LEO ZEILIG describes how the London School of Economics cleaners pushed back against outsourcing and the erosion of workers’ rights
ON JUNE 8 cleaners, who had been on strike at the London School of Economics (LSE) for seven weeks, in a dispute that has spanned 10 months, won. They won each of their demands.
The cleaners were members of the United Voices of the World (UVW) union, and took strike action one day a week at the LSE.
These workers were on strike for paid paternity/maternity leave, holiday pay, and sick pay on the same terms as LSE workers.
Their boss is the subcontractor Noonan Services Group — though their target was primarily the university.
The victory was decisive. From Spring 2018, the cleaners will be brought in-house and become direct employees of the university — from this the other demands will be satisfied. They will, like other university workers, receive 41 days of annual leave, six months of full sick pay, six months at half sick pay and also receive a full employer pension contributions of approximately 13 per cent of their salary.
The wave of neoliberal reforms in public institutions that swept across Britain from the 1980s often took the form of “outsourcing” — an Orwellian term that disguises a pernicious practice behind bland words. Private companies are “contracted” by universities, government departments and local authorities to employ cleaners, security officers, refuse collectors and, in some cases, to run entire public services and departments. These companies then drive down working conditions in order to increase their profits.
Many of the poorest workers in Britain are employed by these companies — often working on zero-hours contracts, living in poverty, holding down two or more jobs to survive.
The companies are familiar to us. Their names have become synonymous with corporate greed, such as Balfour and Beatty Workplace — which employs 50,000, operates in more than 80 countries, with a turnover of £64 billion — and Compass — which has a turnover of £2bn, and works in 7,000 different sites. These companies have been at the cutting edge of privatisations in Britain and internationally.
Capita, the largest outsourcing company in the country, has clients across central and local government; half of its turnover of £2.93m in 2013 came from contracts in the public sector.
The fight against outsourcing in education is not restricted to Britain. In 2015, a student movement in South Africa drew in workers employed by various subcontractors at different universities across the country. Under pressure from a growing movement, many universities were forced to insource. The protests and strikes showed that a key pillar of the neoliberal agenda could be challenged.
At universities in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest cities, auxiliary staff that had been hired and fired by private companies for years demanded to be brought in house, so they would be directly employed by the university on the same conditions as every other worker.
As student and workers’ strikes swept South Africa in 2015, on October 24 the management of the University of Cape Town, the first university in the country to outsource in the late ’90s, indicated its intention to pursue insourcing.
Today, the LSE has made the same decision — what had been “impossible” months, days, even hours before, suddenly became possible.
This campaign at one of London’s most famous universities, which resulted in Noonan Services Group being thrown out, is astonishing.
But how was this done? The first and most important element to the campaign and strike was the incredible confidence and militancy of the cleaners themselves. Normally patronised, silenced and bullied, the cleaners, with their union unambiguously behind them, fought with ferocity.
Typical was one cleaner, who on a strike in May held one side of a banner which read: “We are treated like the dirt we clean.” As she spoke into a microphone in a strong, melodic Caribbean accent, said: “All you guys who use these universities, look at us. We are the ones who clean. When you go to the toilet, we’re the ones who have to clean up in the morning.
“They’re are the ones who are making the dirt and we’re the ones who pick it up in the morning.... We will continue this fight until [management] hear, until they listen because we must get justice.” They were heard.
With a sort of breathless audacity, the cleaners committed themselves to strike until victory. No-one who spent time on the picket line outside the LSE’s main site — or on their spontaneous protests in the wealthiest parts of London — could doubt their determination or not be infected by their confidence.
But the cleaners did not fight alone; they extended solidarity to their brothers and sisters, supporting security officers also on strike, against their own subcontractor Cordant Group at the University of London.
On strikes held on the same day in May, the cleaners marched in the centre of the road with supporters, waving mops, banners, blowing whistles and singing, to join the striking security officers at Senate House.
A giant picket line of cleaners and security officers thronged the entrance to the university. In return, the security officers, backed by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), took to the streets and joined the cleaners at the LSE. There could be no clearer demonstration of solidarity — two strikes, one struggle.
Next was the solidarity from some of the bigger unions. The University and College Union (UCU), in a fringe meeting at its national conference on May 29, raised hundreds of pounds.
The strikers spoke to UCU members, lecturers and teachers, who have seen their own profession overrun by low-pay, insecure contracts and redundancies.
The effect was electric. Cleaners, frequently invisible at universities, were now at the centre of discussions and seen loudly proclaiming their rights in front of one of Britain’s wealthiest universities.
Finally, in the last weeks of the strike, the political initiative started to swing behind Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the general election. Corbyn’s vocal support for workers’ rights was was vital.
The atmosphere in Britain was no longer dominated by fear of corporate power but increasing by new forces of solidarity and resistance. The cleaners represented this emerging mood with more clarity and confidence than anyone else.
Reclaiming that confidence and struggling for it is now the task of other unions and workers across the country.
The security officers at Senate House will begin striking for a third time on June 22. They need our support and solidarity. The victory at the LSE will make it much easier for all of us to win.
Leo Zeilig is a writer, researcher, activist, the author of An Ounce of Practice and works at Senate House, University of London. He is a member of the IWGB.
You can donate to the University of London security officers’ strike fund online here.