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UNISON vs the Workers

Last week, Unison declared the University of London branch election null and void. The cancellation of this election is an attack on the 3 Cosas campaign, and the workers whose courage has been an inspiration to activists across London.

Over the past few years, the outsourced cleaners of the University of London have been at the forefront of the struggle over wages and conditions. But over the past month, they’ve had to spend more time fighting their “bosses” in UNISON than their bosses in the workplace.

This election was, for the first time in many years, an actual contest. There were candidates running for almost all positions, and a political campaign to bring the rights and struggle of the outsourced workers to the fore. A slate of outsourced workers and in-house allies from across workplaces in the University of London, including the student halls and ULU, stood for election. They put forward a vision of the branch which would represent all workers, rather than racistly ignoring half the workforce, and which would stand up to University management in negotiations. Faced with high inflation, soaring rents and the violent tactics of UKBA, surely this is what should be expected from a trade union branch?

But the Unison bureaucracy were intent on ensuring that the cleaners would never claim a victory. From the start, there were attempts to disqualify candidates on spurious grounds, and often by specious reference to an otherwise overlooked constitution. They attempted to disqualify some candidates for irregular payment of membership fees, the same tactic used against the RMT in recent years by their employer. Others were attacked for not having permanent addresses. Both of these accusations are related to the cleaners’ status as impoverished, international workers: many have no expendable income, and consequentially also have to move house every year.

Worker militancy 2010-2013

These are the same cleaners who, in 2011, won £6000 in overdue wages from the contractor, Balfour Beatty, through wildcat strike action at Senate House library. Unison were quick to come in and mediate between the workers and the University once the strike was off the ground, though they abandoned this role soon enough. On the back of this militancy and a vibrant campaign, the cleaners also won the London Living Wage – effectively a 50% wage increase.

Unison have gained members, a recognition agreement, and the aura of success through the rebellious action of the cleaners. Thanks to this, membership has boomed. Every endeavor of the outsourced workers’ struggles (English classes, London Living Wage, the 3 Cosas campaign) has been met with either sympathy or outright support form the majority of branch committee members. There are 300 workers in the branch, of which 120 are outsourced workers. Despite the enormous increase in membership which the cleaners’ campaign has brought, the Unison bureaucracy was happy to reject these members at the first instance of losing control.

In 2012, the cleaners decided to campaign for full equality with the in-house workers, demanding the full wage package: pensions, sick pay and holiday in line with workers employed directly by the university. The Unison branch, however, decided not to back the campaign: perhaps it was too militant, perhaps it simply did not reflect the interests of a few members on the committee who blocked the vote. Frustrated by this turn of events, the cleaners’ first response was to continue to organise an autonomous campaign without the support of the union. The 3 Cosas campaign was launched. It has met with huge support from students and workers alike, both outsourced and in-house.

The activists stand for election

It was on the basis of this support, that the cleaners decided to stand for election to the branch. Despite the attempts to disqualify leading members of the campaign, the election went ahead, with the candidates fighting with the bureaucracy to remain in the competition – and recall, these are workers almost all of whom know English only as a second language, usually holding down three jobs, and working all hours of the day, arguing with paid union officials over their right to stand in a branch election. At the same time, the University of London attempted to distance itself from the demands of the 3 Cosas campaign by branding it as violent, while maintaining that all worker negotiation should happen through the Unison branch. 

The elections were meant to be held in the last two weeks of February and the first week of March by a postal ballot, and the results to be announced on March 8th. That day came and went, and there were no results. At the end of March, the cleaners organised a protest outside Unison HQ, to demand the results be released. On the evening before that protest, Unison announced that the results would not be released, and that the election was being made null and void. When the workers tried to enter the Unison offices, the union called the police.

Why did UNISON cancel the vote?

The reasons cited by Unison for not releasing the result are that there was “outside interference” and that a high number of the ballots had to be re-sent. The first of these excuses is in relation to an article printed in the London Student newspaper, which has covered the activities of the branch and raised serious questions about the way the election has been handled. The second excuse is simply a result of the cleaners’ having to move a great deal, due to their extremely low wages and exploitation at the hand of racist landlords. In sum, the branch cancelled the election because there was propaganda it didn’t like, and workers who don’t count in their union because their living conditions are too impoverished.

The necessity to re-send ballots was easy to predict and and entirely preventable. The campaign informed UNISON early on that there would be an issue having a postal ballot (rather than a secret ballot on site), as many of the addresses would not be up to date. Unison went ahead with a postal ballot nonetheless, presumably to better their chances of defeating the cleaners’ campaign. No process of ‘data cleansing’ (i.e. ensuring the lists were correct) occurred, which is Unison’s own ‘Code of Good Branch Practice.’ Before ballots were issued, branch activists attempted to help members update their addresses, but the the London Region Unison officials insisted that only a member herself could make such a request – for which they employed only one Spanish speaker, available only in work hours, by phone.

Unison has announced that there will be a new election soon, administered by the Electoral Reform Society. But the issue was clearly never about the counting of votes, but the attitude of the union from the start. Unison has acted in a manner far more discriminatory and oppositional to the workers than either Balfour Beatty or the University of London. If that attitude continues, why on earth should these workers remain part of the union.

The next 3 Cosas protest is on April 10th – please come and show your solidarity with the workers of the University of London.


About bloomsburyfightback

Bloomsbury Fightback


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