Heathrow: Making every journey Living Wage

By Amanda Walters, Citizens UK Community Organiser

In the summer of 2016 West London Citizens (WLC) was campaigning to get Heathrow airport to sign up as a Living Wage employer. The campaign had already been running for two years but there had been a 6 month period of inaction.

It was an opportunity to change strategy and put into practice a methodology of organising developed by trade union organiser Jane McAlevey.

The method

Jane, a veteran trade union organiser from the US, teaches by sharing powerful stories about campaigns she won as an organiser for AFL-CIO in Stamford Connecticut and then for SEIU in Nevada. By being extremely methodical, Jane was able to win huge victories with workers.

The Method:

  • Start by charting the workers by job role and by shift. This is done by speaking to workers and getting the rota sheets.
  • Identify the “organic leaders” in each shift, by holding large numbers of one-to-one meetings (121s) with the workforce and asking them, indirectly, who they respect. Once identified, work out the best way to approach the organic leader to get them involved.
  • Carry out “structure tests” – to test “how effectively and efficiently a worker identified as an organic leader can get a majority of her shift or unit to agree to a public, and therefore high risk, action”.

Running a Structure Test:

  1. Start with a relatively small action, for example workers signing a letter to the CEO of the company. Give the organic leaders the names of all workers in their shift and a short timeframe to get the letter signed.
  2. Once the timeframe is up, bring leaders together to measure the participation in every shift. Do this by writing onto a public chart who did and didn’t sign the letter. This will show if the right organic leader has been identified for each shift, and what percentage of the workforce participated.
  3. More 121s are needed to identify the “organic leader” if participation is low i.e. if a low percentage of workers signed the letter.
  4. If the majority of the workforce participate in the action, it demonstrates enough power has been built to move onto the next action, which will be incrementally riskier.

The practice at Heathrow

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 – a member institution of Citizens UK – introduced me to the parishioners in his church who worked at the airport. I held 121s with many of them and in each meeting asked them to introduce me to more workers. The first round of 121s 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 Sebastian. We identified Sebastian as an organic leader. He quickly became the key worker for this campaign. Sebastian was tenacious, intelligent and respected by the workers and management. He had already won small gains in pay for his workers, through negotiation with the management. He was parishioner at St Anselm’s church and had been involved in the London Living Wage campaign since the beginning.

Sebastian worked with us to organise an open meeting with cleaners and those we had identified as organic leaders to restart the Living Wage campaign.

First structure test

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 362 signatures – far more than we were expecting! Sebastian 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 a reporter Sean Coughlan at the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-37632696. 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.


Some members of the Heathrow campaign team met with the airport early December. At that meeting the airport announced they would sign up to become a Living Wage employer. 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.

Over 3,200 workers will receive a pay rise thanks to the campaign, some of almost £3 an hour. This will make a huge difference to the workers quality of life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s