Rattling cages: rise of the United Voices of the World

In early August 2018 cleaners at the Ministry of Justice and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea started a coordinated three-day strike. All migrants, the cleaners joined United Voices of the World (UVW) to fight for better pay and conditions at work. They have been ignored for too long by subcontractors who pay poverty wages and work them to the bone. They were fighting for their dignity.

The cleaners chose to organise through UVW because it was unlikely that any of the more established unions would have them. They are the “unorganiseable” — precarious, migrant and, mostly, female, they don’t fit the traditional profile. They found out about UVW through fellow migrants who told them about a small trade union that would support them, about how workers, just like themselves, fought their employers and secured better pay and conditions at workplaces such as the LSE, Harrods, Ferrari and Bank of America.

They also heard how, earlier this year, UVW members cleaning the Daily Mail secured the London Living Wage, which gave them, effectively and immediately, a 25% pay rise. Let that sink in for a minute: migrants working for the most racist and xenophobic daily rag pushed wages up.

The three-day strike was loud, disruptive and confident. In true UVW tradition, it involved music, food, dancing and a big pig piñata. But most significantly, it featured two occupations. On the first evening, UVW members and activists barged into a council meeting at Kensington Town Hall and forced councillors to arrange a meeting. The following day, RBKC leadership, who, for many months, rejected any responsibility for their outsourced workers, negotiated with cleaners on the picket line and RBKC conceded, confirming that all cleaners would be paid the London Living Wage within three months. The victory was the direct result of a direct action.

That same day UVW occupied the Ministry of Justice and, yet again, forced senior management to negotiate with workers on their terms. But the most immediate achievement of this action wasn’t in securing a pay rise (the dispute is still ongoing). As activists filled the MoJ lobby with banners and music, security officers watched with interest. The next day the entire security force joined the union, soon followed by the receptionists, all gearing to strike. Workers who have been silenced and ignored for years were politicised through action. They found their courage by realising that they can shut down a whole government department. And they will.

How did this happen? How does a tiny trade union, which started with only a handful of members in 2014, manage to force multinational corporations to concede to workers’ demands?

UVW’s success is the result of its organising principles, including members working collectively and horizontally, using direct action and creating ongoing opportunities for solidarity, socialising and political engagement.

Our members are some of the most exploited and vulnerable workers in the UK. Many work multiple jobs on the minimum wage, while others, for example, strippers and sex workers, are stigmatised and marginalised.

their extremely precarious position, the union actively encourages members to become workplace organisers, with the intention to quickly turn individual grievances into collective struggles. Ignoring traditional trade unions’ rules about density and often doing away with official union recognition, UVW then supports workers to take direct action, including demonstrations, strikes and occupations, to win their campaigns. This strategy, often deemed “militant” or radical, proved incredibly effective, with disputes being resolved within weeks or months, where bigger trade unions have failed for years.

Sometimes, like at the Daily Mail, we don’t even have to take to the streets — the threat of a UVW action is enough to convince employers to immediately meet the workers’ demands!

Since it was formed, UVW has maintained a democratic, participatory and flexible structure, where campaigns are led by workers and bureaucracy is kept to a minimum. The executive committee, made of staff, elected activists and members, is open to anyone. At the last 2018 AGM, members took the revolutionary decision to go a step further and delete all official titles. United Voices is the only British trade union that does not have a General Secretary. In general meetings, all members have an equal say and more localised decisions are made either through the committee or through autonomous working groups. While authority and privilege have not been fully eradicated (they never are, really), we make sure to constantly reflect on issue around the distribution of power, consensus and participation.

All this is possible because of the organisational culture that was already an important part of the union. UVW members consider themselves part of a community based on solidarity and mutual aid. Everyone is an activist and members regularly turn up to actions, often years after their own dispute has been resolved.

Externally, UVW operates as part of a growing ecosystem of groups and organisations on the wider autonomous left. Comrades from IWGB, London Renters Union, Women’s Strike and DPAC, the various Justice4Cleaners groups and Class War, as well as a large number of more loosely affiliated activists, regularly turn up to actions. Our politics and practice might not always be exactly the same but, in general, we can count on other committed activists to support our actions, as we would support theirs.

At the MoJ we collaborated, for the first time, with a branch of the big trade union PCS. This particular branch is led by militant activists, who feel a strong affiliation with UVW’s workers-led, direct action-based form of organising and wanted to join in on the action. We know that other big trade unions are watching.

We work to develop and nurture all those links not just out of strategic need for numbers, but because we believe in the collective benefit of building an effective power base throughout the autonomous left and beyond.

Our organisational principle and tactics prove again and again that a confident workforce can win victories against the most stubborn bosses. This is grassroots organising, backed by a strong conviction that workers are best placed to articulate an analysis of their conditions, develop the politics and strategy to improve them and act on their decisions. In the current political climate, after years of diminishing collective power for workers and communities and with many of the large trade unions acting like insurance companies, this is considered radical.

~Shiri Shalmy


Find out more at uvwunion.org.uk

Pic by Gordon Roland Peden