05.17.2017
  • UK

“We Are Not the Dirt We Clean”

Cleaners at one of the UK's most prestigious universities are waging an indefinite, one-day-a-week strike.

A banner at the LSE cleaners' strike on March 15, 2017. United Voices of the World / Twitter

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At 6 AM today in Central London cleaners with the United Voices of the World (UVW) union began day two of their indefinite, one-day-a-week strike at the London School of Economics (LSE). At the same time, security officers (SOs) with the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) began day four of theirs at the University of London (UoL), only five minutes from the LSE.

With their largely worker of color, migrant memberships, all working in low-pay sectors, these militant unions have begun coordinating their offensive strikes. And, with marches between pickets shutting down major roads today, they’re together showing the wider labor movement how we might better organize, strike, and protest. What are they fighting for?

There are superficial differences between the struggles. The cleaners are fighting for paid paternity/maternity leave, holiday pay, and sick pay on parity with other LSE workers. They’re employed by subcontractor Noonan Services Group, whose latest accounts show a pre-tax profit of €11 million. (The firm had “a truly outstanding year.”)

The SOs, employed by subcontractor Cordant, are demanding an end to zero-hours contracts, proper payslips — “We don’t know what we’ve been paid for what hours at what rates,” as one SO explained — and, most importantly, for the pay rise they were promised in 2012 (they’re now owed a 25 percent rise).

Less superficially, UVW cleaners and IWGB security officers are striking on campuses that are increasingly corporatized. The universities that subcontract cleaning and security services are acting less as schools and more as businesses selling lectures and, at this time of year, exams.

Especially at a time when racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric is working to distract focus from privatization, cuts, and an exploitative economic system, the cleaners’ and SOs’ struggle deserves full support.

Yet so far, it hasn’t been getting it from other campus unions.

Solidarity?

Although UVW now represents the majority of cleaners on LSE’s campus, many were members of UNISON, the union representing the most unionized on-campus service sector workers nationally.

UVW cleaners say that UNISON never did much to help them collectively or, even, individually. One said during their two-day strike in mid-March that “Unison has been at LSE for many, many years, and they never fought for cleaners”; another striking worker called UNISON management’s “adopted son.” So, after that neglect, they joined together and developed UVW.

Part of management’s argument against UVW — the reason they’re able to represent the cleaners’ strike instigated by “outside protestors,” as an email to students put it — is that UVW isn’t “recognized” by Noonan or LSE, as UNISON or the University and College Union (UCU, the lecturers’ union) are.

Workers have a legal right to collective bargaining through a union against their employer; but employers are not obliged to recognize any particular union, even if they’re by the far the most popular among workers (see here for a recent legal decision in favor of a clearly management-run “union” for example).

Hence, even though cleaners have largely disdained the UNISON LSE branch — which now barely has any active members, very much unlike UVW — they’re still the union Noonan and LSE management have been bargaining with since December.

At the UoL Senate House building, the IWGB SOs have been making a lot of noise over four days of strike action (March 25 and 26, plus two days this week).

Lecturers from nearby UCU branches have given individual support but, so far, there’s been no organizational solidarity from the union with either the SOs or cleaners; UCU branches across the Central London campuses have remained silent over two now relatively major industrial disputes, right outside members’ office windows.

One UCU member said, on condition of anonymity, that “the [LSE] branch hasn’t taken a public position due to its tripartite agreement with Unite and UNISON,” adding that “some individuals say they’re frustrated that this position hasn’t been challenged.”

Students, Police, and Security

The LSE is one of the most prestigious universities in the world, especially for business management, finance, and law. Even appreciating a long-ago radical fluorescence, a number of left-wing teachers, and a recent, admirable, small-scale occupation, it’s rarely mistaken as a particularly progressive university.

Hence, student support for the cleaners has been mixed, but is becoming more polarized, with more both vocally for and against the cleaners. Last Thursday, the first day of the cleaners’ indefinite strike, several cleaners watched a LSE student purposefully walk over their “We Are Not the Dirt We Clean” poster, leaving a dirty footprint. At the opposite end, a strong student-led support group for UVW cleaners has been consistently present, at least half-a-dozen of whom are going through exams themselves.

One SOAS student and supporter of the SOs’ strike recounted that “there was noise from the picket twice during my exam yesterday. The exam was on ‘African and Asian Communities in the UK,’ [but] the most disruptive thing was students complaining after the protest had passed. The invigilator gave us twenty minutes more.”

Students at the LSE are increasingly blaming the cleaners for the disruption; others have realized that its management’s fault that exams are being disrupted by the IWGB and the UVW pickets.

Another student supporter asserted that Students’ Unions (SUs) have to be more active in bringing workers and students together on campus: “Through SUs, we have to be in contact with workers, and be aware of strikes, and support them from early on, by putting pressure on university managements.”

It’s not just isolated students that have been against the strike. Last Thursday afternoon, there were perhaps eight police and security officers for every one striking cleaner (and as many riot vans as UVW officers), with their anti-protest work tightly coordinated. As one union officer remarked today, “The LSE’s response has not been to conciliate, but to securitize, not least by bringing in outside security on time and a half pay.”

But even if the police will nearly always work against strikes and for bosses, security officers — without anything like the pay, pensions, or job security of the police — are less dependably anti-labor. Like police, security officers are paid to be on the other side of the picket. But unlike the police, their disloyalty costs hardly more than a cleaners’ wage.

As for those SOs working against the strike — as scabs and also muscle — one striking IWGB member said, ‘‘They’re under control; they are not happy with what they’re doing, they’re being oppressed as well. If they had their way, they would join us.”

Another SO — his first time on strike, like all the SOs — said that his and his colleagues’ view of strikes has already changed: “Now that I’ve done it, now that I’ve seen why [people] do it, why they go on strike, I’m definitely going to support them.”

What's Next?

Cleaning is a physically very demanding job, and handling industrial chemicals and human waste is dangerous — especially when, as Noonan cleaners are, workers are forced to work too quickly. UVW cleaners have demanded equal treatment to every other worker on campus. The quicker students and other trade unionists can support UVW cleaners’ struggle, the quicker the cleaners will win minimally acceptable terms of work.

SOs have got their own grievance, against an employer that’s profited and profited again from not paying anything like what they promised back in 2012. Now, IWGB SOs and UVW cleaners are working with each other, “fighting for the same thing,” as one SO said.

Other groups need to get involved. As UVW general secretary Petros Elias inveighed today:

There’s a degree of sadism in how LSE has approached this dispute. They’ve forced cleaners to take strike action during exam periods. It’s the game they’ve played. We hope it backfires, and that students’ rage is directed in the right direction.

(You can financially support UVW cleaners’ struggle here, the IWGB SOs’ here, and get involved in the campaign through Justice for LSE cleaners.)