Now that outsourced catering staff at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London have been reinstated and the two week student occupation has been dismantled we need to talk about the management culture at SOAS, where SOAS activists go next, and how we can make all our universities more accountable.
Friday 23 June saw the end of the lengthy student occupation of management offices at SOAS and the resolution of two weeks of fraught negotiations between university managers and fired catering staff working in the SOAS refectory.
The student occupation had been ongoing since 12 June in support of catering staff after the shock announcement that the university’s refectory catering facility would soon be closed, resulting in sudden redundancies for many of the staff working there employed by the catering subcontractor Elior. The staff themselves, represented by UNISON, had been in official negotiations with SOAS since 13 June.
On the 23 June, catering staff came away from their protracted negotiations with SOAS management victorious and with their most pressing demands met: the refectory closure will no longer go ahead, catering staff who work there will keep their jobs, Elior has formally apologised to catering staff, and — the cherry on top after years of fruitless petitions and consultations — Elior catering staff pay will be brought up to parity with other outsourced workers at SOAS. However, we need to carry on talking about SOAS management and their role in this debacle.
While SOAS management attempted throughout June to portray this dispute as a simple case of confusion and an unfortunate breakdown of labour relations, trying to shift blame onto Elior, how they acted over the course of the occupation and negotiations makes it clear that the campaign for justice for workers at SOAS can’t end here.
SOAS management have a long history of exploitative employment practices, of racism, and of harassment and intimidation of workers. In 2009 SOAS aided and abetted the UK Border Agency in the deportation of nine migrant workers employed at SOAS. In 2015 students had to picket the university in order to force management to reinstate SOAS UNISON representative Sandy Nicoll after he was sacked on trumped up charges in what was thought to be an attempt to intimidate union organising. The ‘SOAS Justice for Workers campaign’ (SOAS J4W), who organised the student occupation in support of catering staff, have been battling SOAS management for over a decade to curb their worst management practices and to win concessions for workers inch by inch.
But over the course of this dispute, SOAS management showed a new level of disrespect to workers at SOAS and to the university community at large. First they tried to evade responsibility, displacing blame for the closure onto Elior and claiming no knowledge of the plans in what SOAS J4W described as a series of ‘outright lies’. Then, they lied about the process of negotiations, claiming falsely that UNISON – the union representing Elior catering staff – and the SOAS Student Union had been involved in consultations over the closure. They then harassed students involved in the occupation, denying them access to food and water and attempting to intimidate them with threats of legal action against individual students and even against the Student Union itself, according to a joint statement issued by SOAS Student Union and the SOAS Branch of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), which called SOAS management’s treatment of students in the occupation “unacceptable intimidation”.
For two weeks while SOAS managers played this game, Elior catering staff were left in a position of insecurity, unsure if they would come back to a job. SOAS J4W wrote in their statement on 20 June: SOAS management’s “lack of accountability and dishonesty are an insult to students’ and workers’ efforts to concretely tackle this issue.”
This goes far beyond incompetent labour relations and a couple of silly mistakes; this is a problem of management culture. This dispute has not only revealed SOAS management’s transparent lack of respect for workers and students at SOAS, but also makes clear the structural nature of the problems faced by workers at the university — particularly the lack of formal mechanisms by which to hold management to account.
SOAS management were able to make contradictory claims about the content of their meetings with workers, with Elior, and with UNISON, without providing any minutes or other proof of what was said. Further, they offer no alternatives apart from protest and direct action for workers and students to have a say in or voice opposition to their plans; indeed months of requests made by SOAS J4W for consultation on the future of the refectory, before its closure was announced, were ignored by management.
This widespread lack of accountability is only exacerbated by outsourcing, which allowed SOAS managers to shift blame onto their subcontractor Elior, in contravention of normal management practice, or indeed common sense, which would place final responsibility for decisions with those at the top – the SOAS senior managers themselves.
Outsourcing, prevalent across UK universities since the 1990s, has typically led to lower pay for workers and has tended to make workers’ jobs less secure, because shoddy employment practices can be more easily kept at a distance from universities — out of sight and out of mind for students and academics – and because subcontractors are changed over frequently, meaning labour victories are only ever short lived.
Workers across Britain’s modern, increasingly corporatised universities are becoming more and more vocal about the effects of outsourcing on their working conditions, and SOAS J4W are right to make bringing workers in house central to their long term campaign objectives. This shared objective to end outsourcing mobilised striking University of London security staff at Senate House to hold a joint rally in solidarity with SOAS J4W outside the occupation on Thursday 22 June.
Sadly, it seems ongoing consultations between SOAS, another SOAS subcontractor Bouyges, and UNISON – consultations which SOAS managers promised would begin the process of ending outsourcing and bringing SOAS workers back in house – appear to be collapsing. UNISON elected representatives walked away from the table this week on 17 July, stating that “these negotiations which started back in late 2016 have not been conducted in good faith and are simply a delaying tactic.”
As well as a threat to workers, outsourcing is exemplary of the misguided and anti-democratic corporate style of management practised by those in charge at SOAS. How can workers and the SOAS community trust management in the long term while they remain committed to policies that require and rely upon precarity for their workforce and are prepared to chop and change subcontractors at a moment’s notice?
SOAS markets itself as a university committed to radical politics. They run modules on decolonisation and an MA course on the history of labour struggles; this year’s prospectus had an anarchist symbol on the back cover. The university attracts students because it is a university with an active, organised, welcoming, and fun student community – a community largely founded upon the networks of solidarity that exist between students, academics, and workers there. But despite all this, SOAS management have been able to get away with murder in June with no repercussions and with little serious public fallout.
SOAS needs an end to outsourcing and job insecurity as SOAS J4W demand. It also desperately needs management accountability and democratisation of its management structures so that university workers are never treated like this again. This is something we need to see across UK universities, where workers are being persecuted in similar ways, largely without the capacity for the sort of resistance put up by students and workers at SOAS.
The SOAS occupation sent a powerful public message, drawing public attention to the failings of SOAS’s management, as well as affirming the community’s ownership of the university. The victory for catering staff in June was the result of the persistent pressure put on management by catering staff, by the occupation, and by workers across SOAS — such as SOAS cleaning staff, who walked out of consultations with the university’s management on their own working conditions in a show of solidarity with Elior catering staff. SOAS J4W should be proud of the campaign they ran, as should UNISON, the UCU, the SOAS SU, and the SOAS community at large for their strong support of catering staff. They should be confident that direct action works and is how students and workers can take back their universities.