The cleaners of the London underground work through the night to keep the city’s vascular system pumping and sanitary. Most of them are women with families. Many of them face abuse and sexual harassment every day from loutish travellers as a part of their work. On top of wiping up our vomit and newspapers and taking crap from our scum, they have to struggle with shockingly low pay, on-the-spot third party sackings, little to no sick pay and a measly 12 days’ annual leave. And they’ve had enough.
RMT, the tube workers’ union, will be striking on the 26th-27th July, and again on the 1st-2nd July 2008.
‘The tube cleaners are an inspiring example of women fighting for their rights,’ said Laura Schwartz, a representative of Feminist Fightback. ‘London Transport must stop under-valuing so-called women’s work such as cleaning and recognise that it is crucial to the smooth running of the Underground.’
These people are us. These are the people who clean up our muck. They have feelings, and they have families, and they have a level of baseline leverage that the Old Firm trembles to contemplate, and they’re sick of being fucked with. This is feminism.
Let’s make one thing crystal clear right now: we’re not talking about the caring face of service privatisation here. Much of the abuse faced by these workers, most of whom are migrant women, does not just come from commuters. Clara Osagiede, a representative of the tube workers’ union RMT, told me that it is extremely common for women to come to her complaining about serious sexual harasment from their male bosses- agency supervisors- but too afraid to make formal complaints. Male bosses take advantage of immigrant workers by threatening to expose them if they don’t keep their mouths shut. This is the type of insidious patriarchal fist squeezing the breath out of the vulnerable women of this country every day.
Because, for the benefit of the uninitiated, London isn’t all fashion and finance, Kate Moss and cocaine. There are millions of people here living on the poverty line, doing hard, thankless jobs that they hate just to keep themselves and their families together. Most of those people are women. Feminism happens on the ground, it’s not traded in bitumen between snarling academics, and it’s a central and inextricable part of anti-capitalism.
Eat the rich. Demand decent pay and support those working to do so. We are entering a new strike economy and you, too, are likely to be inconvenienced in your daily habits at some point over the next few months. But not half as inconvenienced as we’ll all be if we allow the Old Firm to kick workers’ rights and women’s rights to the bottom of the agenda.