CAIWU on the bus – May 1st 2019

It’s becoming an annual tradition.

On May 1st 2019, CAIWU members and supporters took to the streets of London once again, for the union’s second annual Mayday open-topped bus tour.

The day started early, with around 30 cleaners gathering to form an official picket line at around 7am outside HSBC’s offices at Canada Square in Canary Wharf. The cleaners were holding a day-long official strike in opposition to a recent decision by their employer, ISS, to employ a large number of so-called Housekeepers—supervisors by another name—at HSBC. The cleaners are also campaigning for contractual sick pay and formal recognition of CAIWU, of which the vast majority are members.

The strikers sang, chanted and blew vuvuzelas, making enough noise to draw the attention of Canary Wharf Group’s smartly besuited security director. A negotiation followed during which the security director, despite stating repeatedly how happy he was for the union to be there, claimed that CAIWU General Secretary Alberto Durango was personally barred from the Canary Wharf Estate, informed Mr Durango that CWG was in possession of a high court injunction preventing protests and demonstrations on the estate, and questioned whether CAIWU’s action did in fact constitute an official picket.

He went on to say that CWG was always willing to allow a level of freedom of speech. How gracious of the group to allow CAIWU’s members their legal right to protest. For someone who claimed he was happy for us to be there, the security director seemed to have quite a list of objections to our presence.

Shortly after 10am the HSBC pickets packed up their things and made their way to the Mayday Rooms in Fleet Street, where they boarded the open-topped bus that was to be their transport for the rest of the day. Hanging banners from the sides, and waving flags and chanting, they took off for their first destination—the Italian Consulate just around the corner on Farringdon Street, where six workers were illegally dismissed in February following a change of cleaning contractor. From there, the packed bus headed over to Fitzrovia to protest outside Facebook’s HQ in Rathbone Square, where employees of To Go Micro Kitchens are being bullied as a result of their trade union activities. Around forty members and supporters banged drums and kept blowing their vuvuzelas, while others handed out leaflets under the noses of Facebook’s bemused-looking security guards before climbing back on board for the return trip to HSBC.

The day finished with an impromptu street party, complete with an Irish band, Irish dancing, and puzzlement on the part of HSBC’s security personnel. By the expressions on their faces, they’d never seen a demonstration quite like this before.

The day was a huge success, creating a great deal of publicity for our union and our members’ causes, while at the same time being a brilliant social occasion. Sincere thanks to the seventy or so members and supporters who came along and made a noise so loud that it was impossible to ignore!

   

   

   

A footnote: Trespassing on our freedom…

While the day was a lot of fun and a great time was had by all, serious questions were raised about the right to protest and about people’s right of access to apparently public spaces. To all intents and purposes, the land on which the gleaming buildings of Canada Square stand would appear to be public. Public highways and public transport run through the heart of an area which people may enter freely, with no sense that they are on private property. Yet according to the Canary Wharf Group, the entire area is a private estate which the public may only enter with the group’s permission. The fact that such permissions is given by default makes it no less sinister that the group can bar anyone it considers undesirable—in this case, apparently, CAIWU General Secretary Alberto Durango.

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper explored the insidious creep of such pseudo-public spaces into the landscape of the capital. Raising concerns over the lack of transparency over who owns large areas of land around Kings Cross, the City, Docklands and the South Bank, the article questions how such areas are policed and examines the erosion of fundamental rights that is taking place in them. As London Assembly Green Party leader Sian Berry points out in the article, ‘Being able to know what rules you are being governed by, and how to challenge those rules, is a fundamental part of living in a democracy’. Among the rights that are being limited in pseudo-public spaces are the right to protest, the right to take photographs, and even the right to sit down for a rest. Furthermore, as the article makes clear, the rules which are in force in any given area are often drawn up by the landowner with no consultation, and they are not published, meaning that people have no idea what rules they are bound by when they enter an area. And of course the rules can be changed at any time, with nobody any the wiser until they find themselves in breach of one.

Such was the situation facing Alberto Durango during CAIWU’s Mayday protests in Canada Square. He had no idea that he was barred until the Canary Wharf Group’s security director told him so, though in spite of repeated promises the director produced no documentation to support this claim, and offered no reason for the barring order. He also explained that CWG has a high court injunction preventing protests from taking place on its estate—an injunction that we understand was obtained during the Occupy protests of 2011-12, when the group feared an occupation similar to that taking place at St Paul’s in the city might be about to occur in Canary Wharf, the capital’s second financial centre. If so, this would mean the injunction is still in place seven years later, and could potentially be used to stifle forms of protest, such as trade union activity, that are vastly different from those for which it was originally obtained.

These issues, whilst not directly relevant to CAIWU’s Mayday protests, should provide cause for concern to anyone who values the freedom and transparency essential to an open and democratic society.


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