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Metro Cleaners Strike in Newcastle June 2012 - Report and Interview

Metro Cleaners Strike in Newcastle June 2012 - Report and InterviewNine years after opening in 1981, privatisation of the Tyne and Wear Metro light-rail system began with cleaning services being contracted out to the private sector. Churchill Services took charge of Metro cleaning provision in 2010 and – in their pursuit of increased “cost efficiencies” – have been attacking the cleaning staff’s terms and conditions of employment ever since. Churchill Services increased its annual pre-tax profits by 81% between 2009 and 2010; none of which has been passed on to the cleaning employees. Metro cleaners continue to be paid the bare minimum wage of £6.08 per hour; which amounts to poverty-pay considering the “living wage” in the North East is estimated at £7.20 hourly#. On top of this, the cleaners have no sick pay scheme; no pension scheme; and no access to free leisure travel passes (a condition that is afforded to other Metro employees however). In fact, originally Churchill had also refused to provide cleaners with free work travel passes; forcing them to pay to use the Metro system even when travelling to work. Although this has now been awarded, the attacks continue.

 

The company have announced their intention to withdraw paid meal breaks, and – in written correspondence with Labour MPs – expressed that if savings could not be made through the withdrawal of these paid breaks, then they would be made through redundancies. A particularly unpleasant example of the cleaning-provider’s utter disregard for their front-line employees is their refusal to provide cleaners with anti-scratch gloves. Consequently, one employee is currently awaiting the results of a HIV test after being cut whilst dealing with the contents of a station bin. Churchill’s negligence was further evidenced in February of this year, when they announced that they had lost the tax codes of their entire workforce.  In that same month, the company were fined £8,000 following a four-week inspection in which the amount of litter found in stations was adjudged to be at an unacceptable level. This judgement followed Churchill having significantly reduced the hours of night-shift cleaning staff.  Nevertheless, Churchill’s highest-paid director brought home in excess of £161,000 in 2010; so it’s not all doom and gloom after all.

Having eventually been forced to enter into discussions with the RMT transport union via the trade union recognition laws#, Churchill described an offer that included a zero per cent pay rise as “generous”. By the end of April, cleaners employed by Churchill had returned a 100% vote in favour of strike action; with a 48 hour strike beginning on the 11th June.

FRFI interviewed one of the Churchill cleaners, Stuart Roberts, while out on strike action:

What do you think about the actions the RMT union has taken so far?

I think it has been a well organised campaign. Yesterday was really successful on the picket line at Haymarket [Metro station], getting the dispute as high profile as possible and highlighting our campaign to the general public, who are the most important to get the message out to, they use the Tyne and Wear Metro on a daily basis. I think the approach by the RMT has been really successful so far.

Are you getting much support for your campaign off the other Metro workers?

Yes, we all support each other; there is solidarity between all workers for industrial action.

Are the other workers in RMT or are they in different unions?

There are various different unions across the Metro system but the RMT represent the majority: drivers, revenue staff and virtually every member of cleaning staff.

How long has the cleaning service been privatised?

Cleaning has been privatised since the early 1990s and there has been up to 5 different private companies since then. Initially cleaning was run in house by Nexus then the decision was made by Labour councillors to contract out the services. There have been three different companies since I have worked here, and since privatisation everything has gone to pot.

What do you think about the actions of the Labour councillor who is elected onto the local Transport Authority and has been silent in the face of attacks on the cleaners?

I thinks its disgraceful that a so called Labour councillor who was voted into power by some of the cleaners can allow Churchill to treat its staff so appallingly –let’s just hope that when it comes to the next local elections people remember that and kick them out of office.

What do you think about other attacks on other sections of the working class for example with cuts to public services?

I think it’s totally disgraceful that Labour MPs agree with the cuts but its local councillors on a local level that are putting all of these people out on the dole. When they say that, although they are making all of these cuts, the private sector will pick up unemployment, it’s just laughable and I think the argument is flawed. The reality is there are no more private jobs out there.

What do you see as the solution to austerity for the working class?

To get this rotten Tory government out of power and out of parliament and I don’t think the solution is then to defend the Labour Party because they are not much better  and the chances are Labour would do exactly the same thing and just put a different spin on it. So we need people to get into parliament from more socialist backgrounds. It ironic that, not the RMT – we are proud they got expelled from the Labour Party – but some of these other unions like Unison and Unite, who spend millions of pounds funding the Labour Party get nothing in return, should look at that and maybe invest the money in political parties and socialist parties that are willing to stand up for the working class. The reality is the front bench of the Labour Party are all a bunch of millionaires.