Monthly Archives: July 2020

Poems For David Oluwale

In 2019 to launch events to commemorate 50 years since David Oluwale was drowned in the River Aire, Jackie Kay, Zaffar Kunial, and Ian Duhig read poems and answered questions in David’s memory.
The events leading to his drowning have been described as “the physical and psychological destruction of a homeless, black man whose brutal, systematic harassment was orchestrated by the Leeds city police force.” Oluwale’s death resulted in the first successful prosecution of British police officers for involvement in the death of a black person.
More information can be found on the Remember Oluwale site.

Tight Pants

Joe Brainard poem from The Milk Quarterly, number 2, August, 1972.

Tight Pants

One bad thing about
pants so tight you
you have to stuff
it down one pant leg
or the other is getting
out of a cab. (Crunch!)

Joe Brainard


This hooligan chant is in the 1975 book The New Savages by Timeri Murari. The book has a heavy amount of 70s racism but is unusual in that it contains text of interviews with kids, teachers, probation officers and the like. The book is set in Liverpool and focuses on racially divided gangs, it’s worthy of note for being written by an Indian writer. The book sits well on a pulp shelf but would also well deserve space with sociology books.

Hooligans! We fought a war for you and look at you.
Hooligans! We’ve given you free education, council flats, clothes to wear and the dole.
Hooligans! You’ve got a soft life, you’ve never had to work as hard as us, you’ve never been as poor as us, we fought a war for you.

Hooligans! How do you repay society? You smash up trains, you break windows, you write on walls, you steal.
Hooligans! Why can’t you be like us and do the good things we do. Now we have to punish you and send you to jail. You are a nuisance to society.
You’re all just Hooligans!

Night Cleaners Strike

May Hobbs in her 1973 autobiography Born To Struggle, about her involvement in the night cleaners strike of the early 70s.

Cleaners of the World, Unite!

The first job I was offered was as a supervisor at an art college in Cockfosters which was an annex of the Hornsey College of Art. The wages, the contractors told me, would be £13 a week. Well, I thought, they had not risen much since I last did the work. I decided then and there that the union must be got going again for the cleaners, but this time we would inform the union bureaucrats what we wanted and no fucking us about. The first night I arrived I could hear these two voices talking in the corridor, and one of them saying, `I’m packing up if she’s a bastard.’ `Pack up, then!’ I shouted. I would have known that voice at once anywhere as belonging to my mate Ann. `Well,’ she said, `they told us a new supervisor was coming, but they never told us no name.’ They wouldn’t be leaving, they said, seeing as how it was me, so I asked how many women were on the building. `Just the two of us,’ they said. So, with me, that made three.

Three women to clear up in one night an area the size of at least five football pitches consisting of art rooms with paint and everything on the floor, studio rooms full of drawing boards and models, the canteen, the admin offices, stairs, toilets and a mile of corridors l I went storming down to the caretaker and asked him, `How many women are supposed to be on this building?’ `At least eight,’ he said, `but the figure the contractors mentioned they’d put on it was twelve.’ It did not take me long to find out how, for that contract, the contractors were being paid £135 a week. If you reckon up my £13 with £12 each for the other two girls and add in a fiver for cleaning materials and gear, you would not need to be an Einstein to work out the balance in the contractors’ pockets as coming to about £92 a week!

One night over dinner break I said to the others, `You’re always moaning. Why not do something instead?’ So we decided to join the union, but this time we were not going to put up with the male trade union officers of the T.G.W.U. just doing a little bit for us when it suited them. Once we were paying our dues we looked on that as contributing a part of their wages. We also decided that I would phone the contractors in the morning to say we wanted more money and more women on the building. So I phoned the manager to say we wanted to see him and that we would not go into work that night until he came. Down he came and I told him I would not work on that building with only three women, and besides, the money was diabolical. He agreed to give me a rise of £1.50 a week, the others a rise of £1 a week with £1 extra to each of us for fares. Don’t worry, he never paid the fares out of the goodness of his heart; it was because they had trouble getting anybody to travel out that far. Getting home when you left the college building at 5.30 in the morning was no joke, I can tell you, especially on very cold mornings. The road to Cockfosters station was in darkness and we kept well together. The station was never open yet, but the man going on duty there got to know us and used to arrive early to open up for us. Then he would let us sit on the train which was always there as it was the end of the line but which never moved till half past six.

One thing about the early-morning train was that you got to know the people that were regularly on it. It was quite a friendly atmosphere, you might say. You noticed if anyone was missing, because the same people used to come and sit in the same seat in the same carriage day after day and week after week. It was almost as if they had their seats reserved for them.

When I started to push the manager about having more people on the building, he said he would see what he could do. I knew what that would be: nothing. So I took on two more women myself, as part-timers, and then there were five of us. We decided that that being that we would just do one section a night – then, when the complaints started to pour in, they might change their tune and make up the numbers. No such luck.

The complaints started all right. The people at the college began to moan about the standard of the work, and then they started to leave nasty notes. So we wrote nice notes to explain our position. But the complaints and nasty notes kept on coming, so our notes turned nasty as well: If they worked half so hard as we had to, we told them, they’d be too tired to complain. Why didn’t they make some effort to keep things cleaner in the first place, we asked them.

Then we had the electricity strike. You must not think for a moment that we were against it. We supported the electricians all the way, and I was only sorry they did not win a complete victory. But even when all the power was turned off we were still told we had to go on in. One of the girls fell down a flight of stairs, hurting her legs and back. She needed to take time off, so I asked the contractors what they were going to do. Were they going to pay her? It was her fault, they said, she shouldn’t have been going down the stairs. Anyway, they said, we should have been carrying torches.

Can you imagine it: office-cleaning by torchlight? Mind you, that would have put the industry into perspective and where it belonged in terms of conditions and pay: in Dickens’s days.

One Saturday morning the phone rang. It was the area supervisor to tell me that the three of us and the two part-timers had been given the sack. I was to tell the others not to bother to turn up on Sunday. The administrator of the building had said he did not want us back, she told me. The fact was, as I found out when I rang the caretaker, the firm were going to lose the contract, as they deserved to, and it was going back to direct cleaning, which it should have been all along.

We were to go and pick up the money due to us from the college at the caretaker’s office, but when we did we found there was no pay in lieu of notice or holiday pay, so the next day I joined forces with Ann, and down we went to the contractor’s offices. We would wait there till they gave us the money which was ours by rights, we told them.

They sent down person after person to tell us we were not entitled to it, and when we kicked up a fuss they said they would call the police to have us removed. Great, we said, you do that, and we’ll tip the table up to give even more of a reason. To have the police come down was just what we wanted, we said. Then we would be in court, and that would give us just the platform we needed to expose their methods. While we would get a two-quid fine and be bound over, they would have the truth told about them, and where better than in a court room.

With that they changed their tack and promised to fetch the money round to us at my house by four o’clock. They had better, I said, otherwise I would be up there tomorrow. Sure enough, at four o’clock the manager was there with two weeks’ money each for us, and our National Insurance cards. We came off lucky. There is a saying in the cleaning industry that there are more dead bodies than live ones. I can give you a couple of examples to show you what that means.

There was one Indian taken on by that company who was already doing one job during the day when he went to work nights for a full seven days from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. At the end of the week one of the night managers tells him he is not wanted any more. `Give me my money, then,’ he says. `Oh,’ they tell him, `there’s none to come.’ He could cause what stink he liked, the night manager told him, as there was no proof he had ever done any work; they did not have any card for him and nothing had been signed. Such incidents are not uncommon.

One woman had been working fourteen solid years when she was made redundant. She could have another job, they said. Except it was miles from where she lived and impossible for her because of the fares and her family commitments, as they well knew. But by offering her another job they managed to side-step their obligation to give her redundancy pay. This is typical of the way they treat their workers.

After the work at the college stopped I applied for another post as supervisor. By now my photograph and bits about what I was up to had begun appearing in the papers. When I met the area supervisor to look at where I would be in charge, she recognized me at once. As soon as she started to say what a good thing the union was for the cleaners I felt suspicious. She had sacked me inside three days. The old supervisor wanted her job back, she said. O.K., I said, I would stay on as a cleaner in that case, seeing how she was short-staffed. Oh no, she did not think that would be appropriate, after having been a supervisor. I knew what she meant: the pressure was on and I was already blacklisted.

From that moment going around and organizing the cleaners became a full-time job for me, especially the night cleaners, who to my mind were the worst exploited. I enlisted the help of anybody who would be willing to give up an hour of their time once a week to go around the office blocks and start talking to the cleaners themselves. We formed ourselves into the Cleaners Action Group and printed leaflets saying that all cleaners should join the union, while at the same time pointing out they could not expect big increases overnight and would have to do their bit to keep the union on its toes. Otherwise the union would just accept their dues and leave it at that.

In our first two months it was amazing the way people rallied to help. It was a new thing to them. People had not realized the way women were working all through the night to keep life turning over for others. We got quite a few buildings organized as union labour, and as soon as the contractors woke up to the fact that it was not only some five-minute wonder in came the strong-arm gang.

They would send in their managers to issue warnings that if it was found any woman had joined a union it would mean her instant dismissal. At the time my old mate Brenda was night cleaning at the Canadian Embassy in Trafalgar Square. She comes across one of our leaflets there, and sees it has on it my name and address. `Oh yes,’ she says, `I know May. We worked together on an office block. She’s my friend,’ she says, and is telling the other women how it is quite right that they ought to join the union just as the manager stalks in. He gives her the sack there and then, and when she asks him why, he says he is not having any of his schemes messed up by the union.

One Saturday afternoon the manager of one of the big contractors tried to get me on the phone, only it was Chris who answered. He had got himself drunk, said Chris, to give himself the guts to do it. You could tell he was drunk by the way he spoke. What he had phoned to say, he said, was that if I did not lay off he would break my arms and legs and stuff my leaflets down my throat.

‘O.K.,’ said Chris, `we’ll meet you, because it will take someone bigger than a slag that is drunk to do it.’

`She’s getting into something bigger than she thinks,’ said the bloke, and I knew what he meant knowing the bandits involved in that business.

So, we told him, that was why we were carrying on with it until we had exposed his people and all the corruption in the getting of government contracts and won a fair deal for those that did the work.

Life got busy from then on. I started to get letters asking me to go and speak at meetings or to university groups. Then we were going out one night a week with two of us to a building and we were starting to get the area well covered. The main area of concentration for office cleaners was in the big blocks in the City of London. The contractors find it more profitable to make it night work, because then the type of person they get to do it is someone who needs the money for such luxuries in life as rent and food for their family and who is hence in a poor bargaining position.

The first building to become unionized had been the Board of Trade building, Sanctuary House. The women there were getting £12.5o for a forty-hour week. Then Companies House and Shell-mex House at Waterloo were also unionized. The Sanctuary House cleaners elected their shop steward and deputy shop steward, and the two of them were sacked at once on some flimsy excuse. So we had our first major strike, with Companies House coming out in support.

It was a good strike. For the first time the cleaners saw how they could get something done through solidarity. Jean Wright, the supervisor, came out with the women, which was unusual. Then we had the support of Women’s Lib and the Socialist Women, among others, and many stuck with us all night on the picket line, where we enjoyed ourselves. The cleaners also saw that other people were concerned about them once they knew something about the situation.

We also got a good press coverage – better from the Tory press than from many of the so-called left-wing papers. I suppose we were not politically aware enough for the latter, so they did not see us as potential recruits.

Within a day we had had a five-hour meeting with the contractors and they had agreed to reinstate the two shop stewards. The strike was off but it was still only just the beginning of the fight. The important thing was that more and more people were getting to know about the plight of the cleaners. Now we had to show the cleaners that they need not be scared of the racketeers that ran the contractors’ empires – an industry that still in 1971 had individual companies spinning profits of over a million pounds a year, paying the workers that made their businesses possible not much over 3s. an hour for a full working week, with no rights to sick pay, holiday pay or redundancy pay and holding over their heads the power of instant dismissal.

People began to ask me to go and help with organization in other parts of the country, including the University of Lancaster, where they had a lot of problems. How were they going to get the union officials to do anything for them and take them seriously, they wanted to know. They had to do things for themselves, I said, and then keep the officials up to the mark to make sure the wages paid to them were being earned.

I was more and more away from home, and always took Trevor with me – the reason why he is so forward and knows all the answers today, I expect. Other people would help out with the older ones. Meanwhile I was beginning to feel very ill and was still putting off going to the doctor with some `woman’s trouble’ I had been having for two years.

In March 1971 I spoke at the Women’s Lib rally in Trafalgar Square and then decided I really must see my doctor. She referred me on to the hospital and the doctor there said he wanted me inside within five days for a hysterectomy. He gave me to understand it would be a dodgy operation and said that my husband would have to sign for me to have it.

`I’ll be the one to sign,’ I told him.

`But,’ he said, `your husband’s got to sign.’

`It’s my body you’ll be cutting about,’ I said, `so I’ll sign,’ and I did.

It was going to be one fortnight for the operation and another for convalescence, so I had to rush about to fix things for the children and make sure they were going to be looked after as Chris could not be home from his work. Tony went to Mrs Lovall, a coloured lady just round the corner and a very motherly type who I knew would treat him as one of her own. Debby and Michelle went to a children’s home at Hertford, where they quite liked it, but that left little Trevor, still only three and a half. He went off on his own to a lady in Potters Bar.

I went into hospital and came through the operation and after that had quite an interesting time talking to the nurses, who are about the most exploited people in any industry. They were well aware of it, but did not see what they could do about it, short of striking. Well, they might try doing just the job their pay covers them to do: looking after the sick. If they once said they were not doing any more administration or paperwork the hospital authorities would about-turn soon enough and pay them a decent wage.

For my convalescence I went to Ireland. Dublin I did not like much: the thing which struck me most there was how the off-licences put bars on their windows but the jewellers did not. The Irish countryside, though, was lovely. As soon as I got back to England I had the kids back with me.

Trevor had been really upset by being away from home, and for weeks I could not leave him even to go to the shops. Even though Chris had been to see him every other day it had been a mistake to separate him from the girls, especially from Michelle, who has always been close to him and looked after him. I understood just how he must have felt after all my experiences.

Meanwhile things were moving again with the cleaners. The campaign was really hotting up. Our first big confrontation came at the end of July 1972 when ten cleaners came out at the twenty-six-storey-high Ministry of Defence building, the Empress State Building, in Fulham. They were demanding a rise of £3 on their earnings of £12.50 for a forty-five-hour week and recognition by the employers for their union – in their case, the Civil Service Union. Cleaners Action and Women’s Lib co-operated to set up round-the-clock pickets and messages of support and solidarity came pouring in. The spirit that existed on that picket line was really beautiful, and the wonderful shop steward they had on the building, Maria Scally, worked all out to help the women stay united.

The strike lasted into the middle of August, with, on the 6th, twenty women on the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall also joining in with the same demands. The G.P.O. engineers stopped servicing their telephones, the dustmen left their bins full, no mail went in and there were no deliveries of bread, milk or beer to the canteen. The whole thing really snowballed, and on the 13th twenty more came out at the Home Office’s Horseferry Road annex over the arbitrary sacking of a supervisor.

On 16 August there was a meeting chaired by the Ministry of Employment between the Civil Service Union and the contractor’s representative. It was agreed: £16.50 a week plus a 50p night allowance for a normal week’s work and no victimization. The supervisor at Horseferry House was reinstated. On the next day the girls were back at work.

It was a big victory, all right, as most of the newspaper headlines said. The only thing which spoilt it was that the cleaners at the Old Admiralty building got notice to quit almost at once as the contract there was falling through. When some of them reapplied to the new contractor, surprise, surprise, there were no jobs available. Which just goes to show, one victory does not win any war.

The great thing was we had won in this case and shown what might be done. We had got the whole subject aired in the press and in the House of Commons by such M.P.s as Lena Jager and Joe Ashton and people knew a bit more about what went on in their offices, while they were snugly tucked in their beds, to keep things nice and civilized for them when they got in for work.

Meanwhile the struggle goes on and we have to work harder as the employers go on getting more cunning. It seems a lot of the time that we are not only up against the contractors and their spies and their ruthless methods in breaking up a group of cleaners as soon as there is a union nucleus. We are also up against the big bureaucratic unions, who seem to suck closer to the government and get more away from the working class every day. They are as bad as the capitalists as they go about it in a way that will bring them in the most money without considering the situation of the individuals in the movement.

The window cleaners are a case in point where the union collects its dues by issuing tickets of convenience to the cleaning contractor. Then, if a convenor or shop steward comes out of a factory to ask a bloke cleaning the windows whether he has a union card, the bloke says, `It’s in the office, mate, at the contractor’s.’ Only if they were to check more closely, they might well find that the names on the cards did not always tally with those who cleaned the windows. It is things like that that keep the level of organization low in the industry, and the workers docile, which suits the contractors, while the union bureaucrats aid and abet them by issuing the tickets, because that suits their purposes, too.

People say to me, `May, you ought to be in Parliament.’ But if I was in Parliament, that would put me out of reach of the people I am trying to help, while it would suit a lot of the ones on the other side to see me muzzled by all their parliamentary procedures and compromises. What I have to do for people I can do best by sticking well outside the establishment. Someone has got to stay in touch with the people and all their problems on the level of individuals.

I think of my Jenny [her step-mother] and a thousand like her who slaved their guts out in return for a raw deal. So that is my work for the moment: Cleaners Action, working for the homeless, campaigning for the rights of young mothers and their children, and anything else where justice needs to be fought for in the face of reactionary governments, big business, bureaucracy and the parts of society which say they couldn’t care less. If I am a militant it is what I see going on makes me into one.

May Hobbs