‘We need everyone who can to unite with us’: Fighting Outsourcing at the University of London

by Joe Hayns

24 January 2018


“We need everyone who can to unite with us”. These are the words of Magda Chytra, Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) activist and University of London (UoL) cleaner, on the IWGB’s protest against outsourcing this Thursday.

The campaign at UoL began with security officers striking in March 2017 for a 25% pay rise, and then again the following month. After a re-ballot, strikes continued through the summer.

20 people came to the March picket. The November protest brought 300, with speakers from the Bakers’ McStrike campaign, Bectu’s Picturehouse workers, and Unison Soas branch.

Security officers will be striking with porters and postroom staff this Thursday, with UoL cleaners supporting them. In under a year, the IWGB has gone from organising one workforce around a minor pay dispute with sub-contractor Cordant to protesting outsourcing at UoL as a whole. How did this happen so quickly?

Building power.

As UoL security officers were beginning their campaign back in March, UVW cleaners at the LSE, five minutes down the road, were striking for sick, holiday, and maternity and paternity pay.

On 17 May, the unions escalated by co-ordinating work stoppages with a joint demo. Soas Students’ Union pledged solidarity with both campaigns; UCU’s left tendency did the same with UVW.

On 20 June, UVW announced that cleaners had won what are, the union says, the best terms and conditions in the sector, being brought in-house and ending three decades of outsourcing at the prestigious university.

The win changed calculations across the capital. Cleaners at St Bart’s were organising against Serco, with the firm’s ending of paid breaks prompting wildcat actions. The Unite branch at the hospital attracted 1,100 new members and organised strikes throughout July.

“[UVW] winning such a victory was a huge boost to our morale when we were facing the seemingly impossible”, said Unite rep’ Willie Howard, speaking in a personal capacity on the Bart’s campaign.

After fighting the Justice for Workers campaign’s ‘in-house’ demand since 2014, on 4 August managers announced that “Soas […] is to stop outsourcing its core support services to private contractors from September 2018.”

The IWGB-organised ‘Precarious Labour Strikes Back’ demo on 27 September saw Deliveroo, Uber, and Cordant workers marching from Transport for London’s Palestra building to the UoL security officers’ picket.

The high-turnout November demo that followed was the culmination six month winning streak.

All UoL cleaning, catering and security staff are outsourced. With LSE cleaners and all Soas support staff going in-house, IWGB members saw an opportunity not only in terms of improving pay, but in who they’re employed by. But what are the benefits of being in-house?

The anti-union politics of outsourcing.

Outsourcing is the process by which one organisation contracts a second to provide a service, with the second’s ‘expertise’ saving the first cash, and with TUPE regulations ensuring ‘continuity of employment and terms and conditions’ for workers.

However, TUPE regulations only protect the formal agreements of workers who have already been hired. The sub-contractor can pay new employees less, for worse terms and conditions; with public spending cuts, and the second-by-second profit drive, sub-contractors survive by squeezing tighter.

Productivity gains in cleaning don’t usually come from either technological or organisational improvement (‘expertise’), but rather from capital working people harder.

The ratchet economics of outsourcing wouldn’t work if it didn’t also make it harder for workers to organise.  

First, new managers means new routines, with the incoming firm looking to pay less for more. Workplaces get re-organised, breaks get cut, and informal rules junked.

When Cordant got the UoL contract, they cracked down on staff talking to one another. Magda told me: “Yes, we have a staff room. But the rules set by the company mean we have to leave the office at 09.30 and come back no earlier than 13.20, and during this whole time we’re supposed to be separate from one another.”

Second, workers’ opposition is directed at two organisations rather than one, with the direct employer blaming the contract for the problems, and the contracting organisation blaming the employer.

Ironically, however, by obscuring the employer-employee relationship – which is “like a wall”, as Magda put it – outsourcing becomes an obvious target for unions – including, now, the IWGB.

Ending outsourcing won’t necessarily mean improved pay and conditions – when they win, UoL workers’ contracts will be written by the same managers that contracted Cordant. However, it will make the relationship between worker and employer more transparent.

Moving forward.

Over the last year, across London universities, hard-to-organise sections of the working-class have seen managers blink first. Fewer trade unionists now think these workers are entirely ‘unorganisable’ – though some wonder how far these campaigns will spread, and how much damage they’ll do.

In terms of days lost to strikes, all these disputes have been vanishingly small. However, they’ve shown two things.

The first is that these struggles can extend across workplaces and workforces, provided unions work together. The second is that campaigns that start about something specific – a relatively minor pay dispute – can grow into something more comprehensive.

After the collapse of Carillion, a “state-subsidised money making enterprise”, Corbyn said: “We will rewrite the rules to give the public back control of their services.” But the transformation of state-controlled capital into private wealth (‘outsourcing’), with services and workers’ conditions worsened, is vital to accumulation in the UK – and changing the rules that allow it requires very broad, very deep mobilising.

Momentum had a great election, with thousands now ready to organise again. Activists across the TUC-affiliated unions are supportive, with Unison Soas branch secretary Sandy Nicoll telling me: “We have and will continue to support workers in their fight to be brought in-house.”

For UVW and the IWGB, spring was about growth, and November about consolidation. This year will be about spread, that is, support.

Click here for details of Thursday’s event and to donate to IWGB’s solidarity fund.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.