This week, London’s High Court dismissed the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB)’s bid for outsourced workers to negotiate directly with the third parties they work for. The bid was on behalf of roughly 75 workers who are employed by the security company Cordant, and carry out work for the University of London.
Though these workers’ nominal employer is Cordant, it is plain as day that the university is also their employer. These cleaners, porters, security staff etc. all work for a pittance, despite maintaining the integral activities of the university. Without them, business as usual would grind to a halt. On this basis, the IWGB have fought for collective bargaining.
Citing Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires that ‘workers, via their trade union, have a practical and effective right to collective bargaining’, the legal case had far-reaching consequences for the 3.3 million outsourced workers in the UK.
Despite this, the judge ruled that the challenge should be dismissed given there are ‘relevant and sufficient reasons for limiting the right to compulsory collective bargaining’. We are left completely in the dark as to what these so-called reasons are. To add insult to injury, the judge emphasised the university’s right to make outsourcing arrangements ‘in the most efficient and beneficial manner’. This gives the university a green light to poverty pay, amidst plenty for overpaid bureaucrats.
Outsourced workers are afforded neither the same rights nor pay as in-house workers, typified by this legal dismissal. The University of London’s in-house staff tend to be white British, while outsourced workers are typically migrants and people of colour, demonstrating unmitigated institutional discrimination.
With increasing marketisation of universities, it should come as no surprise that management are treating supposed ‘institutes of education’ as businesses: cutting their costs, at all costs. The Tories’ recent legislation on precarious work, comically branded ‘the largest upgrade in workers’ rights in over a generation’, clearly does not cut ice. In fact, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – the department responsible for workers’ rights – is guilty of paying outsourced workers well below the London living wage.
The ‘good old days’ for the bosses, when there was little organised resistance, are finished. Illusions that workers would not fight back are a proven fool’s paradise. Successes for outsourced workers at LSE and SOAS, alongside others, demonstrate tactics which can win. Mass campaigns which organise workers, strike action, demonstrations, boycotts and student solidarity have forced management to agree to end outsourcing and bring workers in-house at these universities. The struggle does not end here, much to the dismay of management; it is only beginning.
In December 2018 the IWGB organised a boycott of the University of London ‘in support of migrant and BME outsourced workers that demand equal terms and conditions with directly employed staff’. Over a hundred academics, the NUS and politicians, such as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, all offered support and solidarity. The IWGB has also been linking up with other unions (UVT and RMT to name a few) in organising the first national day of action against outsourcing early this month.
This kind of militant action is required from all unions. It is only when unions are seen fighting that workers will see a point in joining. Though court action is one means of struggle, it needs to be linked to broader methods of struggle that unite and mobilise the working class. Fighting solely through the courts is not a viable alternative to struggle on the streets and strike action. What we need is more mass campaigns, organising workers into a closely-knit, battle-ready class. The successes we have seen on this basis reflect where the latent power really lies within society; with the workers.
At the national day of action against outsourcing, Labour Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey addressed the crowd:
‘Change often does not happen because politicians decide that it should happen.
‘It happens because workers and communities come together in solidarity and demand change.
‘The greatest rights and improvements that we have seen in Britain have often come as a result of workers and communities demanding that change, so you are part of history today — solidarity.’
This is absolutely correct. A whole host of rights and regulations have been won through class struggle. But as capitalism can no longer afford these reforms, we must break with the logic of it. We must reject the race to the bottom in terms of rights, pay and conditions. Instead, we must link the fight against outsourcing, and the industrial struggle more generally, to the political plane, fighting for a fundamental transformation of society, run in the interests of the many not the few.
The trade union struggle must be linked to calls for a General Election and a Labour government on an uncompromising socialist programme. Labour has made steps in the right direction, promising to ban outsourcing of public services to private firms. The working class has already paid the price for outsourcing.
We need to nationalise these industries, bring them under workers’ control and under a rational and integrated plan of production. Only an economic system based on social need can secure decent pay, working and living conditions. Socialism is the only solution to the death agony of capitalism.
Khaled Malachi, Cambridge Marxist Society