Were the University of London outsourced workers right to leave Unison?

Submitted by AWL on 11 July, 2013 - 12:04

This article was written in response to a piece in Socialist Review. The author has also requested that it be published there. We host it in our website in the interests of furthering the debate.


The move of Senate House cleaners, other outsourced staff, and their supporters to leave Unison en masse and form a University of London branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), after the annulment of their elections, has sparked heated debate within trade union circles, especially among Unison activists.

Sandy Nicoll, branch secretary of SOAS Unison, contributed to this debate in his article in Socialist Review [the journal of the Socialist Workers Party. View the article here].

The essence of Sandy’s argument is that, by breaking off from Unison, the workers have severed ties of solidarity with direct employees of the University of London, the main employer which needs to be pressured in order to win the “3 Cosas” campaign (for sick pay, holidays, and pensions on par with direct employees). With regards to pressuring the University of London, Sandy asks: “How does leaving Unison make this easier?” As secretary of the University of London branch of the IWGB I will attempt to answer Sandy’s question here.

Unison: To Flee or not to Flee?

Probably any activist can agree that one shouldn’t just walk away every time one hits a barrier; however, the annulment of the Senate House Unison branch elections was merely the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back. Prior to this, the outsourced workers received virtually no support from their branch leadership for their London Living Wage campaign and absolutely no support for the 3 Cosas Campaign.

The leadership even went as far as blocking a committee vote of support for 3 Cosas, and Unison officials publicly disassociated themselves from the campaign’s protests. Branch leadership made repeated efforts to exclude outsourced workers from meaningful participation in the branch, and conducted secret negotiations about their terms and conditions without prior consultation. Half of the outsourced workers’ candidates in the branch elections were disqualified on technicalities, cleaners were disenfranchised in the elections, branch officials running for re-election engaged in flagrant violation of election rules without any consequences, and then Unison annulled the election. It is this consistent lack of respect for both the outsourced workers as members as well as for the principle of democracy that led the workers to believe that staying in Unison was a dead end.

Sandy alludes to a model of trade unionism that overcomes bureaucracy and establishes militant branches within large trade unions. Sandy’s SOAS branch is of course a perfect example of this — so much so that our electoral slate campaigned on turning the Senate House branch into a replication of the SOAS model. However, in a context of finite
time and resources, our difference in views lies in how long we were willing to put everything else on hold (case work, campaigning, etc.) in order to give full priority to transforming Unison. In response to the advice of the Unison left, which appears to be for the cleaners to bang their heads against the brick wall of bureaucracy indefinitely or until it cracks or crumbles, it is perhaps worth pointing out that there is a fine line between stone-hard determination and Einstein’s definition of insanity (repeating the same action and expecting different results).

The Militant Minority and Winning the Campaign

Far from being a minority, the IWGB is now by far the largest union among outsourced workers at the University of London and will probably soon overtake Unison Senate House branch in overall membership.

Membership is also growing among direct employees, and two out of seven branch officer positions are held by these employees. Furthermore, and contrary to the image that Sandy’s article conjures of our union as being a small, select, and radical group of militants fighting a class struggle based on ideological purity, I would view our branch as being driven by pragmatism.

It is this very pragmatism that led the workers to leave Unison. Ironically, the Unison left’s advice — “because it’s a trade union, one should stay and fight at all costs” — does beg the question of which model is more intensely wedded to ideological purity.

In response to Sandy’s question, leaving Unison is beneficial to the 3 Cosas Campaign in that it has enabled us to collaborate with other workers, unions, campaigns, and organisations in two important ways. Firstly, through the IWGB, members of my branch have linked up with hundreds of cleaners throughout London, many of whom face similar difficulties. Also through the IWGB we have connected with the PCS and RMT, both of which are large national trade unions which have demonstrated great solidarity with our union (including the RMT housing our head office).

Secondly, by disengaging from the never-ending and immensely time-consuming battle with Unison we have been able to refocus our energies on coalition building. For example, together with Sandy’s own branch, other cleaners’ campaigns, Unison branches, and a coalition of nine Latin American NGO’s, we have formed a network committed to fighting for the improvement of labour rights for the Latin American community in the UK (see here). Together with the University of London Union, which represents over 120,000 students, we have declared a Summer of Action to increase pressure on the University of London (see here).

Together with other Unison branches and cleaners’ campaigns we launched an email campaign through LabourStart which has seen over 1,500 emails sent to the Vice-Chancellor (see here).
Of course, we are not partnering with the students and Latin American NGOs for ideological reasons, but rather because we share common objectives: achieving a university free from exploitation in the case of the former and improving the working conditions of the Latin American community in the case of the latter.

And we have joined forces with Sandy’s Unison branch not because it’s Unison, but rather because we don’t need to be in the same union or of the same ideological persuasions in order to unite against common opponents and achieve shared aims.