May Hobbs was a cleaner from Hoxton, in the east end of London. In 1973 she wrote a book about her life called; Born to Struggle. She decided to write this book because she was fed up of middleclass writers for whom; “the East End was like a figment of their imaginations. They only saw in the place what they wanted to see there.” Hoxton is in the borough of Hackney. Today it has been gentrified and like many areas of London has been taken over by the monied classes. Even in the early 70s May could see how things were changing; “Hoxton as I first knew it was long before they had moved in to clear away the so-called slums and chivvy the people out of their lives.” For May it was her community; “It was more like living in a village, but maybe even better because of the social equality between people.” And “The thing which made the community so strong through thick and thin was, I think, that people realised no one was going to help them except themselves.”
Her story is fascinating because she is without pretensions and tells it like it is. She recounts a story about Mosley and his fascist hangers on who used to go to the local market to attack the Jewish community. One of her friends was a supporter of Mosley until he saw them beat up an old Jewish lady whilst the police stood by. She says; “From then on he saw how Mosley was just spreading hatred, and today he is a convinced socialist, working hard in immigrant communities.”
May had a hard life. She was born in 1938 and at the age of two was evacuated away from London and her parents. At age six she came back to London but was never to live with her parents again, she wasn’t told why, and she lived her young life with two foster parents. Her second foster mother, Jenny Bailey, became what she had always wanted in a real mother.“Most of the things I learnt that were worth learning came from her.”
She spent her life working in factories and as a cleaner. In the 70s she became famous because of her campaign to get better wages and conditions for herself and the other cleaners. It became known as the Night Cleaners Campaign.
Why did they need a union? Because three women were expected to;” clear up in one night an area the size of at least five football pitches.” When the manager refused to employ more staff May, as the supervisor, took on two more part time cleaners, they then pursued a strategy of only cleaning one section per night so that the staff would then complain and they would get more staff. It resulted in them all getting sacked and May being blacklisted as a union organiser.
This did not stop her.“From that moment going round and organising the cleaners became a full-time job for me, especially the night cleaners, who to my mind were the worst exploited.” The cleaners set up the Cleaners Action Group and went around organising workers in different building across the city of London. May was invited to help organise cleaners across the country. She completely understood how trade unions worked and told the cleaners; “They had to do things for themselves, I said, and then keep the officials up to the mark.”
In March 1972 they took on the Ministry of Defence, asking for a rise of £3 in their wages of £12.50 for a 45 hour week and union recognition. They were supported by the civil service unions and feminists who organised a twenty four hour picket. Other unions such as the GPO engineers stopped servicing the telephones, the dustmen refused to empty their bins, no mail or milk was delivered to the canteen. And on 16 August the management agreed to their demands.“The great thing was we had won in this case and shown what might be done.”
May’s politics were driven by the harshness of her life and of those around her; “I think of my Jenny and a thousand like her who slaved their guts out in return for a raw deal”. In 2015 we are witnessing some of the worst attacks on poor people particularly around housing and benefits.Unlike May’s time people do not have her sense of class consciousness nor her political drive born out of poverty and discrimination.
But campaigns are being driven by a sense of anger at the way in which they are being driven out of their houses by the Bedroom Tax and the greed of property owners to rip off tenants. Campaigns such as the Tameside against the Cuts is one of those grassroots campaigns that has taken off because the people most affected by the cuts are at the centre of it.
Sadly unlike the 70s these campaigns are not being supported by the trade unions who are standing by whilst their own members are being made redundant or having their terms and conditions constantly eroded. The leaders of the trade unions could learn a lesson from the Night Cleaners Campaign and all the grassroots workers who chose to support them.
Unfortunately May’s book is out of print but you can buy it on the internet. May Hobbs; Born to Struggle Quartet Books 1973.