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'Virgin' on the outrageous
Cleaners working on trains on the Virgin West Coast Mainline struck for 24 hours from this morning (28 October) in a row over poverty pay and union rights between the 'Carlisle Cleaning and Support Services' contractor, and the RMT union.
Carlisle's owner, Impellam Group, part of the business empire of top Tory Lord Ashcroft, has increased its profits by almost 30% to £16.2 million in the past year off the backs of its low paid workforce.
Yet it is telling cleaners they need to take a real-terms pay cut for it to keep the contract with Virgin.
The entire rail industry should be renationalised and employ all workers directly, putting an end to this maze of contractors and sub-contractors grubbing their profits at the expense of workers and the travelling public.
Pickets at the rail depot in east Manchester told me about "sweatshop" conditions for cleaners paid a flat rate of £6.54 an hour, even when on permanent night shifts, even when working in sub-zero winter temperatures.
RMT official Andy Warnock-Smith said:
"These cleaners are on appalling wages and conditions, and they're being treated with absolute contempt by the company.
"Something else about this dispute is how Virgin Trains are just sitting back. Branson has this image as a 'great entrepreneur', but what's he doing to resolve this?"
Carlisle had offered a miserable 1% pay 'rise' this year, 'worth' 6p an hour. As one picket pointed out, that's £2.40 a week: a pint of milk and a loaf of bread! Carlisle also offered 1% next year, 'worth' 7p.
When inflation is officially around 5% and in reality far higher for workers, this is a big pay cut.
Under pressure, Carlisle made a new offer, described by pickets as so "miniscule" that the union rejected it out of hand. RMT general secretary Bob Crow said:
"Carlisle should understand that our members are not prepared to tolerate low pay and poor conditions any longer from a company that makes millions on the backs of their work.
"Virgin should also recognise that it has a moral obligation not to allow poverty wages to be paid to people who play a key role in providing services to its 20 million passengers.
"Instead of planning to derecognise the union and threatening our members, Carlisle should get around the table and negotiate a sensible, fair deal that reflects the true worth of the hard work that creates Carlisle's profits."
RMT membership at Carlisle has doubled to represent the overwhelming majority of the workers, 94% of whom voted to take strike action.
RMT members on the contract will also refuse to empty train effluent tanks or refill fresh water tanks for 24 hours from 6pm on Friday 4th November.
Longsight pickets told me that Carlisle threatened to bus in agency workers to do the work of strikers.
This is probably illegal. All supporters of this strike should show their support this evening, from 8.30pm at the Longsight depot just off Kirkmanshulme Lane in Longsight.
Reports during the day confirmed an overwhelmingly solid strike. In Crewe the great majority of workers went on strike, and in Stoke 100%.
Meanwhile, if Carlisle's boasts are to be believed then they shipped the small handful of their employees not on strike from one end of the country to the other!
Reports suggested the illegal use of scab agency labour to do the work of strikers. The RMT will be investigating the legal facts of the matter.
Strikers said that agency workers were being paid £12 an hour, almost double the rate Carlisle normally pays its own workforce! The cleaners are determined to win a fair settlement, taking further strike action if necessary.
The union will now discuss this on the basis of this solid strike which has hammered home to Carlisle that these workers will not be bullied and the company has a real fight on its hands.
Around 25 Carlisle Contact Cleaners and support staff were on strike on 27 October at the Liverpool Edgehill depot.
These cleaners work on the West Coast main line, mostly on permanent nights cleaning Virgin Trains.
They have been offered a paltry 1% pay increase for this year and the Carlisle group are attempting to derecognise the RMT union. The action was supported by Liverpool trades council and Liverpool Against the Cuts.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 28 October 2011 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.