Unison officials sabotage democracy

A worker involved with the “3 Cosas” campaign spoke to Solidarity about their fight for equal rights and union democracy.


“3 Cosas” (“Three Things”) is a campaign organised by outsourced workers at the University of London, mainly cleaners in halls of residence and the university’s flagship Senate House building, but also catering staff, post-room workers, and security workers.

The three things we’re demanding are equal sick pay, pensions, and holiday rights with our colleagues who are employed directly by the university.

We’re employed by Balfour Beatty (except catering staff, who are employed by Aramark) and come from a diverse range of backgrounds. We face all kinds of problems at work. We’re not treated fairly, and there’s a constant pressure from management to get the job done more quickly. We have to log in and log out, so we’re monitored all the time and every minute is counted by management. If you work overtime, it’s often not added to your pay packet until the following month, which leads to a lot of problems for people. Aramark workers are on zero-hours contracts, which is a big problem. Aramark even forced some workers who had full-time contracts to switch to zero-hours or risk losing their jobs.

The “3 Cosas” campaign began around seven months ago. We won the London Living Wage in July 2012 after a very long campaign, so we decided to organise the “3 Cosas” campaign as the next step in the fight for equal rights.

We were organised in Unison, and from the start we wanted our union branch to be the vehicle for organising the campaign.

We went to branch meetings and argued for the branch to launch a campaign, but our voices were ignored.

Officials in the branch wanted us to focus our demands on Balfour Beatty only, rather than the university management itself.

But we’ve always been clear that the University of London has the power to make the real decisions about how its contractors treat their staff. When we couldn’t get support from our union branch, we launched the campaign on a self-organised basis. We’ve consistently appealed to the branch for support but we’ve been ignored and undermined. Some people in the branch leadership see us as a threat to their control.

Our campaign is entirely led by the workers. We meet every week to discuss issues at work and make plans for the campaign.

In March, we stood a slate in the elections for the branch committee alongside our supporters amongst directly-employed university workers and University of London Union officers. Our platform was to transform the Unison branch to make it more diverse, more reflective of the membership, and more responsive to the struggles we face. The outsourced workers make up a near majority of the branch membership, and we wanted that to be reflected in the way the branch was run.

Without consulting the wider branch membership, the branch committee handed over the running of the elections to the London regional office of Unison.

They totally messed it up; many workers didn’t receive their ballot papers, and some received them in the wrong language. We were constantly pressuring London region to get it sorted, but they ignored us. They then declared the election result invalid because of errors with the distribution of ballot papers. They also cited a newspaper article, written by a student, as having undermined the election process, which is ridiculous as we can’t control what external third parties write about us. Unison officials sabotaged the election to stop a democratic transformation of the branch by grassroots members.

When we organised a demonstration outside Unison headquarters to demand that the election results were announced, Unison called the police.

Following this, we’ve had a series of meetings and assemblies to decide the way forward and a majority of outsourced workers have voted to withdraw our membership from Unison en masse and transfer to the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB). We see Unison as a dead end. We don’t want to be trapped in an undemocratic union that won’t back its members.

We’re not stopping our campaign. People who want to support us, including people who are still in Unison or in other unions, should come to our protests, support our actions, and write to the Vice Chancellor of the University of London.

We think our campaign is a model for how outsourced workers can fight for equal rights.