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Lessons from the Cleanstart Campaign

From an organiser's written statement:

I deny that I said "Consolidated [Property Services] does not give cleaners enough time to clean." I did say "Consolidated take the premium rent paid by office building tenants and cuts the hours of cleaners which does not give cleaners enough time to do the job."

Accuracy is important.

Here's a fun fact: if the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union had launched their monumental Cleanstart campaign just one day later, April 21st 2006, it would have been exactly 150 years to the day after the establishment of the eight-hour day in Victoria. It's quite the coincidence, since the two campaigns share some striking similarities despite the many years that separate them.

It was a successful industrial action without a strike. Officials at the LHMU (later United Voice, currently merged into the United Workers' Union) understood that a strike wasn't the right course of action. Firstly, and much like the 888 movement, they weren't targeting a single employer. It was an entire industry that needed fixing. Specific targets came into focus as time went on, but at the outset it was a much wider strategy.

It was a successful industrial action without a strike.

The union's internal briefing notes aren't quite as sensitive as they were at the time, considering the legal action eventually taken against them, so with the separation of time we're able to dig through and see what was happening. More importantly, officials and other people who were there are now able to speak much more freely about what they were doing and what they were trying to achieve.

The first part of the plan was to exert pressure on "building owners" (companies that own or control buildings in metropolitan centres) to adopt what they were calling the "Principles for a Clean Start." It wasn't a formal agreement with the union or anything like that, merely a set of guidelines that the property owners intended to adhere to in their contracting. Interestingly, the principles linked the employment practices of cleaning companies with standards of cleanliness, which makes total sense in hindsight. A grubby employer is probably going to be a grubby operator too. And by making the companies paying the cleaning contractors literally feel dirty, the hope was to lift the standards in all aspects of the industry.

At the time, the union had to be very careful about saying they were also targeting the tenants in the buildings, but they definitely were. By making the people in the buildings keenly aware of the cleaning practices that were (or in many cases, were not) going on, clients of these business began to feel very uncomfortable and were likely to voice this discomfort with the firms they were leasing space from.

The second part of the plan was to make the cleaning companies themselves sign a much more concrete document, called the "Responsible Contractor Policy." It wasn't quite an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, but one of the main clauses in the document stated that the parties to the agreement (the company and the union) "are jointly committed to a collective bargaining approach to determining wages and conditions." It was an agreement to work toward an Agreement.

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Of course, having a list of things you want contractors, building managers, employers and tenants to do is great, but what happens if they don't agree? That's where you need power, and to exercise it smartly.

As stated earlier, a general strike across the cleaning industry was neither possible nor wise. Walking off the job is a huge deal, which requires significant trust and faith and hope to combat the overwhelming uncertainty experienced by an already precariously placed workforce. It just wasn't going to happen. Instead, the strategy was to mobilise unionists to take peaceful public action outside city buildings in order to build public pressure. Those building owners being targeted to sign the Principles document would then put pressure on the cleaning companies to uphold the same principles. The arrangements between companies was a pressure point which could be exploited. This is a lesson in knowing your power (and your limitations) and identifying where to direct it for best effect.

During 2006 there were a total of seven National Days of Action in which protests occurred simultaneously outside city buildings in every state. Hundreds of activists, both employed as cleaners and not, gathered outside the buildings being targeted for their contracting practices and basically made a lot of noise. They chanted, they yelled, they handed flyers to passers by and they called on businesses to step up and take responsibility. It was a very visible, very loud, very colourful course of action. Large corporations who leased office space in these buildings, not wanting to have literal dirty reputations, took notice.

In an effort to draw attention to the conditions in their offices, actions were deliberately aimed at making office workers in the buildings feel unclean. People heading into the buildings were offered hazmat suits. They were offered toilet brushes in case they ended up having to do the work themselves. It was delightfully, wonderfully gross. If people squirmed, if they felt uncomfortable, the action was working.

Behind the scenes, however, more traditional organising was taking place. Protests without nuts-and-bolts workplace organising are rarely very effective. Organisers and delegates were holding meetings in homes, in workplaces, in union offices, in public spaces. They were making phone calls and doing site visits. They were distributing information to the people who really needed it at every available opportunity, and the membership was growing as a result. Their power was increasing.

One particular employer began to emerge as the grubbiest of them all. Consolidated Property Services was important because they held many large contracts, and unless the union could bring them in line the industry-wide plan was unlikely to be successful. They were also one of the worst offenders, both in terms of employment practices and cleaning standards.

 
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Consolidated very much liked to imagine themselves as leaders in the industry. The CEO, John Grant, was a big personality in the business community and in Melbourne. Ultimately, this sheen of respectability would be his and the company's downfall, and be the linchpin that would overturn the whole sector. The company sought an injunction against the union to prevent the actions that were occurring, i.e. the rallies. They complained that the things being said about the company (that they were cutting hours, that they didn't provide proper cleaning equipment, that they didn't follow basic hygiene principles) were completely untrue. (They were not.)

When the injunction subsequently failed, a dramatic power shift occurred. The union's actions were now vindicated in the eyes of the law, and all hope of shutting them down was gone. The employer, not wanting to face a protracted public campaign against it, had to sit down with the union.

Having styled himself as a captain of industry among corporate cleaning services, Grant's defeat at the hands of the union started a domino effect that soon brought the other holdouts to the table as well. We see this time and time again: companies who aren't opposed to change as long as their competitors are equally affected. Our theory is that no one hates competition like capitalists. One by one, the agreements were signed and enterprise bargaining was able to begin across Melbourne, across Victoria and across Australia.

The campaign was a huge success, and all without a single worker missing a shift or losing pay. With the casualisation of the workforce continuing, and perhaps hastening, there is a lot to learn here about the kinds of actions that can be effective in winning changes but also minimising the extent to which workers have to stick their necks out. Especially with the laws and the system making it so much harder to exercise any kind of industrial power.

The lesson isn't that every campaign should be run like Cleanstart. It's that there are always options, and that being smart can sometimes be just as important as being strong. And being right doesn't hurt either.

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