Last Friday morning, during the 20 minutes they have together before work, cleaners at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), decided to declare a formal dispute with their employer, Noonan Services – a private-equity backed firm with a turnover of €158.6m (2014).
If Noonan doesn’t concede workers’ demands – a London living wage (backdated); sick, maternity and paternity pay; and 41 paid days annual leave – then they are prepared to cease cleaning at the university.
If they strike, it will be the first non-academic work stoppage in LSE’s 126 year history. Days lost to strikes are at historic lows – never before has a low-strike period lasted so long – and so, more than anything, they need organised solidarity.
1. Cleaners are organising through a grassroots union…
The cleaners are organised through the United Voices of the World. This member-led union was certified in January 2014, and has since worked with the cleaners both at work – case work has taken back over £100k of unpaid wages – and outside it, organising regular language classes and solidarity parties.
When rank-and-file members are looking to take collective action, “UVW is there to support them, not deter them, which is so often the case with larger unions,” Petros Elia, the UVW general secretary, told Novara Media.
Fighting unions like the UVW and its sister union, Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) – whose courier branch won big last year – are exactly the types of organisations that can win substantial concessions for migrant workers; and in this, they distinguish themselves on LSE campus.
2. …in opposition to the local Unison branch.
LSE’s CEO Andrew Young recently reassured himself – possibly others, possibly not – that management is “working with Noonan to set up a formal three-way partnership working arrangement with Unison.”
Many of the cleaners represented by UVW are arguing that Unison has done little to support workers either individually or in their collective struggle for minimally acceptable pay and conditions. As at the University of Sussex in 2013, where Unison bureaucrats’ timidity over student protests and outsourcing forced university staff’s creation of a ‘pop-up union’, workers at LSE are going against and beyond established unions.
Part of management’s argument against UVW is that it isn’t ‘recognised’, as Unison is.
It’s true that Unison is recognised by LSE management. One part of this gentleman’s agreement is that the union is able to call meetings with cleaners during their shift on campus. But only handfuls turn up, despite it being paid time off work. By contrast, UVW’s meetings – very early, off campus, and unpaid – often attract 30 people, and sometimes double that.
Even if UVW is considered ‘external’ – i.e. not recognised – by LSE management, it is the only union ‘recognised’ by the most important group: the cleaners themselves.
3. LSE students’ support (and their new potential?)
Student solidarity will be vital, especially if this campaign leads to strike action; personal friendships, the provision of rooms and other facilities, and student fundraising were all crucial during the IWGB’s 3 Cosas campaign at the University of London.
In this struggle too, there is a strong student solidarity group at LSE, the students’ union passed a supportive motion, and rallying articles have been published.
But perhaps it’s time to think again about the relationship between students and campus-based workers’ struggles.
With fewer bursaries and higher rents, students are working more jobs and more hours (and, with more stress, suffering increased mental ill-health). Increasingly there’s potential – far beyond LSE – that students as workers can join campus-based workers’ struggles via trade unions. Companies which rely on an ultra-casualised workforce – such as Deliveroo, with workers organised by the IWGB – may come to regret actively recruiting on campuses.
4. It’s not just about class.
All of the cleaners represented by UVW are BAME, the vast majority have migrated to the UK, and most are women; all unsurprising, with the services sector – and at a deeper level, the commodified labour of social reproduction – relying on such workers.
Capital needs these workers. As Noonan Services founder and then-chief executive Noel Noonan said in an interview: “[Noonan has] 300-400 foreign nationals. They have been the answer to everyone’s problems in service industries.”
But are the services industries the answer to BAME migrant workers’ problems?
Workers without British citizenship can be especially easy to control in the workplace; they tend not to be unionised and can be more easily disciplined by managers – with the threat of the UK Visas and Immigration there, only sometimes implicitly – and in turn worse exploited by capital. Organising through a trade union promises to change cleaners’ individual vulnerability into group power.
Recent militancy at an ExxonMobil petroleum refinery at Fawley, Hampshire, shows that rank-and-file organisers can win both substantial improvements in workers’ material lives and remain salient against anti-migrant racism: ultimately, either unions are actively pro-migrant and anti-racist, or they are anti-working-class.
5. UVW cleaners are in it to win.
Even if workers’ demands are reasonable – even if they’re for union recognition, for pay to sustain themselves and their families in health and sickness, and for safe and bearable conditions – there is nothing ‘reasonable’ about capital; it exists for profit, and can’t but take a mile for every inch given up.
That’s why the people cleaning at LSE each day have organised together, chosen UVW over the Unison branch, are actively seeking students’ comradeship, and are prepared to strike against an employer and university which are and will remain unreasonable until forced to act otherwise.