The first ever national strike of cleaning workers has begun in Germany, with 96.7% of trade union members voting in favour of strike action in a ballot. Since the beginning of the strike on October 20, around 6,500 workers, in 800 companies, participated in the strike action. Their trade union, IG BAU, demands a wage increase of 8.7% (which only is 71 cent per hour) and the re-introduction of the minimum wage in the cleaning sector. This stood at €8.15 per hour but ceased to exist last month. Now employers are trying to use this situation to hire workers on much lower wages - €5 an hour, or even less.
This is not only the first ever cleaning workers’ strike, but also the first strike in a ’precarious’ sector of the economy. Therefore, it is a very important strike, the outcome of which will have an important effect in terms of the building of trade unions in such workplaces.
The mood amongst the workers is marked by anger and preparedness to fight. This is not only a strike for higher wages but also for respect and dignity. Trade union secretary, Ben Brusniak, in Berlin told of a worker who started to cry after she was approached by union activists who thanked her for the work she had done. She said that this was the first time that somebody had thanked her for the dirty job she has to do. The workers are calling their strike the, “revolt of the invisibles“, because cleaning workers do their job before other people enter the buildings. They want acknowledgement of the fact that there are human beings behind empty rubbish bins in offices and clean windows of public buildings.
The strike is being met with a lot of solidarity by other workers and also by students in universities. Certainly, this strike is an important lever for the re-building of the workers’ movement. An important task is to organise previously unorganised workers, to get them to join the strike immediately. The trade union secretaries report that for them it is also a challenge to find out which company cleans which building and to start a dialogue with the workers. Other trade unions could play an important role because everywhere cleaning workers work there are union shop stewards who could approach them.
To win this fight and to lay the basis for a strong union amongst cleaning workers it will be necessary to organise more solidarity and to link up with other struggles. Also the strike itself should be expanded step by step.
Members of Linksjugend [’Solid] (the youth wing of the Left Party) and of Sozialistische Alternative (SAV - CWI in Germany), as well as other activists are active in organising solidarity actions and practical help for the strike. One Linksjugend and SAV member who is an unemployed cleaning worker in Berlin has been co-opted onto the local strike committee.