As strike action at King’s College London enters its final week, student occupiers, together with representatives from Unison and the UCU, held an open meeting with the university bosses. An occupation has been on-going at King’s for five days, jointly in solidarity with lecturers striking over pensions and cleaners demanding to be brought in-house, and convening a public meeting was one of their demands.
As 60 furious students and workers set forward the rest of their demands ‒ which include bringing the cleaners in-house, and for Principal Ed Byrne to publicly support the UCU’s demands or step down ‒ the bosses gave a lesson in empty platitudes. Cleaners explained they have no paid sick cover, minimal holidays and are forced to handle dangerous chemicals without gloves (thanks to the miserly provisions of their employer, Servest). They also pointed out that other London universities ‒ including SOAS and LSE ‒ have agreed to bring their cleaners back in-house, and asked why King’s refuses to do the same.
In response to this, the bosses waffled about having to make ‘difficult decisions’ about resource allocation ‒ rich, considering the principal’s £458,000 salary and the hundreds-of-millions spent on real estate projects. Despite a vague promise to “discuss” cleaners’ conditions (when the Servest contract is up for review in June) the managers ultimately said it was “unlikely” they will be brought in house. They did however offer a half-hearted “apology” for the cleaners’ suffering, and suggested (incredibly) that, if they are ever asked to perform unsafe tasks by Servest, they should refuse ‒ and contact the authorities! Despite one cleaner pointing out that Servest would certainly threaten her (mostly Spanish-speaking migrant) colleagues with the sack for such defiance, the King’s bosses were unmoved.
On the question of the UCU strike, Ed Byrne and co. were equally intransigent. They refused to meet the UCU’s demands ‒ despite the principal admitting that nobody on the senior management team actually understood the nitty-gritty of the scheme’s current valuation. They also refused to back down from endorsing the ACAS-negotiated sell-out deal the union membership had roundly thrown out last week, which would have cut pensions for three years and then still done away with defined benefit.
By this point, the frustration in the room was palpable. A graduate teaching assistant condemned the bosses for being unbelievably out of touch with the realities of life for university staff ‒ to the point that they could defend spending £500m on a grade II listed building and millions more on senior management, yet fail to find the provisions for decent wages, conditions and pensions for workers.
As the meeting dragged on, it became apparent to everyone that nothing substantive would be achieved. Students and staff left with the unanimous understanding that at King’s, the bottom line rules, at the cost of staff and student wellbeing. They were also secure in the knowledge that their respective disputes will not be resolved by concessions from above, but pressure from below. There are 14 further days of UCU action due in the next semester, affecting final assessments and exams. Hopefully, this action has given the cleaners (mostly Unison members) the confidence to push for strike action of their own to coincide with the lecturers’ next round of action. From here, solidarity between all university workers and students will be paramount.
The marketisation of education ultimately flows from the capitalist system, which has transformed universities into profit-spinning enterprises rather than centres of learning for the public good. Throughout the rest of society, the economic crisis has forced millions of workers into precarious employment. This same crisis has also increased the risk contained in public sector pension assets, which the Tory government naturally refuse to underwrite. The King’s bosses are therefore merely symptoms of an illness of the system, for which unified class struggle is the only cure.
by KCL Marxist Society