Beginning in the autumn of 1970 a group of women active in the Women’s Liberation Workshop assisted in the unionisation of women working as night cleaners in offices in central London.
The campaign had been started by Mary Hobbs, who had been active in tenants’ campaigns in Hackney, when she set up the Cleaners Actions Group. This is what she says on her autobiography Born to Struggle published in 1973;
From that moment going around and organizing the cleaners became a full-time job for me, especially the night cleaners, who to my mind were the worst exploited. I enlisted the help of anybody who would be willing to give up an hour of their time once a week to go around the office blocks and start talking to the cleaners themselves.We formed ourselves into the Cleaners’ Action Group and printed leaflets saying that all cleaners should join the union, while at the same time pointing out they could not expect big increases overnight and would have to do their bit to keep the union on its toes. Otherwise the union would just accept their dues and leave it at that.
In our first two months it was amazing the way people rallied to help. It was a new thing to them. People had not realized the way women were working all through the night to keep life turning over for others. We got quite a few buildings organized as union labour, and as soon as the contractors woke up to the fact that it was not only some five-minute wonder in came the strong-arm gang.
They would send in their managers to issue warnings that if it was found any woman had joined a union it would mean her instant dismissal.
After two years hard campaigning they had a victory .
Our first big confrontation came at the end of July 1972 when ten cleaners came out at the twenty-six-storey-high Ministry of Defence building, the Empress State Building, in Fulham. They were demanding a rise of £3 on their earnings of £12.50 for a forty-five-hour week and recognition by the employers for their union – in their case, the Civil Service Union. Cleaners Action and Women’s Lib co-operated to set up round-the-clock pickets and messages of support and solidarity came pouring in. The spirit that existed on that picket line was really beautiful, and the wonderful shop steward they had on the building, Maria Scally, worked all out to help the women stay united.
The strike lasted into the middle of August, with, on the 6th, twenty women on the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall also joining in with the same demands. The G.P.O. engineers stopped servicing their telephones, the dustmen left their bins full, no mail went in and there were no deliveries of bread, milk or beer to the canteen. The whole thing really snowballed…
On 16th August there was a meeting chaired by the Ministry of Employment between the Civil Service Union and the contractor’s representative. It was agreed: £16.50 a week plus a 50p night allowance for a normal week’s work and no victimization. The supervisor at Horseferry House was reinstated. On the next day the girls were back at work.
Sheila Rowbotham says that she got involved after May approached the International Socialists for help and they asked Sheila to put a note in the Women’s Liberation Workshop newsletter. As well as Sheila, Sally Alexander, Mary Kelly and a number of other women became involved. In her autobiography Promise of a Dream Sheila recalls:
With a friend from my Women’s Liberation group, Liz Waugh, I set out each Tuesday night at 10 pm into the deserted streets of the City, London’s financial district. We would prowl the streets looking for weary-looking women clutching their belongings in carrier bags and accost them with, ‘Excuse me are you a night cleaner?’
It was all exceedingly haphazard. Our aim, once we made contact, was to find out where they worked and follow up by recruiting the whole building. The vague assumption was that we would gradually unionise the whole of London’s cleaning force. But the cleaners worked often spasmodically and were moved around to different buildings. Some were happy to remain invisible and off the books, because they were claiming social security. Most of the women we approached were middle aged and looked older. The accumulated exhaustion of working at night and looking after their families in the day, had marked their faces. Moreover a sizable minority were immigrants from the Caribbean and exceedingly nervous. They needed the money, little as it was, most desperately, moreover they were contending with racism in working class communities as well as in the job market.
Unions were remote entities to many of the women we approached. Indeed sometimes we found ourselves explaining what unions were. We began to supplement the blue and yellow recruiting forms from the T& G with our own hand-written one produced on duplicators (early ancestors of the photocopier). ‘Why do night cleaners get less pay than day cleaners? Do night work for such low pay? Why don’t cleaners get full cover money? …
Remarkably a few of the night cleaners did come on the first ever Women’s Liberation demonstration in March 1971, when 5,000 women with male supporters strode through the sleet and snow singing ‘Stay Young and Beautiful’. Among them was May Hobbs , bearing a placard ‘The Cleaners’ Action Group’. May, who was a natural orator, addressed the crowd in Trafalgar Square calling for ‘the self-organisation of women at their workplaces.’
After the success of the 1972 strikes the campaign struggled as May was now a well-known person and was speaking around the country and it seems to have run out of steam in 1973. A documentary about the campaign The Nightcleaners was made by the Berwick Street Film Collective and shown in 1975. You can see a clip here.
Sally Alexander speaks about the camapign in a short clip here.
The campaign was also included in a television report on women’s liberation made in 1971. This shows the meeting held on 12th February 1971 which was addressed by Bernadette Devlin who had been elected as an MP in April 1969, aged 21. (This meeting also featured in The Nightcleaners documentary) You can watch the report here.
In 2006 Sheila Rowbothan wrote a lengthy article about the campaign ; Cleaners’ Organizing n Britain from the 1970s : a personal account. You can read this here.
The campaign was featured in Shrew, the Women’s Liberation newsletter, early in 1971 and again in a special issue published in December 1971 which included a short history of the campaign, examples of the conditions the women worked in, reports from leafletters, interviews with May Viddell, Jean wright and May Hobbs and considerations of the relationship of women’s liberation to class , I have scanned these pages below.