University of London, stick to your agreements! Pay Rise now for all workers!
Matt Prittlewell interviewed Danny Millum, Branch Treasurer, and Abdul, a security guard, both members of Independent Workers GB, University of London Branch about the on-going dispute of security officers.
-Why are the security officers in dispute with the University of London?
Back in 2011, there was a big London Living Wage campaign at the University. The University agreed to implement the London Living Wage in stages, finally introducing it in 2012. They agreed to maintain all pay differentials.
We have an email from management confirming that they would do that. But they never did and so what’s happened over the last six years since is that as the living wage has gone up by more than inflation, and security officers’ pay has declined by around 25% as the differential has not been maintained.
Some of the security officers who were members of our union started a petition to put some pressure on their bosses about a pay rise but their demands were repeatedly turned down despite the promises made previously. And so, we started a campaign in February this year to win the pay rise that is owed to the security officers.
We’ve had three strikes so far totalling five days in all. We plan to hold another round of strikes in September.
-Is the strike movement spreading in the University?
Yes we’ve now balloted porters and workers in the Post Room who have similar issues. There are people who used to have a differential and now they don’t.
-What sort of support are you getting from students and from other unions?
It’s always tricky as we don’t really have any students here; we’ve got post- graduates and academic staff, so we’ve tended to draw on support from elsewhere. We coordinated one of our strikes with the UVW [United Voices of the World union] cleaners’ strike, had joint pickets and rallies, and during the occupation at SOAS [School of Oriental Studies] against the refectory closure we marched and demonstrated with the students there.
One of the things we have learned is that while the security officers do have quite a lot of industrial muscle the company they work for, Cordant is London-wide, so there is pool of people for them to draw on.
A lot of them are on zero hour contracts so they can get around the laws about not being able to use agency workers to cover strike days. While they obviously can’t do the full job as they don’t know the University, the computer system and so on it does mean that we have not been able stop the whole place coming to a halt, so outside support to put extra pressure on them is vital.
Many of the staff providing cover are sympathetic, they hate the company and some have joined the union. I wouldn’t see them as scab labour because they are on zero hour contracts, so if they don’t work they don’t get paid and don’t even get a living wage when they do.
They are being completely screwed anyway and it would be difficult to convince them to stop work at this stage.
What they do bring in for these strikes are two sets of people, they bring in people to cover the ‘normal security work’ and they also bring in what you might describe as ‘mercenaries’. Who are more of your kind of classic ex-army security types who I imagine get bussed around from place to place to provide the muscle for any demonstrations that might take place, and stop us getting into the building and causing disruption.
-So what do you think needs to be done to get rid of zero hour contracts?
Well as you know we’ve had some wins on the back of strikes where one of the demands has been to end the use of these types of contracts. It is very difficult to organise strike action where the employer can withdraw work from someone when they have no guaranteed hours of work, or they have minimum of hours over a year for example, and where there are others who need the work who can be drafted in. Bad publicity can have an impact, the University doesn’t want a negative image associated with using workers who are on these contracts so we need to create as much noise as possible.
-The IWGB seems very democratic, very lively. How does the union approach members’ democracy?
The de facto position in IWGB is that we want to be active, to improve the working conditions and lives of our members; everything we do has that in mind, rather than being an end in itself. Many of the current activists felt that they had to leave Unison because of the absence of democracy. We wanted to campaign with and for the outsourced cleaning workers who organised the Tres Cosas campaign for parity of pensions, sick pay and holiday with directly employed staff. Unison acted as an obstacle, refusing to support the campaign even though members were asking for support. When we stood for positions in the branch elections the bureaucracy of Unison messed up and then annulled the elections! There are good people in Unison and UCU [University and Colleges union] who want to do something but in our experience those unions are too close to the university management, and they don’t want to upset the relationship they have with the University and each other.
We have a branch members’ meeting every month — one that outsourced workers go to, one on a Saturday and one on a Friday, and we do get a good turnout for them. However, we are activist led, and it does tend to be the same people doing most of the work but we have a culture where we respond to members quickly, which may be due to our small size relative to other unions.
The picket lines are where you see the greatest participation in the union. During the recent strikes of the security officers almost all of the security officers turned out to picket. It did help that everyone was required to do a stint on the picket lines in order to get strike pay which was paid for two of the days but this boosted participation and an understanding of why it was important to be active during the strike. Yes, it is most important that members do not go to work but the picket line was not about stopping people working as much as getting everyone active in the strike.
-Abdul, what is life like as a Security Guard at the University of London?
Life is hard due to long working hours. We don’t have a social life. You don’t have time for your family. If you have kids you can’t spend as much time with them as you would like as you may have a long commute to work before a long shift. Your life is balanced between the shifts, night shifts, day shifts and sometimes you are sent to do duties far away from your home, across London. It all depends on the person doing the roster.
Some of us are lucky because we have a permanent contract but zero hour contract people are seriously struggling.
There are managers that do not have the right skills to manage people and they do not treat the workers well. If you are lucky you might have someone who is more professional.
Most of us are from ethnic minority communities, we are from all over the world.
-So why did you join the IWGB?
I had contact with one of the members, Henry, where I used to cover a shift and he told me about the campaign – Tres Cosas – to defend the cleaners and he invited us to come and support the cleaners.
I was really impressed by the organisation, it was the first time I’d ever been involved in something like that. Me and my colleague, we were the only Security Guards that actively supported the cleaners. It started there really.
I was very impressed that it wasn’t just about the strikes but it was also putting people together. Due to the way we all work we don’t meet people, we just come to work and go home. The campaigns and the union have brought us together socially as well, the Security Guards, the cleaners and the Porters.
To start with in security it was just the two of us. People were scared that being in the union might affect their job. But the IWGB helped some of our colleagues with personal cases and they realised that the managers could not dismiss them when they had a union behind them.
We passed information to people and they realised that they needed the protection of the union.
The cleaners’ strikes were successful. They were fighting for their pension, sick pay and holidays. They won and we saw the need to extend this to the Security Guards and Porters.
-So now you are in dispute?
Yes. In 2011, the University promised that they would pay a differential to the Guards but it never appears. We have struck five times and the numbers on the picket lines increased day by day with most of the Guards picketing.
The strikes have been amazing with music, drums and vuvuzuelas, dancing and food. Not like a strike, more like a party! We’ve had support from students and others. We are preparing a big campaign for September and I’m confident we can really push the University and Cordant to do something definitely.
They’re ignoring us and this is what has made the Security Officers angry. The University have been saying it’s Cordant’s responsibility and Cordant have been saying that it is the University’s. It’s like a game of ping-pong! We want them to talk to us, make a proposition. We are on £9.95 an hour and we should be on £12 if the differential had been paid. We know in this industry some workers get paid up to £15 an hour.
-What’s the main thing you say you’ve learned from this experience so far?
We have to be united. We started with two members of the union and now most of the Guards have joined. They see what the IWGB is doing and want to join.
I was a member of Unison. I had a couple of cases which they never tried to resolve. I was paying a higher rate of subs for absolutely nothing.
The IWGB is full of young people. And they are all motivated. It’s a new generation, all trying to build a union on the real basis of fighting for human rights. This makes a huge difference. Unison were bureaucratic and didn’t seem to care.
The IWGB reps really try to understand your issues, listen and involve you in finding a solution.
Originally Published in Socialist Voice #28.