Justice For Cleaners at KCL

On Thursday 19th October around 40 students met with cleaning staff and Unison reps to launch the campaign Kings College London Justice for Cleaners. Inspired by successful campaigns at LSE and SOAS, the campaign aims to bring KCL cleaning back ‘in house’ rather than being outsourced to Servest, and to win 5 key demands:

  • Bring cleaning in house
  • Union recognition
  • Equal opportunity of access to overtime
  • Sick pay, maternity pay, holiday pay
  • Immediate implementation of the London living wage

The meeting was introduced by the cleaners themselves, who expressed gratitude for the solidarity shown by the students present. They explained the exploitation they must endure: dangerous working conditions that produce injuries and the denial of sick pay for the time off they must take due to these injuries – a double injustice. Incredibly low wages that make living in London impossible. Working conditions that make them feel invisible or like machines, not real people. Arrogant students who insult them. Harder working conditions due to cuts to staff – only 160 cleaners are expected to clean a university of almost 30,000 students!

This, combined with the vast turnover the university makes (about £680m a year), and the £450,000 ‘wage’ of the Vice Chancellor, show that the money is there to treat staff properly, but being a business, the university and the outsource company Servest, will pay whatever they can get away with paying.

The following film and article, made by the student newspaper ROAR, reveal in more detail the conditions faced by cleaning staff: http://roarnews.co.uk/?p=23290

Following this the meeting was opened up to floor for questions and suggestions from students. Many ideas were floated, and helpfully some students from the SOAS and LSE struggles spoke about their experiences. The main proposals were that students throughout the university, which has many different sites, need to be systematically organised and put in touch with cleaners to spread leaflets and arguments in support – student pressure is a huge help in this struggle, since the university needs its reputation to attract new students.

Following this a rep from Unison London region office came to speak to the meeting. Unison has earned a very bad reputation in similar struggles at other London universities, for stifling those struggles and undermining the workers’ own representatives. It is fair to say that the mentality behind such behaviour was on full display at KCL.

The rep began by saying it is unlikely we can win the above demands, either in their entirety or even one or two. His reasoning was that Servest, the employer, is ruthless. The workers are vulnerable and can easily be sacked. Last time there was a strike, Servest stealthily broke the strike by carrying out secret cleaning at night. He therefore said we must simply negotiate, which will keep the workers safe from victimisation, and, who knows, may turn up a demand or two for the workers. He even cited Sun Tzu’s the art of war, a 2,000 year old book on feudal warfare, as a strategic guideline, because it stresses that a good general wins without fighting the war.

There is no doubt that the workers are in a precarious position and that militant action should not be taken flippantly and without meticulous preparation. But his appeals to the ruthlessness of the employer, far from proving that we should not dare to strike for fear of reprisals, prove only that they will hardly listen to endless talks unless backed up with solid threats of industrial action. Why would an employer prepared to break strikes to protect their profits, suddenly give in to what amounts to little more than pleading and persuasion?

The conclusion is that we must prepare for strike action – thoroughly. The student union, and other unions on campus, should be drafted in, to prevent any successful strike breaking. With all its resources, the student union could mobilise squads of students – who can’t be fired – to block any strike breakers. Such unity in action would win the workers’ demands and more.

At this point, a student from the Marxist society asked the cleaners what they thought about this. The cleaner who responded was unequivocal – she said she is prepared to risk everything to win these demands, because they cannot go on the way things are.

The workers are determined to win. They will fight for their own futures. What they need is student solidarity and trade union organisation that has full confidence in them and mobilises in full force to help them win. The KCL Marxist society will put itself at the disposal of the cleaners at KCL and do everything it can to help them achieve what they deserve.

by KCL Marxists