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Clean Start: Cleaners fight on for a fair deal

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March  2015 is nine years down the track from when contract cleaners through their union, United Voice, launched the Clean Start Fair Deal For Cleaners campaign in 2006. 

The campaign’s first stage objectives were successful in winning significant wage increases (over 35% in 4 years) and four hour minimum shifts for part time cleaners, a Cleaners Charter about respect and dignity and job security when property owners changed one cleaning contract company for another. The cleaners referred to these objectives as the Clean Start Principles.

Like most contract industries, the contract cleaning industry is riddled with downward pressure on contract prices as companies compete in a race to the bottom to win tenders from the property owners. The property owners hold most of the aces in the pack both during the tender process and during the life of the cleaning contracts. Most contracts have a clause in them in saying the property owner can cancel the contract with a month’s notice and without giving any reason for the cancellation. Even government cleaning contracts have such clauses. So cleaners, employees of the cleaning companies, really have a second boss, the property owners.

For the contract cleaning companies, the only forces working in their favour are that the big property owners are sensitive to large tenants’ complaints about poor cleaning standards. They also dislike any kind of bad publicity about their building management practices for fear of major tenants or potential high profile tenants deserting their buildings in preference for other buildings.

Cleaners exploited this to the full, especially during the early months of the campaign. They held noisy demonstrations in front of large city buildings owned by property owners who refused to adopt Clean Start Principles in their cleaning contracts.

Property Owners And Contractors Ambushed By Cleaners

The campaign by cleaners took owners and cleaning companies by surprise. The well-resourced campaign was launched when the Howard Government’s Work Choices was being implemented and within the context of the broad based Your Rights At Work campaign.

There was enormous support from the public for the plight of cleaners who were at the best of times, let alone under Work Choices, at the bottom of the pile as far as wages and conditions went. Hundreds of city cleaners around Australia joined their union and small groups of active cleaners ambushed one property owner after another and one reluctant cleaning company after another until they adopted Clean Start Principles. After  two years of guerrilla actions in the main streets of our cities, the property owners mouthpiece, the Property Council of Australia supported Clean Start labour rates in cleaning contracts in city buildings and a four hour minimum shift standard for cleaners in place of some jobs where cleaners were given only two hour shifts or even less.

Major cleaning companies reflected the Clean Start Principles in legally binding collective agreements.  The first Agreements were approved in late 2008 and all expired on June 30, 2013.

Cleaners in the main enjoyed four years of better conditions and annual wage increases of 8-9%.

Buoyed by the success of the first stage of the campaign, the cleaners’ union expanded the focus of the campaign to include contract cleaners employed in shopping centres.

From a strategic point of view for cleaners and their union, the targets of large Central Business District properties and shopping centres had two things in common - a high concentration of property ownership and a high presence of the same cleaning companies.

Cleaners in shopping centres had been watching and supporting city cleaners and when the opportunity came to extend the gains made by the city cleaners and win their own Clean Start collective agreements, they were under no illusions as to the enormity of the struggle before them.

Property Owners Fight Back

The shopping centre cleaners were not surprised when the Shopping Centre Council of Australia, an arm of the Property Council, came out ‘swinging’ against Clean Start Principles. The biggest multinational, Westfield led their charge against the cleaners and lobbied vigorously within the Property Council for city property owners to abandon Clean Start by installing non Clean Start companies in city buildings on minimum award wages and conditions.

The cleaners union, United Voice, took up the challenge by transferring resources from the city  to mobilising shopping centre cleaners to the point where the cleaners took protected industrial action against cleaning companies in an effort to break their real (but not under bourgeois law) employers, the shopping centre property owners like Westfield.

Shopping Centre cleaners campaigned for two years but still could not make a break through. More cleaners than ever before had joined their union in both the city buildings and shopping centres. More cleaners than ever had been involved in collective actions. More cleaners than ever before had become union delegates.

Marx in the Communist Manifesto said,

         “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”

This statement by Marx aptly describes what was occurring in the cleaners’ Clean Start campaign. An initial hard fought victory by the cleaners with significant gains in pay and conditions, followed by well-planned and determined attempts by the class enemy, in this case property owners and their subservient cleaning companies, to claw back their lost ground in the class struggle.

Current Situation – Cleaners Win Against Sham Contracting

With the first Clean Start collective agreement expiry date of 30 June 2014, the union’s resources were stretched to the limit. The typical employer tactic of stretching workers’ resources by forcing their unions to fight on multiple fronts at the one time or by dragging them through expensive court cases as in the case of the CFMEU, was being applied by the property owners and cleaning companies.

The property owners in the cities refused to support any further increases in cleaner labour costs in cleaning contracts. Some large cleaning companies resorted to sham sub-contracting to maintain profits with cleaners on ABNs being paid as low as $16 per hour.

However because of the enduring “ever expanding union of the workers” developed in the initial Clean Start campaign, cleaners, particularly those in Melbourne city buildings, had built sufficient organisation across buildings to target the cleaning company, Glad Group, which was the biggest abuser of its cleaner workforce through the use of sham contracting. These cleaners and their union took action outside buildings cleaned by Glad Group and mounted a strong media and publicity campaign to expose what was happening.

After a few months of sustained actions by cleaners, the Glad Group feared it was going to be dumped by the property owners as one of their preferred contractors.

So it did an about face and agreed to sign a new Clean Start collective agreement with United Voice and employing cleaners directly instead of its sham contracting practices.

This had the immediate effect of other cleaning companies saying in words at least that they now wanted to “bargain in good faith” with cleaners and their union for a new collective agreement.

So as 2015 begins, the tit for tat struggle between cleaners and both property owners and cleaning companies continues. Through the ups and downs of struggle in this high turn-over of labour industry, thousands of workers, many of them new migrants, learn in this volatile industrial environment both the class nature of the society and the value of collective struggle  and need for it to live a better life.   


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