Solidarity 281 (10 April 2013) carried an interview with a worker involved in the “3 Cosas” campaign at the University of London, who explained their decision to quit Unison and join the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB). Their decision has caused some debate in the wider labour movement. We print two contributions originally posted on the AWL website.
While it is perfectly understandable why our colleagues have left Unison, and the responsibility for this lies entirely with the branch and regional leadership of Unison, this is a massive defeat for both the Senate House Unison branch, and for the cleaners.
The reason that the region went to such lengths in the first place was precisely because they realised that they had lost any influence on the branch.
It was inconceivable that a re-run election could have had any other result than a victory to the cleaners and their supporters within the branch.
Within the IWGB, the cleaners will now have to begin a new struggle for union recognition just to be able to negotiate.
While Balfour Beatty may eventually recognise IWGB for pragmatic reasons, the IWGB will have pretty much negligible influence on the University of London management, will have little chance of recruiting more than a handful of university staff to their union, and will leave the Unison branch in the hands of people who have no interest in standing up for the rights of outsourced cleaning staff.
As a secondary issue, the Unison branch itself will now be significantly weakened.
Both the outsourced cleaning staff and the in-house employees will have far less influence than they used to.
I agree that the responsibility for the situation lies with Senate House branch leadership and unelected officials at the Greater London region office.
And I agree this decision is a major defeat for Senate House branch and will weaken the branch. However, I do not agree that it is a defeat for the cleaners and other outsourced workers. Nor do I agree that the inevitable result of another election would have been an electoral victory for the outsourced workers and their candidates. Unison has made clear its determination to not allow the outsourced workers and their allies to take over the branch through democratic means, and I strongly believe they would have used other methods to prevent this happening in an additional election.
With all due respect to our comrades who are directly employed by the university, the outsourced workers have only ever had the support of a handful of directly-employed staff (likely the same handful that will join the IWGB). Furthermore the workers have never really had the support of their branch leadership. Despite this they won a London Living Wage campaign, their employer offered a voluntary recognition agreement, they won £6,000 in overdue wages through unofficial action, and the “3 Cosas” campaign they run has received support from student unions, politicians, and trade unionists throughout the country as well as substantial media coverage. Imagine what they can achieve with a union that supports them.
In terms of the campaign being delayed, ironically this is one of the many reasons the workers — in a democratic assembly - decided to leave Unison. Three more months invested in fighting Unison's dictatorial bureaucracy is three months’ delay for the campaign. Alternatively, switching over to IWGB (nearly 10% of Senate House branch has already signed membership forms this week) allows the workers to focus on their campaign. Just a few days ago they held a protest which had a huge turnout (estimated at 80 people), decent media coverage, and a strong showing of support from their new union.
I believe Balfour Beatty will recognise IWGB and the workers will win their campaign. The strength of the Senate House branch was due to tireless commitment, dedication, and courage of the outsourced workers. These same workers will bring these same attributes to the IWGB.
And instead of Unison disowning their protests or negotiating their terms and conditions behind their backs, their new union will support them and their initiatives.