A Unison-led demonstration was held outside King’s College London on Friday 1 December as part of an on-going campaign to bring the university’s cleaning staff in-house.
King’s cleaners, who are currently outsourced to a contractor called Servest, endure miserly wages; fewer days of paid holiday; and limited sick pay, maternity and paternity leave compared to in-house staff. On top of that, inadequate provision of working materials means they are often forced to hold caustic cleaning products in plastic milk cartons ‒ putting their own safety at risk.
The cleaners held a union meeting on Wednesday 29 November to discuss an offer by King’s to provide the London living wage ‒ but not to bring them in-house. Essentially, the organisation (that has an annual turnover of over £600m) offered the cleaners the absolute bare minimum to survive in this city: but refused to recognise their contributions to the College or bring their terms and conditions up to parity with in-house staff.
And the price of this breadcrumb? Ending the campaign immediately, and calling off their planned demonstration.
Showing remarkable courage in the face of threats from Servest that further action would result in summary firings, the cleaners voted to continue their fight to the end.
The demonstration was held at the front of Strand campus, and brought together around 100 cleaners, academics and students from many societies ‒ including the KCL Marxists. The atmosphere was extremely militant, as the demonstrators declared “shame on King’s!” and chanted slogans demanding “Justice for cleaners!”
Several cleaners spoke about their experience of working for King’s, stated their desire to be treated as “human beings” by the College, and declared their intention to fight on until their demands are met.
A representative from the student solidarity campaign, associated with the KCL Marxists, addressed the crowd and implored students to show their solidarity with King’s cleaners ‒ calling for unity between students and staff against the exploitative bosses.
In the evening, the Marxist Society held a meeting to discuss the broader political implications of casualisation, outsourcing and the gig economy. Around 20 students and workers came to the meeting, in which all contributions were translated into Spanish for the benefit of the cleaners in attendance.
Representing those cleaners was Percy: a worker from King’s and a member of the United Voices of the World union, who explained that he and his colleagues were fighting for nothing more than their due: fair wages, and parity of conditions to in-house staff.
He stressed that the solidarity of students was key in galvanising the cleaners to fight back against Servest in the face of threats and bullying behaviour. When students and workers strike as one: they are untouchable.
Developing Percy’s contribution in more general terms, a speaker from Socialist Appeal explained that the conditions faced by precarious workers in the 21st Century are nothing new.
He cited Marx’s analysis of capitalists in the 1800s paying workers piecemeal wages, and finding ways to stretch and squeeze them for every penny, while keeping the threat of unemployment hanging about them like a sword of Damocles. This all reflects the capitalists’ need to maximise profits at the expense of the working-class.
The recent crisis of capitalism has forced modern capitalists to find new and creative ways to wring every last drop of profit out of the working-class: resulting in a massive increase in unpaid ‘overtime’ and the bogus self-employment of the so-called ‘gig economy.’
A far-reaching discussion followed, which focused mainly on the point that the cleaners’ struggle is not isolated or unique, but part of a general fightback by the increasingly underemployed, outsourced and atomised working-class against the exploitation of the bosses.
This exploitation is dialectically begetting radicalism in the working-class, and every struggle: from the cleaners’ fight to be brought in-house, to the Ritzy cinema workers’ strike, to the actions of Dilveroo, Uber and McDonald’s drivers, is inspiring the rest of the workforce to organise and rail against the bosses.
In the meeting, it was decided that representatives from the main unions at King’s (including Unison, the UCU and the Student’s Union) will meet and discuss how to coordinate their struggles in future, to hit the likes of Servest and their fat-cat cronies on the King’s senior management team from every angle.
From here, Unison and the Justice for Cleaners solidarity campaign should mobilise for further demonstrations, and ultimately build for strike action. The local branch of the academics’ union (UCU) and the student’s union are already officially committed to support the cleaners in their fight to be brought in-house. Next, the campaign should appeal to the security staff, the caterers, and every other university worker.
Their unions should organise a joint strike, hit the bosses at King’s as one, and then raise their sights to fighting collectively on a national level.
While we should fight tooth-and-nail to bring the cleaners in-house, this will never be enough in isolation. The capitalists will always seek to increase their profits by pressing down the wages and terms and conditions of the working-class. Therefore, workers from every sector and industry must fight for the transformation of society: the end of capitalism and the establishment of socialism.
Bold, unified action between students and workers on campus is the only way to achieve the cleaners’ objectives. Beyond that, the unions involved should continue the fightback against the scourges of outsourcing and exploitation at a national level ‒ connecting the local struggles of the cleaners to a general campaign against their fundamental enemy: the capitalist system itself.
by Joe Attard, KCL Marxists