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How Britain's Biggest Union Undermined the Struggles of Migrant Workers

Some of Britain's most marginalised workers have found that they need to fight for their rights without the help of mainstream trade unions.

by Simon Childs
13 June 2019, 8:15am

Protesters at Goldsmiths demanding security workers are brought in-house. Photo: Chris Bethell

On the 1st of May, workers and trade unionists around the world took to the streets to mark International Workers Day and celebrate the labour movement's proud history.

At Goldsmiths University in south London, cleaning workers were eating some cake to celebrate their first day of being employed directly by the university. They had previously been outsourced, meaning they got fewer rights than other university workers – but after a campaign the university agreed to bring them in-house.

For a long time outsourcing has been British universities' dirty secret. What does an institution that prides itself on its radical image and boundary-pushing research do when it wants to pay people less and give them fewer rights at work? Simply find another company to employ the cleaners! Hey presto: technically they don't employ anyone on less than living wage and without holiday pay, because they don't really employ any cleaners at all.

As well as at Goldsmiths, workers at LSE, KCL and SOAS have successfully campaigned to be brought in-house. By fighting back – and winning – the cleaners are part of one of the most hopeful and exciting stories to happen in Britain in the last half-decade or so: that of an energetic new wave of workplace struggle carried out by migrant workers.

But there's a less fortunate flip-side to this story. While migrant workers have shown the way to fight for your rights, at times they have had to do so in the face of either indifference or obstruction from Britain's biggest trade union.

In August of 2018, campaigning group Justice for Cleaners – made up of workers and students – called a series of demonstrations at Goldsmiths to try to pressure the university to take cleaning staff in-house. These culminated in a picket of the press unveiling of a new art gallery, the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, embarrassing the university by forcing the attending journalists to enter via the back entrance.

As the protests were announced, the Goldsmiths branch of Unison – the biggest trade union in the country – sent its members an email "to make it clear that Unison did not organise or agree to support any of these events", and to stress that "although the protesters are calling for strike action, for any of you to strike at the moment would not be legal".

Justice for Cleaners had not called for illegal strike action – it was just a demonstration. But the email was uncannily similar to a letter sent by the cleaners' employer, the outsourcing company ISS. That too warned of "the possibility of invalid strike action taking place". Both emails were similarly alarmist in tone, warning of a Red Menace of threats and possible intimidation to workers who dared to break a wildcat strike that didn't really exist.

Despite Unison's unhelpful intervention, the protests worked. In September, the cleaners won. Goldsmiths announced that it would bring its cleaners in-house. Justice for Cleaners celebrated the news by announcing, "This victory has come from the tireless struggle and organisational genius of the cleaners." Unison's website, on the other hand, claimed that the campaign had been "led by Unison".

The union said its regional organiser, Vicky Lucioni, "praised the union's 'meaningful partnership' with Goldsmiths' senior management". The university said it would work with Unison to bring the cleaners in-house. In October, Justice for Cleaners sent a letter to management, signed by 47 cleaners. It said: "Since the announcement of in-housing, we have not heard anything from Goldsmiths about the process. The working conditions have worsened and the workload has increased since the announcement. We are very unhappy."

By November, Justice for Cleaners said on its blog that the restructure was making the cleaners’ lives a misery: "Some cleaners report having to take painkillers constantly to deal with back or knee pain due to the extra work they are being forced to do."

The process of in-housing has been a frustrating and difficult one for the cleaners, something that wasn't reflected in Unison's communications. But for proof of how the union is regarded at Goldsmiths, you only have to look as far as the university’s security guards, who are employed by outsourcing firm CIS. They too are campaigning to be brought in-house, but have organised with another union – the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB).

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Protesters at Goldsmiths demanding security workers are brought in-house. Photo: Chris Bethell

On Valentine's Day, IWGB-organised security guards held a protest demanding to be brought in-house. Their concerns were familiar: they get worse holiday, sick pay and pension entitlements, longer hours and worse grievance procedures, and many are on zero hours contracts. "My colleague was off [sick] for a month and earned zero," one of the security guards on the protest told me.

It was a vibrant demonstration. The protesters decided to enter the university buildings, snaking around like a protest conga, chanting "Goldsmiths shame on you!" and dancing to "Despacito", played through a sound-system on wheels. Everyone seemed to be having a nice time being totally righteous. Everyone except the Goldsmiths branch of Unison, that is.

One again, Unison Goldsmiths had sent a panicked email to its members saying, "This protest has not been organised either by or in consultation with Unison." The email also poured cold water on the protest: "the demand that the security staff be in-sourced immediately is wholly unreasonable", the email read.

When there’s a dispute between employers and employees, trade unions are supposed to be on the side of workers. That’s sort of the whole point. But here was a union going out of its way to make sure everyone knows that a protest for workers’ rights had nothing to do with them, while taking a swipe at the workers' demands for good measure.

Goldsmiths is not the only Unison branch that has been criticised for being on the wrong side of a union dispute.

In 2017, at LSE, cleaners employed by outsourcing company Noonan scored a lightning quick victory after a ten-month campaign to be brought in-house. The campaign included seven strike days, several demonstrations and two occupations. "We could not help but feel we had witnessed something special," a student who helped the campaign, organised by the United Voices of the World (UVW) union, remembers in Red Pepper, a left-wing magazine. "The cleaners had power, something we are unused to on the left, and it felt amazing."

Like the IWGB, UVW emerged because the cleaners did not feel represented by the mainstream trade union. An LSE cleaner named Daniel tells me: "If I talk of Unison I don’t have anything to talk about. From 2009 to 2016 I never heard of Unison. They never called a meeting, they never encouraged us."

In fact, LSE's Unison branch admitted as much themselves, once upon a time. A motion unanimously passed by the branch in November of 2016 admitted: "We have previously tried to engage with this group of staff bit [sic] with great difficulty due to a lack of resourcing and the fact that staff hours vary." The motion said, "We are grateful [to the UVW’s campaign] for the bringing notice to these issues," and resolved "to initiate a campaign parallel to UVW noting our solidarity with them".

It had all started so well, but it didn’t take long for things to go south. As the campaign progressed Unison sent letters deterring strike action and took part in negotiations on behalf of workers they did not represent. "What Unison do, they always talk to themselves without talking to us. I call this ridiculous," says Daniel.

According to Petros Elia, a UVW organiser: "[The university's] recognition deal with Unison and their fake, undemocratic negotiations were constantly used as a means by which they tried to deter support for the strike by painting the strikers as behaving radically and unnecessarily given that 'negotiations' were taking place."

One worker characterised Unison as the management’s "adopted son". A picture from one demonstration shows a cleaner holding a placard that reads, "LSE, Noonan and Unison sell us the cleaners out!!" According to Elia, after the campaign started, "Unison regional swooped in and made identical demands [to the campaign] in order to have it on record that they have done so, without having spoken to the cleaners and seeking their input or consent and without a strategy to win."

You don’t have to take his word for it. A WhatsApp group chat from 2016 shows how Unison acted when the campaign started. The conversation between UVW and Unison activists starts on friendly terms – they discuss posters for the campaign and discuss the details of a rally. However, LSE Unison activists soon start expressing alarm at the actions of the union’s regional officers.

"Essentially regional paid officers are acting independent from the branch without any consultation… What a mess! Understand completely the negative feelings towards Unison expressed by cleaners (feeling some of them too ourselves)… Unfortunately Unison region seem committed to undermining the UVW campaign," says Mike Etheridge, a Unison activist who is now branch secretary. He later adds that the regional officers' actions are "completely outrageous and undemocratic".

Another Unison member in the WhatsApp chat, Nicole Garnier, who is now Branch Chair, adds: "I'm appalled at the communication and the actions of Unison region. Their destructive behaviour is hindering and undermining the campaign that you guys have all worked so hard on. We (branch) are desperately trying to unite and move forward in solidarity but region are making it fucking so hard. I'm completely ashamed of Unison right now."

This would make sense, given what a source within Unison had told me. "London region is really controlling and tries to keep everyone in line," the source, who asked not to be named, said. "If you go to the north it's completely different."

The source told me that Unison doesn't represent many members in higher education, making the union jealously guard its relationships with employers. They "just try to keep that recognition without doing too much work, and just pretend that we're here, but we’re not".

Over email, Mike Etheridge told me that the WhatsApp exchange was only "5 percent of the story". "We have remained passionate about fighting for equality for LSE, and have continued to so tirelessly for the past few years," he said. "The branch has gone from strength to strength and now has a fantastic relationship with Regional full-time officials. We continue to have a high membership density amongst the cleaners, most recently securing a 5.5 percent pay rise, and despite these incessant attacks and lies we will continue to organise and support our members."

Accounting for his change of heart from those early WhatsApp messages, he said: "As we learned more, got to know our Unison branch comrades and regional officers, understood (and saw evidence of) the work the branch had been doing for years, we began to challenge UVW’s story."

As far as Elia is concerned, following the intervention of London region, Unison became a "divisive force". Elia says that Unison is continuing to prevent the cleaners having a seat at the negotiating table at LSE, pointing to a collective grievance signed by 109 cleaners in January, which outlines numerous perceived failings – including failure to pay the London Living Wage – as evidence of Unison's failure to represent the cleaners during the transfer process.

"[LSE] are still treating us as second class citizens," says Daniel.

Not only has Unison undermined strike action, it has also made it difficult for other unions to represent workers. In January, the IWGB made a formal request for recognition as the official trade union of the security workers at UCL, to the unfortunately-named outsourcing company Axis. Axis sat on the request for over six weeks, then announced that they had just voluntarily recognised Unison. Employers only need to have an official agreement with one union, so by recognising Unison Axis quite legally booted the IWGB out of the negotiating room. This was despite the IWGB representing many more security guards. In an email to Axis, an IWGB rep called this a "transparent attempt to substitute a management-approved union for the real thing".

There are implications for the wider trade union movement, too. In cases where Unison branches find themselves at odds with striking workers, they can often rely on other TUC-affiliated unions to back them up, meaning that workers end up striking without the support of members of other unions who work in the same building as them.

This is what has happened at the University of London’s Senate House, where the IWGB has been holding a boycott as a protest against outsourcing. In May, the congress of the UCU – the academic workers' union – voted to back the boycott. This follows from a number of branches of UCU expressing support for the boycott. However, the Senate House branch was barred from expressing support.

In 2017, activists at the Senate House branch agreed to send an email to University of London Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Adrian Smith. Taking care only to mention the strike rather than which union was organising it, the suggested email expressed "solidarity with those striking to be brought back in-house" and acknowledged "that they have shown bravery and courage in taking on both their direct employer and the University of London in this matter". It noted that outsourcing amounts to discrimination, with most of the workers being BME and female, and urged Smith to call upon the university to bring outsourced staff back in-house. "In the meantime we will be calling on our members to support the actions of our fellow colleagues who have now been forced to take strike action," it said.

They suggested to Unison reps that the two branches publish it jointly. At this point UCU regional officer Barry Jones got wind of the statement, and wrote: "I want to be clear that this message would not be appropriate (as well as being inaccurate), and would cause serious problems locally and regionally with our Unison colleagues," he wrote in an email. "It is essential that any messages of support we put out are explicitly messages of support for Unison’s efforts to negotiate a solution for outsourced workers, and are not capable of being read as supportive of the IWGB."

As UCU activists asked for clarification on the union's position on the strike, Andrew Young, another regional official, then asked to see the committee’s meeting agendas in advance "so we can discuss if my presence would be helpful". UCU and Unison ended up releasing a watered down statement of their position against outsourcing without mentioning the action workers were taking to end it.

In the last few months, senior UCU branch officials refused to put a statement out asking University of London management to negotiate with the IWGB, despite requests by several branch members to do so.

Responding to this allegation, a UCU spokesperson said: "UCU is a proudly member-led union where decisions are taken by members and we are pleased to have been involved with the progress being made at Senate House. UCU works closely with a range of people to further workers' rights and conditions and does not think attacking other unions or their members helps that cause."

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Goldsmiths protesters outside Deptford town hall demanding security workers are brought in-house. Photo: Chris Bethell

Responding to VICE's allegations, a Unison spokesperson said: "Unions can only win for workers if they can have tough yet sensible discussions with employers. That means being involved in all important decisions affecting staff and the workplace. This is why Unison seeks to be recognised by every employer where it has members. We make no excuses for that. But as staff at VICE will know, it’s up to employers which unions they choose to negotiate with. And some decide not to work with unions at all." VICE employees are currently in negotiations with management over union recognition for a second time, after a recognition request was rejected in 2016.

The spokesperson continued: "Unison's sole aim in the higher education sector is to change work and living standards for the better for everyone, regardless of where they’re from, or who they work for. This can only be done by working with both university and contractor employers, criticising them when the need arises but always having the best interests of workers at heart. It can’t be done by carping from the sidelines or by making spurious allegations. Any university worker who feels they’re not being listened to by their employer should join the thousands of their colleagues already in Unison to fight for a better future."

Migrant workers in London who have had their struggles undermined by the actions of Unison may find these words a bit hollow.

Almost everyone I spoke to for this article mentioned Unison branches that do stick up for workers, or spoke warmly about individual organisers who are helpful and committed activists. The SOAS branch of Unison has won numerous victories for its members; meanwhile, at Birmingham University, Unison is currently balloting members for strike action over pay and working conditions. But there are Unison branches that have been complacent when faced with workers who are assumed to be difficult to unionise. Encouraged by the regional hierarchy, they are then protective of their patch when other unions and campaign groups step into the vacuum.

@SimonChilds13