Making my way through the entrance hall, I cannot keep my eyes off the spotless, shiny marble floor, that seems to reflect an intention of presenting the kind of glamour and pace of economic dynamism that the management here takes such pride in. But the story isn’t all that flashy.Footnote 1 SEIU is going to change the world. We are changing the world, for workers anyway […] Look, we started in LA, we picked it up in London […] Look at the Netherlands, it’s amazing what we have been able to do there. They were getting their asses kicked and now they’re running campaigns.Footnote 2
To the surprise of many observers accustomed to industrial harmony in the Netherlands – epitomized in the so-called poldermodel – low-paid and, until then, mostly unorganized cleaners staged successful strikes in 2010, 2012, and 2014, with the full support of the Dutch trade union FNV Bondgenoten. As a result of these strikes, the cleaners achieved considerable improvements in collective agreements with the cleaning companies. Only insiders knew that these strikes had been carefully prepared and planned by FNV Bondgenoten in close cooperation with the US-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU),Footnote 3 and modelled on the example of the SEIU campaign Justice for Janitors since the late 1980s.Footnote 4 In this campaign, SEIU had developed a new approach to organizing by hiring a cadre of specialist organizers other than general union officers.Footnote 5 The SEIU had been successful in the Justice for Janitors campaigns because of tactics based on the active involvement of newly recruited members. Following this approach, FNV Bondgenoten encouraged self-organization and the formation of leaders at workplace level. Through a combination of grass-roots organizing, direct action, and broad coalitions the union was able to put pressure on subcontracting cleaning companies and their clients.
In spite of the evidently top-down start of the campaign by FNV Bondgenoten, the organizing model was meant to connect the union with its grass roots by developing focused recruitment campaigns in a bottom-up approach. The cleaners themselves had to be mobilized for active involvement in actions and negotiations. For Ron Meyer, responsible for organizing the campaign on behalf of FNV Bondgenoten, trade-union renewal was at the heart of his endeavours:
For too long the union has viewed its members as consumers, and that hasn’t encouraged them to get involved. In my view, the image of the union leader shepherding his flock is dead and gone. People have to be clued up on their situation, because they are the only ones who can get things done. Only they can stick up for their rights and go on the front foot.Footnote 6
In my view, these developments have a broader meaning than just the successes of FNV Bondgenoten in mobilizing the cleaners in strikes and other actions to improve working conditions. What is at stake is the ability of low-paid, precarious workers to stand up for their collective rights in an increasingly individualized, flexible, and unfavourable labour market.Footnote 7 The debate on precarious labour and its origins in the neoliberal restructuring of labour markets since the 1980s has been going on for some time. The cleaning industry is an example of these developments. Social scientists have been studying professional cleaning precisely because “it is paradigmatic for the whole low-skilled service sector in many respects”.Footnote 8 Cleaners used to be part of the labour force in public institutions, manufacturing, banking, transport, and other services, and were covered by collective agreements in these industries. From the 1980s, outsourcing changed the position of cleaners fundamentally: increasingly, they were employed by specialized companies in a separate industry, which continued to grow in an extremely competitive market for cleaning services. In the labour-intensive cleaning industry, reducing labour costs was considered the only way to secure contracts. Subcontracting companies were able to do so by recruiting mainly women and immigrants with a weak position in the labour market. The cleaners’ actions, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere in the world, showed that an adequate trade union response was possible to counteract this seemingly inevitable tendency towards precariatization of the labour force.Footnote 9
During the Justice for Janitors campaigns in the United States, the SEIU discovered that, although operating in highly competitive local markets for place-bound cleaning services, subcontracting firms were often part of large multinationals.Footnote 10 An example is International Service Systems (ISS Facility Services), one of the largest cleaning companies in the US and, in fact, the world. It originates from, and is based in Denmark, but operates on a global scale.Footnote 11 In 2004, the SEIU concluded that “many members worked for companies that were multinational. To win members’ contracts, we had to campaign at a multinational level”.Footnote 12 At its 2004 Convention, the SEIU launched a strategy to form sustained international coalitions. Exploratory visits were made to several countries in order to select unions for partnership. The union invested significant resources in regional officers and organizers in Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, and other countries. Membership and leadership exchanges were organized to set up campaigns.Footnote 13 One of the aims was to get multinational employers and their clients to sign on to socially responsible contractor global agreements. Union Network International (UNI, now UNI Global Union), the global union federation for services, succeeded in signing such a contract with ISS as a framework for national branches to negotiate with cleaners’ unions.Footnote 14 Cooperation with FNV Bondgenoten was thus part of a deliberate strategy by the SEIU to transnationalize trade unionism in the cleaning sector. Comparable campaigns were set up with partners in London (“Justice for Cleaners”), in Australia and New Zealand (“Clean Start”), and on a smaller scale, partly inspired by the Dutch example, in Germany (“Ich putze Deutschland”).Footnote 15
This article aims to analyse transnational trade unionism in the cleaning industry between the start of the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles in 1988 and the Dutch cleaners’ strike in 2012 in the context of the debate on precariousness and neoliberal restructuring of labour markets since the 1980s. By developing new forms of organizing, the SEIU, followed by trade unions in the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, found ways to combat the effects of the restructuring of cleaning services on local and national labour markets. How were these local labour markets and trade union actions related to the transnational connections apparent in the rise of multinational cleaning companies, the immigrant workforce, and the role of the SEIU in promoting international cooperation between unions? Or, to put it in more fashionable terms, how was the “local” connected to the “global”? A comparison of campaigns in Los Angeles, London, Australia, and Canada, and a more detailed analysis of the Dutch case, will show that ultimately the transnationalism of cleaners’ unionism had its limits: the example set by Justice for Janitors in the US and the support of the SEIU helped in getting campaigns off the ground, but in the end unions had to act locally or nationally to force employers to accept a regulation of wages and working conditions.
After a general introduction to precariousness and the trade union response to labour-market restructuring and its impact on the cleaning industry since the 1970s and 1980s, these issues will be researched firstly by analysing developments in Los Angeles, where the Justice for Janitors campaigns in the 1990s had inspired not only filmmaker Ken Loach to produce the award-winning feature film Bread and Roses, but also “a mountain of academic studies”,Footnote 16 which could be used for analysing the Los Angeles case. Then I will describe the export of the Justice for Janitors model to the rest of the US, Britain, Australia / New Zealand, and Canada. Finally, I will focus on the cleaners’ strikes in the Netherlands to see whether what we found out about the cleaners’ actions in Los Angeles and elsewhere can be helpful in understanding the Dutch case.
Precarious Labour and Trade Union Response
The concept of precariousness entails instability, lack of protection, insecurity, and economic vulnerability. Precarious work can be defined as uncertain, unpredictable, risky, and low paid. As such, precarious employment is not new: it has been an integral part of the experience of wage labour, both historically and globally. To reduce uncertainty in the labour market, the trade union movement tried, from its origins in the nineteenth century, to conclude collective agreements to regulate employment relations, and demanded social security measures and protective labour laws from the state. During the phase of steady economic growth between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s, forms of labour-market regulation and protection of regular jobs came to dominate the industrial system in Western or Westernized capitalist countries. Full-time, permanent, on-site waged employment became the “standard employment relation”, albeit predominantly for the male part of the workforce.
Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, the full-time permanent jobs that were the hallmark of economic growth after World War II have been in decline. Everywhere, there is a shift towards flexible labour, part-time jobs, fixed-term contracts, self-employment by nominally independent contractors, and temporary or agency work, producing an increasing precariousness of employment.Footnote 17 The erosion of the standard employment relation since the economic crisis of the mid-1970s was a consequence of increasingly competitive pressures on companies in globalizing markets to reorganize in more flexible ways. As a result, employment relations became more diverse. Former ILO official Guy Standing even detected a new, separate class of precarious workers, to which he applied the neologism “precariat” (from “precarious” and “proletariat”).Footnote 18 These developments have been underpinned by neoliberal approaches in socio-economic regulation and policymaking.
Historically, trade unions have been important in the drive towards labour-market regulation and social protection. Conversely, the growth of precarious labour in the last quarter of the twentieth century was closely related to the weakening of trade unions in that period, expressed both in terms of union membership and density. Insecurity in its various manifestations increased because the protective shield of trade unionism was removed.Footnote 19 Some, however, tend to blame the unions themselves for this decline, because of their inability to organize and represent the “precariat”. In this view, the trade union movement only represents core workers, whose numbers are declining and whose interests are fundamentally different from those of precarious workers.Footnote 20 In some countries, particularly in Italy, Spain, and France, precarity is used to mobilize people outside union organizing and beyond the workplace. When work is constantly changing, so the argument goes, it makes little sense to organize around it.Footnote 21
Nevertheless, trade unions are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of deregulation and flexibilization of labour markets, also for core workers. For Europe, this is becoming apparent from the reports of the EU-funded research projects “Bargaining for Social Rights” (BARSORI), and its sequel “Bargaining for Social Rights at a Sectoral Level” (BARSORIS), coordinated by the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies (University of Amsterdam).Footnote 22 European unions have begun serious efforts to extend trade unionism to the insecure workforce, to recruit “outsiders” with precarious, low-paid jobs, with the aim of improving their employment conditions.Footnote 23 Of special interest in the context of the cleaners’ campaigns are attempts to recreate trade unions as social movements, with the purpose of mobilizing members and supporters against injustice at work. In a number of cases, organizing workers in precarious jobs in this way has worked quite well.Footnote 24 The BARSORI and BARSORIS country reports on the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany all invoke the campaigns to mobilize cleaners as examples of attempts at organizing precarious workers.
Subcontracting, Cleaning, and Precariousness: A Global Development
Studies on the development of the cleaning industry in a range of countries invariably show that since the 1970s/1980s outsourcing has resulted in an increasing number of jobs in subcontracting firms subject to competitive tendering. The process of tendering caused insecurity of employment as well as a potential reduction in wages and entitlements. For subcontracting firms, the key issue was to retain and increase the number and size of contracts. The costs of labour and the conditions under which it was employed were crucial elements in the bidding process. Periodic reviews of terms and conditions of contracting generated uncertainty about future work relationships and the spread of precarious employment.
The shift to contracting out cleaning to specialized companies in the last quarter of the twentieth century and its deteriorating effects on working conditions have been documented for Israel,Footnote 25 the US,Footnote 26 Great Britain,Footnote 27 Canada,Footnote 28 Australia and New Zealand,Footnote 29 Germany,Footnote 30 France,Footnote 31 Belgium,Footnote 32 and other countries.Footnote 33 Everywhere, there has been an increase in outsourcing to a growing number of cleaning companies. The organization of employment in these companies is based on a quest for maximum flexibility. Subcontracting enhances the competition among companies and results in a race to the bottom of production costs. To find people prepared to work in these conditions, the cleaning sector has to draw its workforce from the most vulnerable segments of the labour force: female and migrant workers are hugely overrepresented in every country. However, for these people, to find a job in the cleaning sector can also be a means to gain access to the labour market, and even a starting point of emancipation by collective action. That is the story of the predominantly Latino and Latina janitors in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s. Their keen desire for economic advancement made them ready to act collectively, once offered opportunities to do so.
Lessons from La
Latino rank-and-file workers have made the Los Angeles area the major R&D center for 21st-century trade unionism.Footnote 34
Contemporary observers considered the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles “the single most important organizing success of the US labour movement in the late twentieth century”.Footnote 35 Led by union organizers sent by SEIU headquarters in Washington DC, the campaign was set up in 1988, following earlier successful rallies of this kind in Denver (1986) and Washington DC (1987).Footnote 36 It relied on a variety of unorthodox tactics designed to put pressure on owners and managers of client companies, also by mobilizing bystanders and sympathizers from the broader community. In 1989, the union decided to focus on a large, newly built office complex in Los Angeles, called Century City, employing 400 janitors, of whom 250 were with the cleaning contractor ISS. In May 1990, a strike was called, and not long after a contract was signed with the largest cleaning companies ISS and ABM, later to be extended to smaller firms. A second round of negotiations took place in 1995. The result was a five-year agreement. With contract renewal in 2000 in sight, the SEIU local began to prepare its members for mass protests by “internal organizing”. A strike in April was accompanied by dramatic street protests, daily rallies in public places, and efforts to get media attention and put pressure on major players in the industry. Again, the big cleaning companies proved willing to concede, and overruled the more intransigent smaller firms. The strike was settled at the end of its third week, in a widely-celebrated victory for the union. The new three-year contract included a twenty-five per cent pay raise as well as greatly improved health benefits. In the 2003 contract, the SEIU’s janitors made still further gains, this time without a strike. Between 1988 and 1995, the SEIU organized over 8,000 janitors in LA;Footnote 37 the settlement in 2000 added another 5,000.Footnote 38
Justice for Janitors unionism was constructed as a broader politics of social justice for the community as a whole. By legal action, symbolic representation, and direct confrontation in street protests, the campaign was targeted at building owners, to press them to take responsibility for the welfare of janitors who were formally employed by the cleaning contractors. To bring their otherwise invisible presence into the open, groups of protesting cleaners and their allies occupied public spaces (streets, intersections, and pavements), picketed building entrances, and invaded properties of building owners. Public appearances were accompanied by speeches, flyers, street theatre, and other means of symbolic communication. Publicity stunts staged to draw attention to the janitors’ plight were highly effective in publicly embarrassing powerful players in the industry, while also making life difficult for building tenants.Footnote 39 The cleaners’ cause was presented as an issue of social justice for the underprivileged in general, in contrast to the privileges and the wealth of the owners and occupiers of the glittering high-rise offices where they did their job. In this way, they were able to garner sympathy and moral support from the wider community, religious leaders, and politicians.Footnote 40
Mass mobilization combined with labour, religious, and political support pressed the building owners to call upon contractors to negotiate with the union and reach an agreement. While this kind of “symbolic power” may have been an effective avenue for the low-skilled cleaners with limited structural power in the labour market of their own,Footnote 41 its widespread use in the Justice for Janitors campaign is not enough to explain the willingness of the cleaning companies to concede. In LA Story, her account of the city’s trade union history, Ruth Milkman draws attention to the tradition of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), to which the SEIU belonged, of “regulatory unionism”: AFL unions focused their organizing efforts on decentralized, highly competitive industries, with the aim of stabilizing local or regional labour markets in this industries by “taking wages out of competition”.Footnote 42 “Regulatory unionism” meant that unions put pressure on employers to recognize that strong unions and uniformly negotiated wages could serve as a means of regulating labour costs across an industry, especially in disorganized industries otherwise unable to achieve market stability. Strong unions and collective agreements were used to equalize labour costs and to discipline or eradicate marginal competitors.Footnote 43
The Justice for Janitors campaign managed to restore labour-market regulation based on union power. To exercise union leverage on all key players in the local labour market so as to effectively take wages out of competition had been the explicit goal of Stephen Lerner, its key architect.Footnote 44 The SEIU strived for arrangements whereby the local union could control the terms and conditions that would prevail across the local labour market as a whole.Footnote 45 To realize this, the union tried to win companies willing to negotiate over to its side: after a contractor reached an agreement with the union, the SEIU would not raise wages until a majority of its competitors had decided to follow, ensuring that no contractor was put at a competitive disadvantage.Footnote 46 This strategy forestalled the problem of making a union contractor uncompetitive in a market shaped by labour costs. No contractor was disadvantaged by the extra costs of higher wages and benefits.Footnote 47
This strategy could be successful because cleaning as an economic activity is place bound and, despite being dominated by global corporations, largely immune from the effects of capital mobility. The large, global cleaning companies had to compete locally with small or medium-sized firms, which had easy access to the local market and could offer their services at lower costs (cleaning does not require large investments or specific skills). For this reason, the large companies had an interest in regulating the labour market by taking wages out of the competition. To put this into effect, however, they needed a strong union to enforce a contract that did just that. This explains the willingness of the larger firms to reach an agreement and force this upon the smaller ones in both the 1990 and 2000 campaigns. Moreover, for building owners, the costs of the settlement were marginal and for them it was easy to adapt the contracts once an industry-wide agreement had been reached.
All this had been deliberately aimed at in the Justice for Janitors campaign: the SEIU’s strategists reasoned that, if agreement could be reached with the big players ABM and ISS, other smaller contractors would follow and LA’s major office centres could be brought under a union contract. To enforce the willingness of the major contractors in the 2000 strike, however, the SEIU had to transcend the locality of the labour market and put pressure on their business elsewhere in the US by picketing buildings cleaned by these same companies in other cities.Footnote 48 In what seemed to be a local affair, the union concluded that it could reach an agreement with the big cleaning companies more easily by turning to the grander scale of the national, and, some years later, the global.
Export of the Justice for Janitors Model
Following the successes of the Los Angeles strikes, Justice for Janitors campaigns were launched in a range of cities around the US. The SEIU tried to raise standards for janitors by confronting owners and their contractors on a national basis. Campaigns routed contractors across the country, winning sizable wage increases and health-care benefits.Footnote 49 Its biggest victory was in Houston in 2006, in the heart of Republican and anti-union Texas, where the predominantly Latino immigrant janitors eventually secured a contract doubling their income and gaining health benefits after a month-long strike.Footnote 50 In ten different cities across Europe and Latin America, the SEIU organized support for the Houston strike with allied unions and social movement organizations.Footnote 51
By then, the SEIU had already decided to go global, and the international solidarity campaign for the Houston strikers was part of its global action model.Footnote 52 The SEIU sought to marshal a great number of allies in order to shape the terms of the global cleaning industry. After its “Global Strength” commitment at its 2004 national convention, a “global partnership unit” was founded by the union in November 2004, firstly to coordinate campaigns with a global scope, secondly to foster partnerships with unions in other countries to build global union power, and thirdly by providing experienced staff and support for organizing drives with partner organizations.Footnote 53 Relationships were established through exploratory visits to other countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany, to discuss new forms of alliances and to find partners with a commitment to the organizing model.Footnote 54 Many of the SEIU’s global relationships (with the UK union Unite and FNV Bondgenoten, for example) began in the Union Network International (UNI), which was officially founded in 2000 following a merger of a number of international unions in the services’ industry, and in which the SEIU played a prominent role.Footnote 55
The SEIU chose to connect with unions that had already started or participated in organizing cleaners. In 2005, SEIU organizers were seconded to the British Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) to set up a Justice for Cleaners campaign in London, where financial companies at Canary Wharf had already been targeted successfully.Footnote 56 The arrival of SEIU strategists in 2005 prompted the TGWU to dramatically step up its campaign. A multilingual team of organizers, many of them ex-cleaners from Canary Wharf, was formed to work on the campaign, which extended to the Houses of Parliament and the City of London. By 2009, around 3,000 cleaners had been recruited as members of the union (now called Unite), and agreements were signed with the major cleaning contractors, including ISS. As in the US, migrants were hugely overrepresented among cleaners in London, and a remarkable 35–40 per cent of participants in the London Justice for Cleaners campaign were Latin Americans.Footnote 57
Like the one in Los Angeles, the London campaign was a clear example of “regulatory unionism”. Drawing on the lessons of Justice for Janitors in the US, the TGWU tried to regulate the market by targeting the largest contractors across areas in a “zonal approach”. Pay rises for around 4,000 cleaners across Canary Wharf and the City of London were to be met by the clients, and the union strategy was designed to prevent any retendering eroding the agreed terms and conditions. In the extremely competitive market for cleaning services, cleaning contractors recognized that they had a material interest in getting clients to pay more for good-quality cleaning, and that they were caught in a vicious cycle of competition that was not in their interest. As Jane Wills remarked in her analysis of the London campaigns, this situation provided fertile ground for the TGWU to develop relationships with parts of the cleaning industry and industry-wide bodies in support of organizing campaigns. In regulating wages and organizing the industry, they found common ground in increasing training and professionalism as well as in improving the pay and conditions of work.Footnote 58
Another SEIU partnership that succeeded was with the Australian Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU) and the New Zealand Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU). Under the slogan “Clean Start: A Fair Deal for Cleaners”, in 2006 these unions started a campaign to organize cleaners.Footnote 59 The SEIU sent organizers and research staff to Australia, some of whom had been involved in the Houston strike shortly before.Footnote 60 Like everywhere else, the Australian and New Zealand cleaners were precarious workers from a predominantly non-English speaking immigrant background; sixty per cent were women. Some fifty organizers set up committees in the ten largest cities in Australia and New Zealand to mobilize the cleaners.
The campaign won wage increases of one-third and improvements in job security.Footnote 61 Again, regulating the industry was a primary goal of the campaign. The LHMU presented itself as working in the interests of the cleaning contractors and building owners: it was “aiming to achieve what the cleaning contractors have been unable to – a fair price. In the union’s view, a fair price is one where building owners and managers engage cleaning firms on contracts that enable them to act as a responsible employer and enjoy some profit margin”.Footnote 62 One of the first to understand this logic was ISS, one of the biggest cleaning companies in Australia as well: “They identified very quickly that the crisis identified by the union was a crisis that undermined their ability to make money in the market. Tenders were continually undercut by contractors cutting labour costs”.Footnote 63
Also in 2006, the SEIU extended its Justice for Janitors campaign into Canada, at first in Toronto, later also in cities such as Ottawa and Vancouver, and at the University of Alberta (Edmonton).Footnote 64 In Canada, the SEIU did not seek partnership with a cleaning union as it was the de facto cleaning union in the country (since the 1940s; it justifies the “I” of “International” in the acronym SEIU). In 2006, the SEIU Toronto local began a campaign to organize cleaners, and, as of August 2009, more than 2,000 cleaners had been organized. Cooperation with other unions representing cleaners led to citywide agreements with four of the five largest companies in the Toronto market.Footnote 65
Socially, the act of cleaning is invisible, despite the importance of the visibility of its results. Cleaning is often scheduled outside office hours so as not to coincide with normal activities. The spatial and temporal segregation of the workers, working conditions, and the unseen nature of the work tend to erase all traces of the presence of a cleaning workforce, unless, of course, the cleaning is not done, or perceived as poorly done.Footnote 66 The issue of “visibility” became a recurrent theme in the cleaners’ campaigns. Its resonance among the cleaners was an important element in the organizing drives everywhere. Interviewed about her motivation to become a shop steward in her workplace in Toronto, a Portuguese cleaner named Paula mentioned the invisibility of her work: “You know, the big bosses I heard got a bonus. But the cleaners, nobody stop and say thank you to you […]. So, it’s like they not see you. You are invisible”. The interviewers conclude “that the emotional cost of invisibility for workers, who feel unrecognized as cleaners, is partially mitigated for some through their visibility as active union members”.Footnote 67
Miami Justice for Janitors campaigner Feliciano Hernandez concluded in 2006: “We are no longer invisible. Before, our voice was a whisper. Now when we say we will stand up for our rights, our voice is loud and strong enough to be heard”.Footnote 68 Workers unionizing in Justice for Cleaners in London “felt invisible”, like “ghost workers”.Footnote 69 For the Latin American cleaners involved in the University of London campaign in 2008, achieving “visibility” was at least as important as “bread and butter gains”: “Now we are not invisible any more. Thanks to the campaign, people think differently about us”.Footnote 70 During the German strike in 2009, the slogan “Die Unsichtbaren sichtbar machen” (“Making the invisible visible”) was added by Berlin strikers to the original union’s slogan “Ich putze Deutschland”, and after a while it was taken up throughout the sector.Footnote 71
From the start in 2006, the invisibility of the cleaners was a central issue in the Dutch campaigns too. The yell “Nooit meer onzichtbaar” (“Never again invisible”) dates from this early period, and was heard at every rally during the strikes in 2010 and 2012, next to the slogan “Wat willen we? Respect! Wanneer willen we het? Nu!” (“What do we want? Respect! When do we want it? Now!”).Footnote 72 The cleaners argued that low wages and dismal working conditions were closely related to their invisibility and to a lack of respect for their work.Footnote 73 Judy Lock, a toilet cleaner at Schiphol Airport and one of the most prominent leaders in the Dutch 2010 campaign: “It is very strange that people walking by just don’t see you. That you are invisible. Only when we came into the open with public protests did people become aware of our presence”.Footnote 74 And after the 2010 strike, cleaner Bert Kuiper remarked: “What we achieved is respect as a human being, and appreciation for our work. […] We are no longer invisible”.Footnote 75
Start of the Dutch Campaign at Schiphol AirportFootnote 76
Dutch cleaning presented all the characteristics of the industry described above. The market was saturated with thousands of small firms, but dominated by a small number of large companies. In 2011, the largest was (unsurprisingly) ISS Cleaning Services. The five largest companies represented 49 per cent of the total workforce employed in the cleaning business (see Table 1). The industry was highly diversified: 62 per cent of firms (6,345) comprised self-employed without personnel (most of them were window cleaners); 29 per cent (3,010) were very small, with 2–10 employees; 8 per cent (835) employed 10–100 cleaners; and only 1 per cent (70) employed over 100. As everywhere, women were overrepresented in the workforce at 68 per cent; 46 per cent of the workforce were of non-Dutch descent (both first- and second-generation migrants). The turnover of staff was very high: 35,000–40,000 new cleaners had to be recruited each year. Many cleaners had part-time jobs, which were often combined to earn a living: 27 per cent had contracts of less than 11 hours; 30 per cent worked between 12 and 23 hours a week.Footnote 77
Sources: “Marktoverzicht schoonmaakbranche 2012”, Service Management, 3 (March 2013), available at: http://www.mbcf.nl/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Service-Management-markoverzicht-2012.pdf; UWV, De Schoonmaak. Sectorbeschrijving.
The cleaning companies were engaged in a fierce competition. They had to cut prices to win contracts. Grasping the opportunities of the saturated market, and not being held back by any regulation, clients were inclined to pay less and less. In 2012, a report on the cleaning sector by the Dutch bank ABN AMRO signalled a fragmentation of the market because of the growth in the number of small firms, and the diminishing loyalty of clients, who easily switched contractors: “Cleaning companies have no market power. Existing contracts are regularly terminated in order to economize in terms of conditions and prices. Consequently, companies have to clean more square metres in substantially less time, and pressure on employees is rising”.Footnote 78 Often specialized mediators or brokers were used to find the most profitable contractor. Frequent change of contractor caused uncertainty for cleaners, and often also deteriorating working conditions. For the union, the only way out of this vicious circle was to build countervailing power in the labour market by organizing and mobilizing cleaners to put pressure on both clients and contractors.
Already in the 1990s, the forerunner of FNV Bondgenoten, the Industriebond FNV, had concluded that existing collective agreements in the cleaning branch did not protect workers effectively. However, attempts to organize cleaners in a number of companies in 1992–1993 had met with disappointing results.Footnote 79 In the early 2000s, FNV Bondgenoten officials Mari Martens and Eddy Stam, responsible for the cleaning sector, learned about the Justice for Janitors campaigns through the film Bread and Roses by Ken Loach on Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles, and through their contacts with the SEIU in Union Network International (UNI, now UNI Global Union), the global union federation for services. They managed to convince FNV Bondgenoten to cooperate with the SEIU.Footnote 80 FNV policy adviser Dirk Kloosterboer wrote a report on the innovative organizing strategies of the SEIU and its Justice for Janitors campaigns.Footnote 81 Martens undertook a training course in organizing in the US and was charged with bringing back the approach to the Netherlands. He also participated in the Justice for Janitors campaign in Houston in 2006.Footnote 82 On behalf of the SEIU, experienced activists, among them the Valery Alzaga cited at the start of this article, came to Amsterdam to coach Dutch union organizers.Footnote 83 Four organizers were hired and trained to do the job in the Netherlands. Two of them were sent to London to participate in the Justice for Cleaners campaign there.Footnote 84
In 2006, FNV Bondgenoten started an organizing campaign among cleaners in The Hague and at Schiphol Airport.Footnote 85 Because of a lack of success in The Hague, in 2007 it was decided to discontinue the organizing efforts there and to concentrate organizing on Schiphol.Footnote 86 This is reminiscent of the concentration on specific locations in Los Angeles (Century City) and London (Canary Wharf). Supported and coached by Valery Alzaga, organizers contacted Schiphol cleaners, making appointments at cafes or at home,Footnote 87 and in that same year FNV Bondgenoten was able to bring thirty-three people together who wanted to become involved. They were from such diverse countries as Turkey, Morocco, Ghana, Bangladesh, the Antilles, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, Italy, and the Netherlands.Footnote 88 Six of them were women, including Judy Lock, mentioned above: “An FNV organizer approached me while I was drinking coffee and discussing work with a colleague after work”, she later recalled.Footnote 89 She became president of the Cleaners’ Committee at Schiphol and a prominent spokeswoman for the cleaners during the 2010 strike. On 17 November 2007, a preliminary meeting of 500 cleaners was held in the Holiday Inn Hotel at Schiphol to launch a campaign for higher wages (at €10 an hour) under the slogan “Voor een betere toekomst” (“For a better future”).Footnote 90 Demonstrations at Schiphol and at offices of clients elsewhere in the Netherlands, and other symbolic actions, such as visits to the private mansions of directors of cleaning companies (a “millionaires’ tour”), put pressure on negotiations with employers.Footnote 91 In January 2008, a new nationwide contract was signed, which included a pay rise from €8.90 to €10 an hour.Footnote 92 Unlike, for instance, in the US, collective agreements in the Netherlands are negotiated nationally, and then made legally binding for the branch as a whole.
A conference of sixty-five activists at the beach resort of Renesse on 21 and 22 April 2008 decided to start a new campaign at Schiphol with the slogan “Schiphol Schoon Genoeg” (“Schiphol Clean Enough”), demanding travel allowances for Schiphol cleaners, better facilities at the airport, and a fixed contract after nine months’ working. The campaign started in November 2008 with a week of picketing and a march around the airport. Some 250 activists were recruited, and, after several demonstrations and a four-day strike involving 500 cleaners (half of the workforce) at Schiphol, in the first week of April 2009 they won travel allowances, a €150 bonus for the Schiphol cleaners, and a 0.5 per cent wage increase for all cleaners nationwide.Footnote 93 There were smaller pickets by cleaners elsewhere in the country as well, but concentrating the campaign on Schiphol made it clear how much could be achieved by a relatively small number of dedicated activists. Union organizer Ron Meyer recalled in 2012: “From 2008/2009 we started at Schiphol and in 2009 we had a strike for a couple of days with some 200 cleaners. And that was a real start of learning and getting an idea about how to plan and how to talk to people and how to organize”.Footnote 94
The 2010 and 2012 National Strikes
To evaluate the Schiphol campaign and to prepare the negotiations for a renewal of the national collective agreement in 2010, another two-day conference was held on 25 and 26 May 2009, again in Renesse, with fifty representatives from various parts of the country. The conference decided to rename itself “Cleaners’ Parliament”, and to demand additional travel allowances, no more waiting days in the event of illness, Dutch lessons for migrants in working time, and a three per cent wage rise.Footnote 95 For the cleaners at the conference, the most important issue was respect for the cleaner and cleaning as a profession. This was lost, in their opinion, because clients and cleaning companies were competing only over its price. Wages were under pressure, and cleaners were forced to work harder and harder at the expense of the quality of their work.Footnote 96
At a meeting of this “parliament”, now enlarged to comprise seventy-five members, held on 12 December 2009 at Amsterdam’s town hall, a white paper on the cleaning industry in the Netherlands was presented to substantiate this argument.Footnote 97 The sector is in crisis, the report argued. While cleaning as an industry is growing fast, contracting out and the competition between cleaning companies cause uncertainty, instability, and downward pressure on prices in a race to the bottom. Consequently, wages, working conditions, and cleaning standards are undermined. It is in the interests of the sector as a whole – clients, cleaning companies. and cleaners – to put an end to this crisis by regulating standards of work and working conditions. Clients especially are vulnerable to being confronted with low-quality work, because “the cleaning companies have degraded themselves to become clubs of cheap labour, and they are prepared to sink even lower”.Footnote 98
In negotiations with the representatives of the cleaners’ union, the cleaning companies showed no inclination whatsoever to concede to any of the demands formulated by the union.Footnote 99 The “Cleaners’ Parliament” therefore decided to call a strike in 2010. After a month of short warning strikes, pickets, meetings, and demonstrations at different locations, the strike was officially called on 16 February. The total number of strikers was around 1,400,Footnote 100 surprisingly low compared with the 15,000 union members in the cleaning sector. However, because of the high participation of train cleaners (400 strikers), its consequences were notable at railway stations and in trains, and the relatively small number of strikers was compensated by almost daily actions and protests, clearly copied from the US Justice for Janitors “militant minority” repertoire (see appendix). These actions were consciously designed to put pressure on clients of the cleaning companies by getting as much media attention and public support as possible – by showing colourful banners, handing over symbolic presents, sewing “the largest cleaning cloth in the world”, banging drums, having all demonstrators wear orange FNV jackets, and the like. The campaign found a strong resonance with the Dutch population: signatures and testimonials were widely collected, and public figures and celebrities pledged their support. On 21 April, the international union UNI Global Union announced the start of a solidarity campaign of picketing at Dutch embassies,Footnote 101 but this proved unnecessary as an agreement was reached on 22 April.
As was intended, the perseverance of the strikers put pressure on the clients of the cleaning companies, foremost Schiphol and the NS railway company. They demanded arbitration to put an end to the strike. In the press, representatives of the cleaning companies now endorsed the analysis of the union’s “white paper” that the sector was “in crisis”, admitting that the market had been ruined by competition and a race to the bottom.Footnote 102 On 22 April an agreement was reached on a 3.5 per cent pay rise over the next two years, a bonus of 18 per cent for the strikers, and opportunities to learn Dutch in working time. Both clients and contractors agreed to cooperate in a covenant for good employment practices, or “code for responsible market behaviour in the cleaning industry”.Footnote 103
Employers’ representatives now welcomed the new agreement because “without a contract, cleaning companies would compete even more on lower prices and wages. That would be to the detriment not only of the cleaners, but also of the small and medium-sized cleaning companies”.Footnote 104 Representatives of the large cleaning companies CSU and HAGO admitted that the strike had opened their eyes to the detrimental effects of competition.Footnote 105 The former human resources manager at NS, now chair of the committee to supervise the above “code”, even stated: “in hindsight, some employers recognize that the strike revealed the stranglehold they were in”. As the Dutch law on free competition forbade the regulation of markets by minimum tariffs, a voluntary code on market behaviour was deemed necessary to prevent a downward spiral in tendering.Footnote 106 Clearly, for these employers, the collective agreement and the “code of conduct”, enforced by the strike action of the cleaners, were instruments to regulate the market. It is a sign that “regulatory unionism”, as practised in Los Angeles, London, and Australia, was an important element in the cleaners’ struggle in the Netherlands as well.
“Regulatory unionism” can be effective, however, only if a union is able to exert enough power in the labour market. On 24 and 25 October 2011, a newly elected “Cleaners’ Parliament” assembled at the trade union centre Burcht van Berlage, the former headquarters (built in 1900) of the iconic Dutch diamond workers’ union in Amsterdam. Pictures of this meeting reveal the colourful and multicultural character of its membership and the prominent role of women among the activists. The “parliament” chose a twelve-member strong “cabinet” and the Amsterdam hospital cleaner Khadija Tahiri as its president. The “parliament” discussed demands for the renewal of the collective agreement in 2012: a lower workload, a wage rise of €0.50 an hour, an annual bonus of €300, and – a demand remaining from the previous round of negotiations – no waiting days in the event of illness. The voluntary “code of conduct” was deemed a fig leaf, because it was used only as an instrument to regulate the tendering of the cleaning companies, not to protect cleaners. Competition on prices was replaced by competition on working conditions and increasing workloads.Footnote 107 This argument was supported in a new “white paper”, discussed at another meeting of the “Cleaners’ Parliament” in Rotterdam on 15 December 2011.Footnote 108 FNV Bondgenoten proposed to introduce sharper regulation of the market, in what it called a “Gold Standard”, but it could not convince the cleaning companies.Footnote 109 Instead, they reproached the union for not complying with the “code”, which apparently for them was primarily an instrument to pacify industrial relations.Footnote 110
Negotiations on the unions’ demands were broken off by the cleaning employers on 8 December 2011. On 2 January 2012, the next strike was called. The tactics and repertoires were very much like those in 2010, but on a larger scale. There were now 3,000 strikers in total and the strike targeted more locations. Throughout January and February there were ten large “marches for respect” in different localities around the country, each with several thousand participants. Countless events, pickets, and meetings were held; public support was mobilized; some 6,000 emails offering support were received from all over the world.Footnote 111
In April, a few individual cleaning companies and three of the hardest hit clients, railway company NS, Schiphol Airport, and the Rotterdam Erasmus Medical Centre, urged the employers to reach a compromise with the union. On 16 April, after a strike lasting 105 days, the cleaning companies finally realized that regulating the market would be possible only at a higher level of wages and with improved working conditions. Parties agreed on a pay rise of 4.85 per cent over two years, better training facilities, and more fixed contracts for agency workers. On payment during the first few days of illness, a compromise was reached, with the parties agreeing to investigate this issue further. The cleaners had to wait for the next round of negotiations and a twelve-week strike in 2014 to finally achieve this goal; it was secured despite, again, the relatively low number of strikers (1,400).Footnote 112 In the meantime, they continued their meetings and discussions in the “Cleaners’ Parliament” and remained confident about the power of organizing.
It is not yet clear what the future of the Dutch cleaners’ union will be, but to others in and outside the union they set an example of how to combat the detrimental effects of neoliberal restructuring and the precariatization of work. One of the more spectacular actions during the 2012 strike was the occupation of the VU University Amsterdam on 5 March by 1,000 cleaners.Footnote 113 The occupation coincided with protests by students and staff against university reforms and cuts, and the university committee called on them to show solidarity with the cleaners. According to the then student leader and Ph.D. student Matthias van Rossum, it was a turning point in the university campaign:
Although the kind of work differs a lot, the problems of university staff and cleaners are in fact very much alike: flexibilization, undermining of work standards and diminishing influence on labour relations, lack of appreciation, hardening of management styles. The cleaners’ occupation made a huge impression on the university staff. They became aware that if the cleaners can organize, they should be able to do so too.Footnote 114
Conclusion: Regaining Character
In his well-known book The Corrosion of Character, on the psychological effects of the fragmentation and flexibilization of labour markets in modern capitalism, Richard Sennett refers to a janitor he interviewed for his earlier work The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972):
Enrico had spent twenty years by the time we first met cleaning toilets and mopping floors in a downtown office building. […] His work […] seldom varied from day to day. And along that time, achievement was cumulative: Enrico and [his wife] Flavia checked the increase of their savings day by day […] the time they lived was predictable […] unions protected their jobs; though he was only forty when I first met him, Enrico knew precisely when he would retire and how much money he would have.Footnote 115
Today, such a well-organized and future-oriented life plan for cleaners is difficult to imagine.Footnote 116 Since Sennett wrote this book in 1972, employers have increasingly distanced themselves from workers through the use of subcontracting, labour-market intermediaries and agencies, and self-employed contractors. This restructuring caused a break with the postwar “standard employment relation” for male workers like Enrico. The negative impact on wages and welfare provisions is particularly visible in the cleaning business. Cleaners all over the world increasingly work for companies that compete for often short-term contracts with clients. As they are no longer employed by the client firm, employers are able to shed responsibility for the maintenance of labour standards, social security, and other rights.
The outsourcing of cleaning allowed for the recruitment of people outside regulated labour markets. Everywhere, immigrants are overrepresented in the cleaning workforce, which in addition comprises many women with part-time, irregular jobs. Especially in large “global cities”, labour markets are polarized, with mobile workers both at the top and bottom segments.Footnote 117 Low-paid workers, in building maintenance for example, are indispensable if the city (and its top layers) are to work. Most of the workers at the lower end are migrants. They, more than anyone else, experience the psychological effects of the flexibilization of labour markets, described by Sennett as “the corrosion of character”:
The system […] radiates indifference […] through reengineering of institutions in which people are treated as disposable. Such practices obviously and brutally diminish the sense of mattering as a person, of being necessary to others. […] Under these conditions, character corrodes: the question “Who needs me?” has no immediate answer.Footnote 118
In such a fragmented and highly individualized labour market, social cohesion and common ground to organize collectively are hard to find. The prospect of unionizing by precarious, immigrant workers is not immediately self-evident; efforts to do so have often led to disappointing results. Unions considered workers such as cleaners hard to organize, also because they work out of sight, alone, or in small groups, so that organizing at the workplace did not really seem feasible.
This changed when unions like the SEIU in the US and FNV Bondgenoten in the Netherlands put financial and personal resources into organizing campaigns and sent in specially trained organizers. By offering opportunities for cleaners to become active themselves, by identifying and training rank-and-file leaders, and by inventing a whole range of new repertoires of direct action, they were able to turn the social and psychological disadvantages of isolation, invisibility, and precariousness into a moral advantage. The cleaners’ campaigns principally aimed to make the invisible and largely immigrant workforce highly visible in the public sphere by undertaking strikes, demonstrations, and “shaming rituals” in or near the glittering skyscrapers in the financial districts, transport hubs, and other crucial sites of the wealthy, such as the mansions of manager-millionaires. Smaller and larger manifestations, demonstrations, occupations, picket lines, festive parties, and gatherings, with colourful banners and vests, gestures, songs, and yelled slogans, all had the effect of empowering and enthusing the participants collectively.Footnote 119 Framed as a morally compelling cry for social justice, respect, and recognition, the cleaners’ campaigns won the sympathies of the public as well as key members in political and media arenas.
Some labour movement activists and writers in the US have criticized the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaigns as too much top down, rather than being initiated and sustained from below by the rank and file. In some instances, these critics say, the SEIU has practised old-style union authoritarianism, thereby failing to really involve and empower workers.Footnote 120 However, confidence in a “rank-and-file strategy” without institutional backing by established unions is hard to gain in a situation of fragmentation and isolation of precarious workers, such as cleaners. Once offered opportunities to organize and fight back by the top-down efforts of union organizers, a core of conscious cleaners, especially women, were able to regain their “sense of mattering as a person” and their dignity as a worker, to develop leadership, and to put energy into campaigning for their rights collectively. This energy would not have been mobilized without organizing top down by the established unions, while top-down organizing would have been useless without mobilizing this energy from below.
While based on inventive new repertoires of public action to overcome the degradation, isolation, and invisibility of the mostly immigrant and female workforce in outsourced cleaning, the strategies of the cleaners’ unions in the US, London, Australia / New Zealand, and the Netherlands were all geared towards what can be defined as the core business of trade unionism: regulating labour markets by agreeing with employers and clients to “take wages out of competition”. As Ruth Milkman emphasized in her study on the Los Angeles case, there is a long history of this type of regulatory unionism, both in the US and in Europe.Footnote 121 From this perspective, the organizing campaigns invented by Justice for Janitors were innovative in form,Footnote 122 but quite traditional in content. The regulatory unionism as practised in the campaigns presupposed a spatial labour market that could be territorially defined and regulated. In the US and Great Britain, where contracts had to be negotiated locally firm by firm, the campaigns had a “zonal” approach and were aimed at unionizing cleaning firms locally and zone by zone. In the Netherlands, this was tried with some success at Schiphol Airport, where, in 2008, separate benefits were obtained for the cleaners working there, but, as a consequence of the Dutch system of industrial relations, the Dutch campaigns could gain strength only by organizing nationwide to enforce national collective agreements.
From this regulatory perspective, the endeavours of the SEIU to focus transnational campaigns on multinational cleaning companies such as ISS and to negotiate transnational or “global” contracts were somewhat paradoxical, as union power to enforce labour market regulation still had to be developed locally, or, as in the Dutch case, nationally. The SEIU’s Stephen Lerner’s maxim that “the building owners are global, the investment capital is global, the contractors are global, and the workers are global” may be true,Footnote 123 but not enough to warrant a globally organized labour market. For me, it remains completely unclear how, as Lerner asserts, “through global agreements episodic campaigning may move toward a much-needed institutionalized power capable of challenging global capitalism systematically”.Footnote 124 The migrant labour force may be as transnational as the multinational cleaning companies, the labour markets on which both parties operate are still institutionalized locally or nationally. The transnationalism of the SEIU and its international partners in UNI Global Union concerns officials and organizers, not the cleaners themselves. It can connect the local and the global only by supporting efforts to build union capacity at a local or national level, while simultaneously organizing global support for cleaners campaigning for their rights. In spite of the general framework provided by the Socially Responsible Contractor Global Agreement signed by UNI Global Union and ISS, the global appeal of Justice for Janitors was, and still is, based on international solidarity, not on transnational labour market regulation.
A symbol of this kind of international solidarity was presented by UNI Global Union when it awarded the Dutch “Schoon genoeg!” campaign of 2010 the prize for the world’s best trade union campaign in the last five years. Cleaners’ representatives Judy Lock and Christine Monk, together with FNV Bondgenoten official Mari Martens, went to Tokyo to receive the honour. For Christine Monk, the international prize “meant a great deal of support not only for us cleaners, but also for our colleagues in, for instance, security, catering, home care, and nursing. Its message is: you can win if you want to!”Footnote 125
Appendix: Meetings, pickets, and other actions in preparation for and during the 2010 strike