THIS past couple of weeks I’ve been meeting with striking cleaners in the CBD. My attention was piqued a month or so ago by a news snippet saying cleaners were refusing to change toilet paper. They were advising office workers to bring in their own.
So I went to their noisy protests. All this year, their union, United Voice, has been coordinating protests four days a week. They do it like this: one or two dozen workers materialise in front of a building, armed with wailing megaphones and 20L steel buckets and drumsticks. They make the worst racket they can for 45 minutes, hand out flyers to office workers, and leave.
They’re targeting the biggest cleaning contractor, Consolidated Property Services, which so far has refused to renew the Clean Start agreement, first negotiated with the union in 2009. About half of the cleaners in Melbourne are international students, and almost all were born overseas. But more about all that another time.
For now, follow me through a few leads: last week I met with a Nepalese student and cleaner named Koustup. He is tall and handsome, and endearingly friendly (in our correspondence, he told me to say hi to my girlfriend for him). He’s only been in Australia and working as a cleaner since the start of the year, but he has decided to help front the campaign because many of his co-workers are too scared. It was a bright afternoon and we sat outside a café on Swanston Street. “Have you seen the movie ‘Bread and Roses’?” he asked me. “It’s just the same as ‘Bread and Roses’. Exactly the same.”
So I watched ‘Bread and Roses’. It’s a Ken Loach film, made in 2000, starring Adrien Brody and Pilar Padilla, about cleaners at one building in Los Angeles trying to organise for better pay and for health care. The story is based on the Justice for Janitors campaign by the Service Employees International Union. At one point, Brody, the union organiser, escapes the caretaker by hiding in Padilla’s trolley. Another time, he confronts the building owner at a fancy restaurant, sips his wine, and eats a lamb chop from his plate. Later, Brody and Padilla kiss in a cleaning cupboard. The movie also unflinchingly portrays the dilemmas for the janitors, who are nervous about making trouble, and must decide whether to risk their precarious livelihoods.
Striking millworkers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912
Afterwards, I wanted to know about the title. It comes from a speech by unionist, socialist and feminist Rose Schneiderman, said to have been given at the famous 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Half the employees of the major mill company were women between the ages of 14 and 18, and they’d come from dozens of different countries.
Camella Teoli, a 14-year-old millworker, testified before a U.S. Congressional hearing on the strike in March 1912. She started working when she was 13, she said, and after only two weeks she was in an accident in which the machine pulled her scalp off. She spent seven months in hospital.
Mr. HARDWICK. Why did you [join the strike]?
Miss TEOLI. Because I didn’t get enough to eat at home.
Mr. HARDWICK. You did not get enough to eat at home?
Miss TEOLI. No.
She was among more than 25,000 workers who joined the strike. It was led by the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), and, chiefly, by the 22-year-old unionist Elisabeth Gurley Flynn. At the time in Lawrence, the infant mortality rate was among the worst in the country, and over a third of millworkers died before they were 25.
But in her speech at the strike, Schneiderman argued for more than starvation wages. “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist – the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art,” she said. “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
After eight weeks, through the bitterly cold winter, the owners gave in. In 2012, a centennial committee commemorating the strike stated that it led to pay rises for 150,000 textile workers. Within a few years, however, the textile companies had undermined those gains.
Schneiderman, who was a Polish Jewish immigrant, died in 1972, at the age of 90, after a lifetime of campaigning for workers’ and women’s rights. She had red hair; her critics dubbed her the “Red Rose of Anarchy”. In the 1930s and 40s she helped European Jews flee to the USA and Palestine.
At the café, Koustup told me that at his building, it’s standard practice for cleaners to begin work up to 45 minutes early, unpaid, to get through the chores required of them. They haven’t had a pay rise for two years, and reports of bullying and intimidation are common.
Nevertheless, he says, the cleaners’ hourly rate – over $24 per hour, for four-hour evening shifts – is “good money” compared to earnings in many of the workers’ home countries, so many of them just accept the difficult conditions. Why don’t you just accept it? I asked.
“I can’t,” he said, abruptly.
“Because I know it’s wrong.”