In 2002 the first national firefighters’ strike in 25 years was called to demand a 40 per cent pay rise, which would have seen their salaries go up to £30,000 a year. Tony Blair compared the Fire Brigades Union’s leader, Andy Gilchrist, to Arthur Scargill; the local government minister Nick Raynsford said strikers were 'criminally irresponsible' for refusing to co-operate with an independent pay review. The dispute was eventually settled with a compromise pay rise of 16 per cent, tied to changes in working practices. In 2004, not long after the RMT union was expelled from the Labour Party for supporting candidates to the left of Labour in Scotland and Wales, the FBU cut its longstanding link with the party. Gilchrist was ousted as general secretary in 2005. Last month the FBU held a recall conference in Blackpool to decide whether or not to reaffiliate to Labour. The overwhelming vote in favour was heralded by Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘milestone in the building of our new politics and our labour movement’.
As soon as Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader in 2010, political commentators argued he had only won because of the 'union vote'. (In the final round of voting, Miliband won 46.6 per cent of MPs’ votes, 45.6 per cent of party members, and 59.8 per cent of affiliated union members.) The line was repeated over and over by Tory frontbenchers. In 2013, David Cameron told Miliband that the unions 'own you, lock, stock and block vote', even though John Smith had abolished the union block vote in 1993.
When the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, addressed the Trades Union Congress on Tuesday, the press bench at the side of Liverpool’s BT Convention Centre was full. Some national papers had several journalists in the hall, dividing their efforts between shorthand notes, tweets and other tasks. But as soon as Carney moved onto questions from the gathered delegates, reporters began to put their notebooks away and leave. It was a neat illustration of the link between the decline of industrial reporting and the surge in attention afforded to the City.
Last Friday, a majority of the cleaners and porters working at the University of London's halls of residence in Bloomsbury – the Garden Halls – began a five-day strike. Later this summer the halls will be closed and demolished. Some of the staff will be moved to jobs elsewhere in the university, but many will be made redundant. They are employed by Cofely GDF Suez, the multinational firm to which the university outsources its cleaning and maintenance services. The last day of work is 30 June. The strike – unlikely to succeed at this point, as some of the workers admit – was held to demand that Cofely guarantee no compulsory redundancies and transfer all workers to other jobs, in the university or elsewhere, on the same pay and conditions.
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.
There are a few hundred outsourced workers at Senate House and other University of London buildings in Bloomsbury, including the intercollegiate student halls. Most of the caterers are employed by Aramark; the cleaners, security guards and maintenance by Balfour Beatty Workplace, the services arm of the construction giant. Most are immigrants; from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and, overwhelmingly in the case of the cleaners, Latin America.