For the last week of September, cleaners at University of the Arts London have been on strike. The cleaners are currently outsourced to the French multinational Bouygues, meaning that they are employed on inferior terms and conditions to directly employed staff at the university, with less sick pay, holiday entitlements, and protections. The strike has been called for equality with directly employed staff. It’s high time they got it.
The strike is just one part of a wider campaign to end outsourcing at the prestigious arts university. The campaign, UAL: End Outsourcing, was started three years ago by the two unions representing cleaning staff, GMB Union and UNISON. Over time, the campaign attracted new members to both unions, as well as a dedicated and ever-growing team of student and staff activists.
As well as launching mass petitions, these activists have been responsible for an array of creative work to raise awareness of the conditions of outsourced cleaners, such as textiles, illustration, design, film, and original writing. Momentum had been building in the campaign for some time, but the Covid-19 pandemic brought the issue of outsourcing to an unavoidable head.
The pandemic revealed and further exacerbated the inequality of outsourcing. While university staff worked from home, cleaners were expected to travel and clean empty buildings, often during some of the most dangerous times for infection. Cleaners at UAL are, by majority, from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Considering the established risk people from these backgrounds face from Covid-19, outsourcing is not only a racist employment practice, but, in the context of a pandemic, a potentially life-threatening one.
UAL cleaners were not rewarded for their efforts. Instead, they suffered further indignities, such as the introduction of an invasive Amazon-style fingerprinting system. The attitude of UAL to its cleaning staff could be well-summarised when, as a reward for their hard work, directly employed staff received two additional days of annual leave as a ‘thank you’. UAL cleaners did not.
With the contract up for renewal and a palpable sense of dissatisfaction from the cleaners at their treatment during the pandemic, the time had come to hit back. A combination of collective local actions and heightened campaigning, including the publication of a 37-page report against outsourcing at UAL, laid the foundations for a successful strike ballot.
In the United Kingdom, with some of the most draconian trade union legislation in Europe, the threshold of turnout for a statutory ballot is 50 percent. We smashed this with an 84 percent turnout and 86.5 percent vote for strike action. There was only one problem. With the country still recovering from the pandemic, the buildings were empty. The appetite for action was clearly there, but the staff and students were not. What impact would a cleaners’ strike have with no one around to see it?
We opted for a strike later in the year, during the first week of the new term. If Bouygues had not chosen to intimidate cleaners with disciplinary action and in one extreme case, dismissal, our members might have lost enthusiasm. Instead, they seized the opportunity to make their voices heard.
Despite being the first strike of its kind, the picket lines have been remarkable sites of noise, passion, and solidarity. The cleaners work multiple jobs just to pay the rent, and as such the demonstrations have been at the crack of dawn, when most of London is asleep. At least, until we’ve shown up.
The most clarifying experience for me as an organiser has been seeing confidence and commonality being built in real time, between workers who have come from sites across London and from different age groups and backgrounds, discovering and expressing their collective power together.
When energy has dipped the workers have found new and fun ways to protest, such as playing and dancing to music. One Jamaican cleaner showing her Colombian colleagues a favourite reggae tune was a particular highlight. To paraphrase one of the cleaners, the experience of going on strike has been, perhaps to their surprise, ‘joyous.’
‘So far we’ve enjoyed it,’ said Luzmila Ramirez, one of the striking cleaners from London College of Communication. ‘We know we are not alone. If we are together, we are stronger, and we can fight for our rights. This is the first time in my life doing anything like this, but if we are together, we can do it.’
Many questions remain. To be brutally realistic, the chances of the cleaners being brought in-house this year is unlikely given the imminent awarding of a new contract. UAL have attempted to assuage things by offering 30 days’ holiday and 10 days’ sick leave, welcome concessions that are nonetheless wholly inadequate. As the cleaners point out, with each new company the situation worsens. It is unclear whether this will continue to be the case.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. For too long, cleaners and the conditions they face have been invisible to many at the university. After this week they cannot be ignored any more. This strike is an important first step in a long campaign for justice and equality at a university that desperately wants to show it cares about both. Ending outsourcing would do just that.
‘It’s going to be tough on Monday,’ Luzmila said, reflecting on returning to work after the strike is concluded, ‘but we can manage. We are going to show we deserve to be in-house. That’s going to be the message. We’re worth it.’