Not a Recognised Union

Harry Stopes

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.


  • 4 December 2013 at 12:18pm
    Niall Anderson says:
    My understanding is that the breach with Unison occurred when 3 Cosas petitioned for direct union funding for their campaign. This would have meant extending union funds to cover workers outside the union. One doesn't have to be a complete bureaucratic stooge to see that this would have been politically very difficult, and that it might have compromised the overall Unison campaign for a Living Wage. Indeed, Unison's stated policy was to support 3 Cosas as part of that wider campaign.

    It is, of course, very doubtful that such a wide campaign would have had the swift effect that direct action did. It's a reminder to Unison that single-issue campaigns, run with focus and energy, can be hugely powerful and can drive recruitment in the longer term. This is a reminder Unison shouldn't have needed. But the appeal by 3 Cosas for direct union funding wasn't something that Unison could really have complied with, so a breach was inevitable. One doesn't have to impute bad faith from day one.

    • 4 December 2013 at 1:30pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Niall Anderson
      I don't see how Unison funding the 3 cosas campaign would have entailed spending money on workers outside of the union. Perhaps you could explain?

    • 4 December 2013 at 2:17pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ Harry Stopes
      Not everyone affiliated with 3 Cosas - and later the IWGB - was a Unison member. Extending funds to non-union employees was, in the context of the wider Unison campaign for the Living Wage, politically unfeasible.

    • 4 December 2013 at 2:54pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Niall Anderson
      How would funding a campaign entail giving funds to individuals who were not union employees? I can see that it would involve, for instance, paying for materials, or printing, or other such costs.

  • 4 December 2013 at 12:53pm
    richardb says:
    A few things which I think need correction:

    "only Unison has been invited to meet with the employers"
    - BBW met with the IWGB at ACAS the Friday before the strike. BBW offered absolutely nothing to the workers, so the strike went ahead.

    "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."
    - Far more importantly, recognition agreements (should) include 'facility time'; a set amount of hours of paid time which the unison reps can use for case work and organising. It also could include an agreement about the use of university class rooms for the all important English lessons - a deal which Unison has, and now lauds over the IWGB.

    In response to Niall: it would hacve been perfectly easy for Unison to fund the campaign; the disagreement boiled down to whether it was a campaign which should have been led by the effected workers themselves (which it now has), or by union officials.

    • 4 December 2013 at 1:40pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ richardb
      I left out the ACAS meeting because BBW explicitly told the IWGB representatives that they were not there to negotiate, but only to 'discuss the relationship.' So as far as negotiations are concerned, it's true that only Unison have been invited to meet with employers.

      I didn't intend that passage to be a comprehensive description of the benefits of recognition. The point is that the university has trumpeted Unison's 'constructive moderation' and 'dialogue', pointing to the demonstrations and strike as proof of IWGB's bad faith. If the IWGB was recognised they wouldn't (necessarily) need to employ those methods.

  • 8 December 2013 at 9:34pm
    Q.H.Flack says:
    Congratulations on reporting this story, which makes it clear just how nasty the self styled University of Londson actually is. When not persecuting the Warburg for arbitrarily calculated rent (for buildings which can only be used for academic purposes) or filling skips with duplicate copies of books gifted to Senate House it is now clear that this enfeebled and powerhungry oligarchy treats its cleaners like shit. As the do their academic staff who don't toe the 'see no evil, hear no evil' line.

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