What Do University Cleaners and Lecturers Have in Common? A Short History

by Laura Schwartz

1 June 2017

Gordon Roland Peden/UVW

Arriving at the London School of Economics at 6am this morning, I encountered a wholly different place from the one I normally visit, at a much later hour, to use the library or attend an academic seminar. Lecturers and students were nowhere to be seen, yet the working day had already begun for LSE’s domestic staff.

Today, instead of getting up early to clean the classrooms and offices of this prestigious institution, many LSE cleaners had come to join the picket line on their sixth day of ongoing strike action. Their union, United Voices of the World, is demanding that cleaners receive the same right to sick pay, holiday pay, pensions and parental leave as other LSE employees. “We want equality,” says Mildred Simpson, who has worked at the LSE for 16 years, “nothing more, nothing less”. Yet LSE continues to refuse to meet these demands, treating its cleaners as different to and separate from the rest of the university.

Universities always have, and always will, need their domestic workers. Britain’s oldest higher education institutions, Oxford and Cambridge, have for centuries depended upon ‘scouts’ and ‘bedders’ to ensure the smooth running of their day-to-day existence. Although the archetypal figure of the scholar, the philosopher or the scientific genius is someone who cares little for mundane domestic details, it is only possible to devote yourself to the life of the mind if you have someone else to cook your dinner and make your bed.

LSE’s refusal to recognise its cleaners as full members of the university is indicative of a much longer history of domestic workers’ shadowy presence in higher education – always necessary yet rarely acknowledged. A few years ago, when I was commissioned to write the history of an Oxford women’s college, it seemed obvious to me that I should include a chapter on the domestic servants who had lived and worked alongside its students and academics. Yet this intention was initially met with some derision. What was the point? What did cleaners have to do with 19th century pioneers of women’s education? Would I find any material in the archives? Did college servants even have a history?

It turns out they did. For not only did college servants have their own stories to tell, their history also provided an important insight into the lives of the feminist-minded women who they served. One of the central arguments made by early campaigners for women’s higher education was that young middle-class women must be allowed to attend university to liberate their intellectual energies from the domestic duties expected of them at home. For women to be included in universities which were at that time monopolised by men, they needed other women to cook and clean for them. The entry of women into higher education, therefore, did not challenge but rather consolidated the division between those who came to university to teach and learn, and those who tended to the institution’s domestic needs.

Yet it is also possible to trace the history of struggles such as the LSE cleaners’ strike back to the early 20th century. In 1919, as part of a broader upsurge in working-class militancy following the first world war, efforts were made to form a ‘Trade Union of College Servants’, although short-lived. Organising among university cleaners in the early 1970s proved more successful, with a number of ‘scouts’ at the University of Oxford speaking out against low pay and long hours and joining the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE). One of them, Frank Keen, was fired by St. Anne’s College – allegedly for his union activities. A planned one-day protest strike ended up lasting 21 days, during which about a third of the domestic workforce besieged the college and blocked all deliveries, forcing management to turn off the central heating because of a shortage of oil. To the surprise of many, the strike was a success: the college agreed to arbitration and Frank Keen was reinstated. NUPE described it as a ‘landmark’, the first instance of industrial action by domestic workers in 100 years of the university’s history. If only for a few weeks, the whole of Oxford was forced to acknowledge what a crucial role domestic workers played, and how much power they had over the colleges should they choose to use it.

In the last decade or so campaigns by university cleaners for a living wage and better rights at work have become more common, increasingly led by migrant workers in radical grassroots unions. The visibility and effectiveness of these struggles has often been aided by support from students. University lecturers, like myself, also need to start taking cleaners’ struggles seriously. The marketisation of higher education means that the future conditions of academic workers might not be so different from those of the cleaners. Certainly lecturers are still much better paid than university cleaners, but academia is fast becoming proletarianised. In Britain, about 50% of academic staff are on casual contracts, with hourly-paid tutors often earning less than the minimum wage once marking and preparation time has been factored in. The myth that all you have to do is sit it out for a few years before you secure your golden ticket to life as a comfortable tenured academic is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Even those of us on permanent contracts have seen our workloads escalate and our autonomy decrease, while the University of Manchester has recently decided to make 140 of its academics redundant, citing the pressures of Brexit and the new Higher Education Act.

Management at LSE are not refusing to recognise the rights of their cleaners out of a desire to protect the privileges of their professional staff, but because they know a victory by domestic workers will be an important precedent for us all. Their refusal to level up, to treat cleaners on an equal basis with other university staff, in fact speaks to a more general impetus to level down. LSE cleaners will be on strike again tomorrow and university lecturers need to do all we can to support them – not out of some vague principle of solidarity but because our situation may not be as different from theirs as we would like to think.

To find out more about the LSE cleaners’ strike and how you can support it visit https://www.uvwunion.org.uk/justiceforlsecleaners.

Photo with kind permission of Gordon Roland Peden

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