Martin Swayne reports on the recent inspiring wildcat strike of recycling workers at Orion in East London. This militant action shows that unorganised workers can organise, fight back, and win.
Last week, something remarkable happened at the Orion recycling plant in a quiet industrial estate in East London. Ten migrant workers from Peru walked off the job – and in the space of a few hours their boss gave in to all of their demands. These workers had never been members of any union before and had never been on strike, let alone a wildcat strike.
The video below shows you all you need to know about their working conditions. The air in the warehouse where they work is so thick with dust that you can barely see more than a few metres ahead. The noise is deafening. They have been working in this environment without adequate personal protection such as gloves and masks. There are no showers and the toilets are infested with rats. One of their demands was for basic things like soap and toilet paper.
This is what work is like for many in 21st century Britain: 19th century working conditions that are precarious, dangerous, and barely adequate for survival. As this report points out:
Workers would, on a daily basis, have serious cuts and sores on their hands. Brick dust would cause eye inflammation, exacerbate existing health conditions and cause serious respiratory problems in their lungs, throat, and nose. Workers complained that regularly during the working day they could not breathe. The speed of the line forced them to work so fast their arms would become inflamed due to serious muscle damage. Whenever workers complained, worked slowly, or asked for basic safety equipment, they were harassed and abused by the site manager.
Things came to a head last Wednesday when the workers took the courageous decision to stand together and fight. This was despite being told to “fuck off” by their foreman and being threatened with the sack.
They confronted the site manager first thing in the morning and issued their basic demands for better safety. By 11am, all workers at the plant had walked out into the pouring rain. As soon as the conveyor belts had stopped and the plant had effectively closed, the boss came round to start negotiating in a mass meeting at the gates of the workplace.
The boss soon began to concede and the masks were ordered with next day delivery. The next day came but the safety equipment had still not arrived, so the strike continued.
By now, the workers were unionised and were determined to win. Indeed, they even had the courage to demand from the boss (in person) a pay rise to the London Living Wage and the introduction of sick pay above the statutory minimum. This was met by the predictable objection that the company couldn’t afford it. But eventually the manager said he would speak to the board and would meet with the union to discuss further demands.
The workers agreed to return to work as soon as basic personal protection equipment had been provided. To top it all off, the workers received a personal apology from the site manager for abusing the workers, who walked off with the promise that for the day of this unprecedented wildcat strike they would still be paid and would not face any victimisation!
Organising the ‘unorganisable’
Great credit goes to the United Voices of the World (UVW) union – a small but militant trade union that organises migrant and precarious workers. In less than 24 hours after meeting the workers for the very first time, they had helped organise this inspiring strike.
The UVW appropriately sum up the experience of the recycling workers’ strike in their own words:
Confident, combative, united and inspiring, these ‘invisible’ workers have shown what it takes to stand up and resist precarity and marginalisation.
Dismissed as ‘unorganisable’ by most official unions, these migrant worker members of United Voices of the World have shown that the best weapon to fight back is the collective strength of those you work with.
If ‘invisible’ migrant workers at an industrial site in east London can do this, there’s no reason why other workers can’t take on the bosses and win!
It should be noted that this strike was in breach of the existing draconian anti-trade union laws. This proves that if unions are prepared to break the law, the law can’t stop the workers.
Yes, it is a challenge to “organise the unorganisable” – but the impressive Orion walkout goes to show what can be achieved with a bit of courage, audacity and determination.