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The Churchill Cleaners Are Striking for Justice

The Churchill cleaners were hailed as heroes during the pandemic for keeping trains safe. But their bosses still refuse to pay them a living wage – now, they are striking for justice.

RMT cleaners working for Churchill demonstrate outside Conservative Party headquarters on 23 February 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

‘To be paid 8.91 an hour for doing a job like ours and to still struggle to pay your bills is very depressing.’

This quote from one of our RMT reps, Bella Fashola, encapsulates the reality facing Churchill cleaners on a day-to-day basis. After doing one of the hardest and most important jobs on the railways, Bella and her colleagues are faced with grinding poverty when they finish their shifts.

But like hundreds of other reps and members, Bella is steadfast in her determination to win a wage increase. The cleaners’ demands are simple: £15 an hour, company sick pay, and the right to free travel across the rail network. And they are popular—as Tribune wrote last year, polling shows that a majority of British people favour a £15 minimum wage.

What they are asking for is hardly a king’s ransom. A living wage is something that should be a given for anyone who works on the railway. However, in the case of Churchill, despite their motto of ‘do the right thing,’ they have fallen well short of that commitment.

Churchill recorded profits of £39 million in 2020. The company—along with many others—referred to cleaners as ‘heroes’ during the pandemic. But their treatment of their workers since then makes absolutely clear that these were hollow words. The company management wants to continue making money hand over fist, regardless of how difficult the lives of their workers might become.

As a highly profitable company, Churchill could easily pay what the RMT has demanded. They could alleviate the real hardship faced by workers who return home every day to rising energy, food, tax, and rent bills. They have decided not to. And their intransigence has forced our members to take eleven days of strike action, starting today.

The train companies affected are Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern, Southeastern, and HS1 services. Although industrially cleaners cannot shut down a service, trains will become filthy. We don’t want to inconvenience commuters and other members of the travelling public. But when cleaners are more than £1,000 worse off now than they were twelve months ago as a result of soaring inflation, there is no choice but to take strike action.

This Churchill cleaners’ strike is not just about this one set of workers. It’s about the situation workers are facing across the economy. For decades, pay has stagnated while costs have increased, living millions unable to afford to live dignified lives even after working long, hard weeks. Now, it’s getting worse, with the real inflation rate for workers close to 9% and wages still not budging. This situation has to change, and it will only change by all of us organise and fight back where we work.

The cleaners on this strike represent a vast swathe of our society. While many are British, most are not—they are the low-paid workers from across the world who keep our society going and who the wealthy in our society never see. On this strike alone, there are more than 40 nationalities, it is a United Nations on a picket line.

And this strike undermines so much about what is said about our economy. The common claim made about the private sector is that it ensures efficiency and value for money. But how does that apply to Churchill? It would be much more efficient to pay cleaners a decent wage and company sick pay, so they could take the appropriate time off to recover when ill.

The public don’t want to see cleaners, particularly following the pandemic, dragging themselves to work to pass on illnesses to others. And yet, this is what has been happening for years in this industry. It is unacceptable and we are determined that it will stop.

RMT has always been an all-grades union, we organise across the railway industry. As Covid proved, cleaners are an integral part of the railway infrastructure. Ultimately, as well as paid decently, this means that our longer term aim is that they must be brought back in-house. Privatisation and outsourcing have been disasters for this country.

Companies like Churchill leach off the taxpayer and bid for contracts that should be in public hands. Churchills millions of pounds of profits shouldn’t be hived off to shareholders and speculators; they are the foundations on which a dignified work life could be built for every cleaner and the public could be provided with the best possible service.

RMT only knows one way as a militant, front-foot trade union, and that’s to take on bad bosses and seek just settlements for members. It’s only by this approach that we can meet the challenges of the cost of living crisis head on, win for people at the workplace, and start to get a fair share of the fruits of our collective labour.