our members are migrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and eastern Europe, with a growing number from Asia too.
They are employed by some of the biggest outsourcing companies in the world and find themselves working across the low-paid economy, primarily as cleaners, caterers, porters and security guards in places such as hospitals, universities, government departments, offices and luxury department stores.
Our members form the backbone upon which these public services and private businesses rely and yet they are treated as being no different from the dirt that they clean.
Our members have been unfairly dismissed, they have been denied — and continue to be denied — the London Living Wage, decent sick pay and much more.
But through being fearless in our demands and in the action that we take, both on the street and in the courtroom, we have consistently beaten the bosses.
We have had dozens of sacked workers reinstated, we have had our members taken off poverty wages and given 30 per cent pay rises and, in several cases, achieved complete equality with in-house employees.
Our members have taken on and beaten, among many others, the likes of the Daily Mail, The Bank of New York Mellon, Sotheby’s, Chanel, Harrods and the London School of Economics (LSE) and we have made history on more than occasion — when our members forced the LSE to become the first university to bring all outsourced staff back in-house through what was then the largest cleaners’ strike in UK history.
Similarly we organised a strike in 2016 which lasted 61 consecutive days, making it one of the longest low-paid workers’ strikes in recent times.
And this October we are planning to go even further by organising what will be the largest wave of co-ordinated and successive strike action in our five-year history.
These strikes will see our members take on several multinational outsourcing companies and their prestigious and powerful clients putting us into direct conflict with one of the biggest hospitals in London, the Ministry of Justice, Greenwich University, St George’s University, University of East London, the Royal Parks and 200 Gray’s Inn Road; a building which acts as the headquarters of ITV and is owned by Great Portland Estates — a FTSE 250 property company boasting of holding a real estate portfolio across London worth £2.6 billion.
Our strikes this autumn would have numbered nine were it not for the recent victories at Chanel, which saw UVW members return a 100 per cent Yes vote for strike action, forcing the global chain to concede to our demands for the London Living Wage to be paid to all outsourced cleaners across its stores.
Likewise, after returning another 100 per cent Yes vote for strike action, another group of our members who clean the offices of the multinational marketing company Unruly won their demands for the London Living Wage and six weeks’ full sick pay — a level of sick pay which is almost unheard of, if not completely without precedent, for low-paid workers in the private sector.
Our biggest strike this season will take place at St Mary’s Hospital; around 100 of our members who work as cleaners and porters who are outsourced by the hospital to French multinational Sodexo will walk out to demand both equality in pay and other terms and conditions with their NHS colleagues.
In its most recent annual report (2018) Sodexo boasted of having a revenue stream of €20.4 billion and an operating profit of €994 million.
But for the last five years it has consistently paid our members poverty wages and given them some of the worst terms and conditions it can legally get away with.
Three days after announcing the strike ballot, Sodexo invited UVW to the negotiating table.
Our members earn between only £6.16 to £8.21 per hour leaving them £6,000 to £10,000 worse off per year than NHS colleagues of a similar grade.
These poverty wages are paid alongside the firm’s now former CEO Michel Landel’s annual bonus worth up to 200 per cent of his €933,400 salary, and its board of directors’ annual salary increases and bonuses to the tune of hundreds of thousands to millions of pounds, all while also rewarding themselves with “performance shares” worth millions.
These strikes are not just important as opportunities to fight for better pay and working conditions; they are important because they also give our members a voice and the chance to send a clear and simple message that, “you can be a government department, a multinational company, or even the property of the crown, either way we don’t care. We are no longer going to work for poverty wages nor are we going to work two jobs and still worry about paying rent while you at the top shower yourselves with obscene pay packets and bonuses — your time is up.”
But to send this message we need the help of our comrades; we need you and others to support our strikes and generate as much noise and disruption as possible.
We need to show these employers that our strength lies in our numbers and in our unity. Successful strikes not only win improvements in pay packets and working conditions, they also help to show those workers who are not yet unionised that there is a reason to join our struggle — that they can win.
But for every day that our members strike they lose a day’s pay, meaning that a strong strike fund is essential to our success and that is why we are also asking our fellow comrades to donate to our strike fund.
No matter how big or small, any donation is greatly appreciated and means that we and our members can continue to take the fight directly to the employers.
Donations can be made at uvwunion.org.uk/strikefund ¡Hasta la Victoria!
Petros Elia is co-founder and organiser, United Voices of the World.
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