UCL outsourcing dispute: Are you listening now, provost?

Our man on the ground reports on yesterday’s rowdy IWGB union pickets at University College London (UCL) against outsourcing and for pay parity.

I arrived at UCL at the end of Malet St, shortly after eight – it had been frosty that morning and they was still a chill in the air. I was greeted by the sight of a vibrant and loud picket of the Independent Workers of Great Britian (IWGB), whose 400 security, porters and cleaning staff members are on strike. Many had been there since 4am and it amazing to see such energy and determination and dancing for the biggest strike of outsourced workers in higher education history.

There are on strike for familiar reasons, for the real London Living wage, sick pay, holiday, pensions and to be treated with dignity, a lack of which affects so many workers across London. They are demanding to be brought ‘in-house’ by the university, which currently outsources work to Axis and Sodexo. So they don’t have come in sick and live on poverty wages.

The strike had already affected several UCL buildings, with the university suggesting that staff work from home to avoid disruption and some events, including the Orwell Memorial Lecture, having been cancelled or postponed. And just the announcement of the strike led UCL to agree terms with Unison, UCL’s affiliated union, which will award holiday pay to in-house staff. But IWGB are being refused access to these talks.

The university claims it is “committed” to “parity on other employment benefits, including pay scales, overtime, sick pay, maternity and paternity payments and carers’ pay” by August 2021. But future promises are not action, and the strikers are demanding to be brought in-house today as they have heard these promises before. We heard from strikers that they were told last time they would get a pay increase within 24 months, but it took five years. In the last five years they have seen a rapid replacement of contractors – an astounding 37 times. IWGB University of London branch chair and former UCL cleaner Maritza Castillo Calle said:

“Outsourcing forces us to work sick and injured, to work all our lives and still retire in poverty. For decades, UCL has treated its majority migrant and BAME outsourced workers like second class citizens, condemning them to a system of bullying and discrimination.

“By voting overwhelmingly in favour of strike action, UCL’s outsourced workers have sent the university a clear message. They will no longer stand for half measures and endless delays. They want equality and justice, and they want it now.”

After hearing from a number of strikers and representatives of the IWGB, march off to occupy the UCL student centre On Gordon Square, after much making of noise and rabble rousing speeches we marched through the UCL buildings to provost Michael Arthur’s office to make sure that he was fully aware of their situation and their disgust at his indifference. Arthur, who has been in the role since 2013 and brags of having made UCL a “sector leader in equality, diversity and inclusion” was apparently unaware of the pay and conditions of the outsourced staff until a few weeks ago.

We then carried on around the buildings making our presence felt and our message heard until we reached our starting point. Then a quick circuit down past the University of London and around Senate House (scenes of earlier successful struggles by cleaners and security) then back to UCL Institute of Education to occupy the lobby and hear further testimony of how poorly the workers are treated and their determination to fight until they win.

Then it was off to UCL Estates office on Bidbourgh Street , where despite a brief tussle with the security on the door we failed to gain entrance. But we did manage to keep a door open so our raised shouts of UCL shame on you could clearly heard in the building. Then we returned to our starting point to wrap up.

Considering that they held the picket line from 4am and this afternoon they were still marching and dancing in the streets I think that without a doubt, UCL has picked a fight with the wrong people. We have been experiencing an upsurge of resistance to precarious work over recent months, including last week’s McDonalds workers’ strike, at Google/WeWork – and on Thursday November 28th from 9am there will be a strike at Aviva!

To support the IWGB strike check out their Gofundme.