Craig Johnstone

The Churchill Cleaners: five tips to winning a dispute

In 2013, a group of RMT members working as cleaners on the Tyne and Wear Metro decided they’d had enough of unfair wages, terms and conditions. With the help of their union, the TUC and others, they took on their bosses – and won. Here, Craig Johnstone, union organiser at the time, explains how.

When Churchill took over the cleaning contract on the Tyne and Wear metro, they were paying minimum wage. Then they decided to cancel paid meal breaks – a contractual obligation. That’s when we started our dispute. After a long, hard fight, not only did the cleaners achieve a pathway to the living wage and a significant immediate increase, we’d created a much better relationship between the union and its members, and the company. Here’s how.

1. We set out a vision

Early on, the cleaners set out a vision for what they wanted – a better deal, their employer’s respect, and to escape from poverty wages. That vision kept us motivated and – because it’s easy to understand and empathise with – it improved peoples’ perception of the union movement.

2. Get everyone involved, young and old

We did a massive recruitment drive among Churchill cleaners, getting to nearly 100% union membership. All ages were represented. There were two women in their 70s who had never been involved with a union before. They attended every single picket line – it was fantastic. The younger members used social media to publicise events and connect with other activist groups.

3. Get creative in your action

The Churchill cleaners’ dispute involved 33 days of strike action. This was obviously critical to the campaign’s success, but it’s only one part of the picture. We lobbied, demonstrated and protested. We staged a soup kitchen and did a ‘party on the metro’: jumping on and off trains, playing music, and handing out leaflets, sweets and soft drinks to passengers.
We also sent Christmas hampers to members of the transport authority – empty except for wrapping paper and ribbons.

4. Use your networks

We used our connections to engage the press and lobby the local authority. We got lots of coverage – some quite high profile – and gained valuable support from other groups, like local Labour parties. This made our protests and demonstrations more effective. The northern region TUC also gave us lots of support. They’d turn up on picket lines, support us in protest, pass resolutions, and lobby MPs and councillors. It was very effective.

5. Build better relationships

During this dispute, Churchill did not treat the RMT or its members with respect. I remember going to one meeting and being told to stand in the corner without a chair! Today, the situation is totally different. We have built a really positive, constructive relationship with Churchill – so much so, that they’re contracted to clean the TUC offices in Newcastle!