By Amanda Walters – Director at Centre for Progressive Change
In the summer of 2016, I took over the campaign to get Heathrow airport to become a Living Wage employer. The campaign had already been running for two years but there had been a 6-month period of inaction.
We started by researching online to help us paint a fuller picture of the airport’s interests and challenges, and to see what potential opportunities we could utilise. In October 2016, Theresa May’s Cabinet was going to decide on whether to back the third runway at Heathrow airport. We knew that the last thing the airport would want ahead of that decision is any public action and bad press. Therefore, this presented an opportunity for us to cause reputational problems for the airport as a way to disrupt their bid unless they became a Living Wage employer. This would give us one month to organise workers into action.
Fr Gerard, from St Anselm’s church introduced me to the parishioners in his church who worked at the airport. I held one-to-one meetings with many of them and in each meeting asked them to introduce me to more workers. The first round of one-to-one meetings gave me an idea of how the airport operates.
We decided to focus on meeting cleaning staff at Heathrow. My listening at St Anselm’s showed us that these workers were the ones with lowest pay and poorest working conditions. I asked the cleaning staff I met to bring me their rota sheets so we could start charting who works in each terminal, on airside and landside, in the morning, afternoon and night shift. This gave us the opportunity to identify the organic leaders in each shift.
One cleaner that people listened to was Diogo and we identified Diogo as an organic leader. He quickly became the key worker for this campaign. Diogo was tenacious, intelligent, and respected by the workers and management. He was an RMT rep and had already won small gains in pay for his workers, through negotiations with the management. He was a parishioner at St Anselm’s church and had been involved in the London Living Wage campaign since the beginning.
Diogo worked with us to organise an open meeting with cleaners and those we had identified as organic leaders to restart the Living Wage campaign.
At this first meeting, the cleaners agreed that they would start by getting workers to sign a public letter to the CEO of the airport ahead of the Cabinet decision asking for their wages to be increased to the Living Wage. The rest of the meeting was spent completing the charts for each shift we were targeting. By the end of the campaign we had 9 charts.
The attendees of the meeting decided on a six-day deadline to get the letter signed. Each organic leader would lead work in their shifts to get as many signatures on the letter as possible.
This was our first structure test. In six days, we got over 400 signatures – far more than we were expecting! Diogo was exceptional. In his shift over 80% of the workers signed the letter. Once he finished his shift, he contacted everyone else he knew at the airport that would benefit from the Living Wage and asked them to sign. This exercise was also helpful in telling us where we hadn’t identified the right leader and where our gaps were.
We sent the letter to the airport on the 12th October and to the BBC. The airport called that afternoon and said they would like to meet.
After the letter was sent, the workers met again to evaluate and decide next steps. We looked at the charts to identify who hadn’t signed the letter, why and who else we needed to speak to, to fill in the gaps. We agreed that we needed to keep up the pressure until the decision on the third runway had been made. Over the next months we carried on doing structure tests and asking our allies to act.
We met with the airport early December. At that meeting the airport announced they would sign up to become a Living Wage employer! They agreed to giving a pay rise to over 3,200 subcontracted staff, including some pay rises of almost £3 an hour. This was a huge shift from the previous meetings with the airport as workers were beginning to pose a real threat to the airports self-interest to gain the third runway. In a few months we had made far greater gains that in the previous years because we stopped taking shortcuts and focused on deep organising and building the power of the workers.
Join our mailing list to receive Organising tips and the latest news from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared, and we won't bombard you.