Striking school cleaners have shown resolve in face of disgusting attacks by bosses which are a microcosm of what is going on all over Britain today, writes PETER LAZENBY
AS STRIKES go, the action started by three women school cleaners in Yorkshire isn’t going to make national headlines or bring share prices crashing. But to the three workers, the strike is vital to defend their wages and protect their working lives.
It is also an example to hundreds of thousands of other workers in the public sector.
Leslie Leake, Marice Hall and Karen McGee are cleaners at Kinsley Academy in Wakefield in West Yorkshire. They used to work for the Labour-controlled Wakefield District Council in a former coal mining area. But Kinsley primary school became an independent academy last year. It moved out of local authority control, and its managers decided they can do just about what they want in relation to treatment of staff. They couldn’t be bothered employing the three cleaners themselves, so they brought in a privateer, C&D Cleaning Group, and gave the firm the contract to clean the school.
So on April 10, the cleaners’ jobs were transferred to C&D and since then the company has cut the three workers’ wages from £7.85 an hour to £7.20 — the minimum wage.
The company also abolished the sick pay agreement which the cleaners’ union, Unison, had with the council.
C&D doesn’t believe in trade unions. When Unison contacted the firm on behalf of the three workers, C&D made its views plain.
Head of human resources Nick Thorpe wrote back: “We do not recognise you or your organisation and subsequently we will not be entering into any form of dialogue with you in relation to our employees.” It also seems that C&D does not see itself as being subject to employment legislation.
When workers’ jobs are transferred from one employer to another — whether from public to private sector, or from one company to another through a merger or takeover — the workers’ pay and conditions are protected by law for a limited period.
The transferred workers must be paid the same wage they were previously paid and be entitled to the same benefits, such as sick pay. The legislation is known as Tupe — Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment. C&D simply ignored it. The firm cut the workers’ wages and abolished sick pay despite Tupe.
Will C&D be brought before the courts for the company’s transgressions? Unlikely.
A measure of justice may be achieved, however, as Unison is taking the cases of the three to an employment tribunal — difficult nowadays, what with the financial charges introduced by the government and hundreds of pounds which have to be forked out before a worker can set foot in a tribunal.
As it is, Unison will foot the bill, though it could take months to get to court. Meanwhile the three workers are not putting up with their treatment at the hands of C&D. They decided to strike.
It wasn’t a complicated ballot — three votes in favour, none against.Now they’re out, and they’re staying out. The strike is indefinite and the heroic three are determined to stay out for as long as it takes. It’s an important strike, not just from the point of view of three school cleaners, but because what has happened at Kinsley Academy is a microcosm of what is going on all over Britain today, and it is affecting hundreds of thousands of workers.
C&D is a pretty typical example of the privateering cowboys who are running rampant through what used to be public services, and what used to be public service jobs. The workers’ jobs are transferred to the private sector, their wages are slashed, their working conditions changed for the worse, their job security a thing of the past.
Enforced privatisation of public services by the government leaves councils unable to match the bids for contracts made by privateers because the councils know that it is impossible to provide the services and pay the agreed wages at the price the contractor puts in.
The contractor gets the work, takes over the workers’ jobs and the services they provide, slashes the wages, reduces levels of service, so cutting costs, and hey presto! The privateer is making a healthy profit. A nice little earner, as Del Boy used to say.
The three Kinsley Academy strikers are Leslie Leake, 49, Marice Hall, 36, and Karen McGee, 44.
Leslie has been a cleaner at the school for seven years.
“In that time I’ve had no trouble whatsoever,” she said.
“It used to be Kinsley primary school but it became an academy in November last year. Our jobs were contracted out in April.”
She said the contractor slashed wages and abolished sick pay soon after. “They just ignored the Tupe regulations.”
Marice said: “I’ve been at the school 11 years. There were no problems. I’ve always been a trade union member.”
She said that as well as being a cleaner she is a dinner lady at the school as well. “I’m very upset because we’re not getting what we had before. We’re down in our wages every month and I’m upset because I have to borrow off my partner to pay the bills.”
She said the strike was her first experience of active industrial action. She and her colleagues were heartened when on the first day of their strike on Tuesday last week, 18 workmates, including teaching assistants, not only refused to cross the picket line, they joined it.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done it to be honest,” she said. “I was a bit nervous — I didn’t know what was going to happen.
“When we were picketing on Tuesday we should have been in the school cleaning ready for the children coming back to school. A lot of the other workers refused to cross the picket line. We’re all encouraged by the support.”
Karen said: “We informed the union what was happening because we were underpaid for five months. “We used to ring the company and they used to put the phone down on us. They had put us on this stupid minimum wage, £7.20, and we should have been on £7.85.
“We all work the same jobs but every wage is different. Even on the minimum wage they are not paying us right.
“Last month my wage was down nine hours. It’s a lot of rubbish and I’m sick of it. Something needs doing about it. We have to rely on other people which you shouldn’t have to do. Our pension fund has been frozen as well.”
The three women have a shared determination to win their struggle.
“I’m going to go all the way,” said Leslie.
“All the way,” echoed Marice and Karen.
The Unison organiser working with the strikers is Robin Symonds. He told the Morning Star: “The three women are standing up against a macho employer that is clearly used to getting its own way. They are very brave and determined and C&D Cleaning has met its match. I am proud to stand with them.
“The company denies that they have changed any terms and conditions and have displayed a staggering degree of arrogance, ignorance and machismo that is thankfully seldom seen in modern industrial relations. “The strikers are setting an example of working people refusing to buckle under to an aggressive employer. They deserve the support of all trade unionists in their struggle for justice.”
The Morning Star contacted contacted Nick Thorpe, the C&D HR boss.
Thorpe had responded to an approach by Unison by sending an abusive letter in which he said the union representatives “make your living justifying your means out of recalcitrant behaviour and churlish threats.” He dismissed Unison’s approach, saying: “We do not require your input, opinion or indeed assistance in any shape or form, therefore I do not expect to hear from you again.”
When approached by the Morning Star he said: “We have done nothing unlawful and the matter is with our solicitors. Just be careful. That is all I am going to say to you.”
He referred any questions to the firm’s solicitors, who he named as Crooks Commercial Solicitors.
Millions of people are being hurt by this corrupt and rotten system of privatisation.
The people who suffer are not just the workers. Their clients suffer too, whether they be disabled or elderly people who need assistance at home, or passengers on Southern Rail — whose parent company Go-Ahead Group announced £99.8 million profit the day after receiving £20m extra subsidy in taxpayers’ cash because it can’t run the service efficiently — or the whole population who need the dustbin emptied regularly. Eventually perhaps people will reach the point when they have had enough.
Leslie, Marice and Karen have reached that point and are doing something about it — an indefinite strike, for as long as it takes to win. Good luck to them.
They’re setting an example which millions more workers should follow, and I have the utmost admiration for them.
They deserve our support in their struggle.
There’s enough of us out there to make sure they don’t suffer financially during the strike.
Unison has set up a fund to help these three brave workers. You can donate by making a cheque out to Wakefield Unison and sending it to 18 Gills Yard, Wakefield WF1 3BZ.