On Monday, 10 March, 2014 I attended a gathering of trade union activists and spoke alongside a BECTU rep from Ritzy Cinema. Henry Chango Lopez, an outsourced worker at the University of London and the chair of our IWGB branch was meant to speak but unfortunately he fell ill and had to stay home from both work and trade union events. Luckily, and unlike virtually all outsourced cleaners and porters who are UNISON members in London, Henry received his full salary for the day as he is entitled to three months sick pay this year. The meeting was attended by a number of UNISON rank and file activists including the well respected member of the UNISON national executive committee Jon Rogers. In my talk I gave a history of the activism of outsourced workers at the University of London, including the appalling treatment they received by UNISON (for a more extensive account of which see: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/04/09/harry-stopes/miembros-no-numeros/, http://www.workersliberty.org/unisonpolice, http://lucaneve.photoshelter.com/gallery/27-03-2013-Senate-House-Cleaners-Protest-outside-UNISON/G0000mNpg7RXV_IM/C0000GPpTqAGd2Gg, http://bloomsburyfightback.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/unison-vs-the-workers/, http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2013/04/10/unison-officials-sabotage-democracy, http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2013/07/11/were-university-london-outsourced-workers-right-leave-unison, http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/12/03/harry-stopes/not-a-recognised-union/, and https://iwgb.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/bbw-uol-unison-letter.pdf).
After the talk the session was opened up to questions and comments. In one round of questions, Jon Rogers said that whilst he agreed with cross-union solidarity and recognised that I would probably disagree with him, he thought that we were wrong to leave UNISON and that the only way forward was necessarily transforming UNISON. I had a response but before the moderator came back to us Jon had already left. Rather then wait around for my answer he went home and wrote a blog post about the evening where he again condemned our decision and even characterised our approach as “wrongheaded”. You can read his post here: http://jonrogers1963.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/solidarity-in-struggle-against-low-pay.html.
Putting aside for the moment the disheartening tendency of UNISON Left/former-Left activists to condemn our decision to leave UNISON with much more enthusiasm and gusto than their public condemnations of UNISON’s behaviour, I have now read Jon’s blog post a couple times in an effort to identify the arguments he presents for why we made a bad choice in leaving. Of course, last year at the moment we decided to leave, our decision was met with disapproval by nearly all prominent UNISON activists. We were told that we would end up with a workforce split between two unions, that the direct employees wouldn’t join our union, that we wouldn’t be able to provide effective legal support or strike pay, that we wouldn’t have an office, and most importantly, that we wouldn’t win our demands for sick pay, holidays, and pensions. After less than a year into the IWGB, nearly all the outsourced workers who were formerly members of UNISON have joined (as well as a growing contingent of catering workers who had never been unionised), we have a large group of direct employee members, we are the largest union on campus, we have taken one of the employers to an employment tribunal, we have compensated five days of strike action for all participating workers at full salary, we have an office, and the outsourced workers have won up to 6 months sick pay and 33 days holiday. These terms and conditions are virtually unheard of for outsourced cleaners, porters, and caterers in London. Given that it is quite hard to argue with concrete results, Jon’s arguments appear to be more ideologically driven. In essence, he says that neither red nor red and black unionism is the way forward, that for the movement to progress UNISON has to be transformed, and that those who stay in UNISON and fight are not fools. The ironic thing is that I strongly agree with each of these points.
In terms of the different colours and corresponding ideologies with which Jon attempts to identify the IWGB it is important to point out that the IWGB has no official political ideology and the members, key activists, and elected officials represent a plethora of political orientations. The University of London branch for most of us is not red, or red and black, but rather democratic, member-led, activist, militant, and with an enormous amount of political and financial autonomy. I would assume that Jon would agree that all of these characteristics are necessary for transforming our movement.
I do agree on the necessity of transforming UNISON, however where I disagree with Jon on this point is two-fold. Firstly, I don’t think that fighting within UNISON is the only way forward. Indeed, I would argue that part of the way forward for our movement is thinking and acting a bit more creatively and removing the ideological straight-jackets that we too often willingly put on ourselves. Of course, having the full support of the IWGB union has been essential to the success of the 3 Cosas Campaign, but in the scheme of things it is just one piece in the puzzle. Also crucial has been the support of the University of London (student) Union, collaboration from Labour Start on an on line campaign, excellent videos produced by Reel News, hyperactivity on social media, a number of noisy protests, a two day strike, and lots of press coverage. The results we have achieved, combined with the fact that the overwhelming majority of our members are satisfied with their union- as evidenced by nearly 50 handwritten letters from workers to their bosses recently asking for recognition of their union- shows that it is absolutely not essential to remain in the big unions in order to improve working conditions, especially for low paid workers. However, and having said that, we are the first to recognise that every disaffected UNISON member breaking off from UNISON to form an independent branch of a small radical union is not a realistic way forward. Indeed we have never advocated this as a way forward and on the multitude of occasions when cleaners in the Bloomsbury area have come to us asking to join the IWGB, we have- every single time- told them they would be better served by remaining in their UNISON branches (most of which are not nearly as bad as the Senate House branch was). The second point is that we believe that leaving UNISON has helped to transform that union. Despite being disgustingly uninterested in the well-being of their low paid members, the UNISON London Region officials are quite keen on maintaining good publicity, high profile recognition agreements, and membership. So unless they want to see a repeat of the Senate House saga elsewhere, we hope that the example of what can happen when they spit in the faces of cleaners will encourage them to act differently with their remaining branches in the future.
Finally, we have never suggested that people who stay in UNISON are fools. Indeed, and as I have tried to make clear throughout, we recognise that UNISON does work for some low paid workers. There is no better example of this than the UNISON SOAS branch. Like our branch, the SOAS branch is democratic, member-led, and militant. I also happen to believe that they are on the verge of a major victory on cleaners’ terms and conditions. My union branch has lent full support to the SOAS Justice for Cleaners campaign. Just recently a number of IWGB members spent hours on the SOAS cleaners’ picket line, and our branch (which isn’t exactly overflowing with money) made a £100 donation to the SOAS cleaners’ strike fund. It is worth pointing out that, unlike some local union branches who have wanted to donate to our strike fund, our decision didn’t need to be approved by a corrupt, autocratic union bureaucrat. Our union is proud to publicly support the SOAS cleaners’ struggle, and their union affiliation doesn’t change this.
In closing, it is worth emphasizing that I have a great deal of respect for some of the UNISON activists who have spent many more years than I have fighting both bosses and bureaucrats. In many cases their struggles have borne results- both in terms of concrete improvements for members’ terms and conditions and in terms of establishing relatively autonomous and member-led branches, once again with SOAS UNISON being the prime example. Yet when it comes to the decision of the workers at the University of London to leave UNISON and join the IWGB, these UNISON activists are dead wrong.