On Monday the 7th and Tuesday the 8th of September, over 200 cleaning workers in Glasgow staged a walkout and gathered for a rally outside the city chambers in George Square. This was in response to Glasgow City Council’s decision to extend their hours. Additionally, workers received letters on the 12th of September stating that 21 hours of pay would be deducted from their wages as a result of the wildcat action.
As a protective measure during the current Coronavirus pandemic, cleaning workers’ working days were reduced by three hours. Working days now finished at 15:30 instead of 18:30. The Council voted to extend their current hours to 16:30, in spite of a new outbreak of Coronavirus cases in Glasgow. The Council argues that this extension is within contract limits and, unsurprisingly, their reaction to this walkout has been altogether negative.
A now-deleted tweet from the Glasgow City Council official Twitter account rashly declared that the workers had taken “illegal strike action”. Damage control was quickly carried out, with one spokeswoman trying to distance the city’s SNP councillors from the tweet and its sentiment. GMB, the union representing the cleaning workers, has pointed out the “needlessly antagonistic and unhelpful” nature of the Council’s responses in the midst of some of the highest daily Coronavirus cases seen in Scotland since May.
The biggest concern for cleaning workers at this moment is clearly Coronavirus. They have continued working through the pandemic, being praised in the media as ‘key workers’ and previously receiving claps from the public. Workers across all different sectors have faced the same kind of treatment too, most notably NHS workers, but also shop staff and now — especially in the face of reopened cafés and restaurants — front of house and kitchen staff. The cruel reality is that these ‘key workers’ face unsafe working conditions, continued low wages and, for some, unemployment.
GMB Scotland has launched a campaign for all key workers, ‘After the Applause’, that is pushing employers to put their money where their mouth is and increase wages by £2 per hour. As Marxists we support the immediate improvement of workers’ pay and conditions, but we must also point out that the crisis-ridden capitalist system will always do its best to undercut and annul any reforms won. For the past decade workers have faced attacks on living standards in the form of austerity policies. Capitalists are interested only in profit, which means lower wages and longer hours for the working class. This means cutting corners, without concern for health and safety conditions or reasonable standards of living. The workers themselves must organise and take control of their workplaces, as they are the only ones who can guarantee their own wellbeing at work.
In the case of Glasgow’s cleaning workers it is clear that, when push comes to shove, the Council will show its true face. Even the most basic health concerns of its employees are met with hostility. The attack has been quick, with workers receiving letters informing them of the 21-hours’ pay deduction within only a few days of the walkout. Such punitive actions should not stand, and the workers should be paid in full.
The pressure that Coronavirus has put on ordinary working people is exposing more and more how the broken capitalist system will not reward their honest efforts, even in the midst of a growing pandemic. Years of cuts to public services and austerity measures exemplify this point. Profit cannot be part of the equation when protecting workers’ interests. Only a socialist programme can guarantee the lasting safety of workers in Glasgow and beyond.