United Voices of the World’s top 10 wins in first 10 years

Celebrating the 10 year anniversary of the grassroots UVW trade union

Members of the UVW Union with a banner reading "United Voices of the World"

A group of cleaners from Latin America met in London’s coffee shops 10 years ago and from there, a movement was born. Roll forward ten years and it’s a grassroots trade union supporting over 10,000 members from over 100 countries. 

From humble beginnings, ten years is a milestone for United Voices of the World (UVW) which focuses on supporting low-paid, migrant and precarious workers.

Through over 53 campaigns, the union has won tens of millions of pounds in improved pay and giving a voice to the UK’s often invisible army of low paid workers. Here are ten of the union’s top achievements over the decade.

1. Largest cleaners strike in UK history at the time

A first of its kind, outsourced cleaners at the London School of Economics, all of whom were BAME and primarily migrant, demanded to be made direct employees of the university. The workers became the first to force a British university to end the practice of outsourcing after staging what was the biggest cleaners strike in UK history.  

2. Longest strike in the history of the City of London

UVW members embarked on the longest strike in the history of the City of London as cleaners at a 10-storey building at 100 Wood Street – leased to the likes of JP Morgan Chase and Schroders – fought against 50% job cuts and poor pay. After 61 days and a surprise flashmob in the lobby, all staff had their pay raised to the London Living Wage.

3. Sotheby’s

The Sotheby’s campaign was the unions first to win full sick pay for private sector outsourced workers, and one of the first wins for any union amongst this group of workers. After several weeks of demonstrations and protest in Mayfair, and an Early Day Motion against the low-pay employer signed by over 40 MPs, all outsourced workers at the fine art giant won London Living Wage and contractual sick pay. 

4. Strike ending NHS outsourcing at London Hospital

A groundbreaking campaign saw 100 cleaners, caterers and porters working for Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and outsourced to French multinational Sodexo, be brought in house. The BAME and migrant workers demanded to become direct employees of the NHS – and won. 

5. Great Ormond Street Hospital

In a second campaign against outsourcing in the NHS, workers at GOSH demanded an end to the segregation of staff based on contract. In the words of GOSH cleaner Alpha Anne: “All we are asking for is equality with the rest of the NHS staff. We are tired of being treated like second class workers.”

6. Royal Parks legal battle

The union won its first legal claim, in a dispute with the Royal Parks arguing that outsourcing is unlawful under race discrimination. Park cleaners outsourced to French firm VINCI, on £8.21 per hour, voted for strike action, eventually winning a 31% pay rise. Since then, members filed a landmark legal challenge, with the case being heard in the Court of Appeal in February. 

7. Biggest tip win for workers ever

In a scandalous case of tip theft, the prestigious department store Harrods had been taking up to 75% of the service charge for itself. So chefs and waiters joined UVW and led mass demonstrations, causing a huge stir in Knightsbridge, finally leading the wealthy store to give 100% of the service charge to its staff. Winning each worker around £5000 per year. 

8. Campaign with highest police presence at a UVW picket line

Cleaners at Topshop were outsourced on poverty wages and the worst terms and conditions legally possible. They’d had enough and led protests calling out Topshop’s hypocrisies. The Topshop2, Susan and Carolina, were suspended for trade union activity eventually winning compensation of up to £75k. Their demonstrations with red smoke, placards and MPs caused a huge scene on the streets of London.

9. Huge wage rise for care workers

Care workers, cleaners and maintenance workers at Sage Nursing Home in North London walked out demanding a £12 an hour rise and the same level of sick pay and annual leave as NHS workers. They won a minimum 11% pay rise, and 5% for all other staff, a welcome victory after working through the Covid-19 pandemic on poor pay.

10. 2023 saw the union co-ordinated 8 simultaneous strikes

Last year the union carried out the largest number of coordinated strikes it had ever done. Cleaners, carers and concierge from nine different workplaces walked out together for better pay, conditions and respect at work. 

“The most important thing is to be united. If you don’t fight you will never have anything. So let’s fight but let’s fight together,” said Julia Veros Gonzales, carer and UVW member.

Commenting on the past decade, UVW’s General Secretary Petros Elia said to LFF:  “Our 10 year anniversary is a milestone we are incredibly proud of, and that we’ve reached against the odds. 

“While we have some of the best organisers around and an incredible community hub, we will never forget our humble beginnings which saw a few volunteers work from street corners and cafes for the first three years. 

“Our mission then is the same as our mission today; to support the lowest paid, most precarious and mainly migrant workers to stand up and fight back and we will never waver from it.”

Hannah Davenport is news reporter at Left Foot Forward, focusing on trade unions and environmental issues

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