After a thirty-month campaign for sick pay, holidays and pensions on the same terms as directly employed staff, and a two-day strike last week, outsourced cleaning, security and maintenance staff at the University of London have won major concessions from their employer, Balfour Beatty Workplace. The agreement doesn’t give them the same rights as directly employed workers, and entitlements are dependent on length of service, but the changes are still significant. Instead of statutory sick pay, a cleaner who’s been in the job for six years could now be entitled to six months on full pay. ‘That’s extremely rare in the cleaning industry,’ according to Jason Moyer-Lee, the secretary of the University of London branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain.
The strongest push for improved conditions came from the 3 Cosas campaign, which developed within the university branch of Unison. In April, though, most outsourced workers decided to leave Unison and join the IWGB. The 3 Cosas campaign is now run through the smaller union.
Both the university and BBW have said that the concessions were made following negotiations with Unison, and had nothing to do with the IWGB or 3 Cosas. In one sense this is true; only Unison has been invited to meet with the employers, and the deal is the product of their negotiations. The University of London tweeted that the agreement was ‘a great result for Unison, the voice of moderation and constructive two way dialogue’, and that ‘constructive dialogue’ had triumphed over ‘staff intimidation’. But it can’t be a coincidence that the deal (which is yet to be formally accepted) has only been offered after several noisy demonstrations and a well attended strike, all organised by the workers through the IWGB.
For several months the university has characterised the 3 Cosas campaign as radical and dangerous, insisting that the IWGB is ‘not a recognised trade union’ and therefore refusing to speak to its representatives. But this is a circular argument. The IWGB is registered with the Trade Union Certification Officer, which means, legally speaking, it is just as much a trade union as Unison is. It’s only ‘unrecognised’ by the employer.
After the ‘three things’ themselves, one of the campaign’s most important demands has been for the university and Balfour Beatty to recognise the IWGB. Members say they would rather not give up their lunch hours to protests and industrial action: if their employers recognised the union, then formal negotiating structures could be put in place.
Unison is happy to take the credit for the deal. But senior representatives in the union’s University of London branch were hostile and disruptive to the 3 Cosas campaign when it was first launched, and a branch election – the first in which outsourced workers had stood for leadership positions – was cancelled. A Unison workplace representative at Senate House ripped up 3 Cosas leaflets and abused picketers during the strike last week. In emails he has said that Latin American cleaners (‘the Spanish’) have fewer rights as non-EU citizens, and would never get holidays or pensions: ‘you’re lucky to have jobs, remember that,’ he wrote. Unison wouldn’t comment on the 3 Cosas campaign when I asked them about it, insisting that the workers ‘had faith in their union to deliver and we did’. Just as the university seems to believe that it is entitled to choose a trade union for its workers, Unison seems to think it is entitled to their dues and their quiet obedience.