‘There are no foreigners here except the bosses’: Precarious workers strike back

Photo: Gordon Roland-Peden

Leo Zeilig, author of An Ounce of Practice (Hoperoad, 2017), describes recent precarious workers’ strikes at the University of London.

By eight in the morning on Tuesday last week it had already been raining for a few hours. I had turned up early for the strike and stopped on my way to the picket-line in a Tottenham Court road coffee shop – full of fake character, pine tables, cocktail chairs, chilled croissants. When I left the café it had stopped raining and it was warm – rare for it to have rained in this city and not to curse. I was strangely lifted: the interlude between downfalls. Outside the main entrance to the university, opposite Russell Square, there was a group of strikers, cleaners and security workers. They were loud, with portable speakers playing chart songs. There were about eighty pickets. They waved to passing cars, danced, worked up the rain water, their joy was subversive, belying the weather. Public etiquette erased in this lather of life.

One striker, who had marched from the LSE, along Holborn, in the middle of the street to join the strike at Senate House, was holding one side of a banner, ‘We Are Treated Like the Dirt We Clean’. She had taken a microphone and was about to speak, the music was switched off. She spoke in a strong, melodic Caribbean accent – those who passed stared, some stood silent, uncertain about what they were seeing: ‘All you guys who use these universities, look at us. We are the ones who clean – when you go to the toilet, we’ze are the ones who have to clean up in the morning. They’z are the ones who are making the dirt and we’z are the ones who picking it up in the morning. And we will continue this fight until they hear, until they listen because we must get justice.’ When she’d finished, she held the microphone in front of her offering it up for others to speak.

Others came forward and spoke, explained their struggle – a security worker explained the reasons for the strike at Senate House. There were two strikes. One of cleaners in the United Voices of the World (UVW) union, one-day-a-week strike at the London School of Economics (LSE). These workers are on strike for paid paternity/maternity leave, holiday pay, and sick pay on the same terms as LSE workers. Their boss is the subcontractor Noonan Services Group.

The other strike was of security workers in the Independent Workers of Great Britain at Senate House. Their subcontractor is Cordant, who have refused to end zero-hours contracts, provide proper itemised payslips – a full record of the hours worked and paid – and, finally, a pay-rise agreed in 2012. The security worker held tightly to the microphone, ‘We will not go back until we have won everything’ he said, ‘we are more determined them they are. We will win.’

How it Started: The Background

Behind the strike and the unions that lead them is an incredible story. Six years ago, there was a drive, at Senate House, to recruit outsourced workers, cleaners and security workers, into Unison. These were workers on terrible conditions, employed by a subcontractor who was in turn engaged by the university, to carry out the dirty work of slashing pay, and ripping up contracts. Many of the workers, men and women from South America and Africa, who held down two or three jobs. Battling to be seen, to be treated with respect. In a few months hundreds were recruited to Unison.

They wanted the union that they now filled to fight for them and they were not prepared to wait. When, a few months later, there was a further delay with their salary – the contractor brutal and incompetent – the cleaners were furious. They complained that they had now been in the Unison for three months and nothing had changed. Within a couple of days, they took the situation into their own hands and organised an unofficial strike – they walked out of the university with home-made placards. The university was astonished. The contractor was forced to make the delayed payments – the strike was maintained until the money had been paid. Despite the remarkable victory, the following week at the branch meeting, officials from Unison turned up and condemned the strike. The strike had been illegal and similar action must not be taken again.

A few months later there were elections for the major positions in the branch, the new members of the union – many of those who had been on strike – stood for each position in an attempt to radicalise the union and take control of the branch. Aware that they were about to lose control of the branch, Unison cancelled the election after the vote and refused to release the results. On an obscure technicality, the election would be rerun.

Disgusted, the cleaners and security guards resigned en masse from Unison. Mistreated and bullied by their bosses was one thing, but to have your own union work systematically against you was intolerable. The mainstay of the branch had left; all that was left of Unison at the university was a husk. A new union was formed, supported by the outsourced workers.

What followed was another drive of mass recruitment, a struggle for recognition and a campaign to win parity of conditions for outsourced ‘auxiliary’ workers University of London staff – sick pay, the London Living Wage, and holiday pay. The 3 Cosas (‘Three Things’) campaign was a triumph; gaining respect for the workers, winning each of the major demands.

An Ounce of Practice

It was this story that I wanted to tell in An Ounce of Practice – the novel is, in part, an account of the strike and the campaign for justice of a group of mostly Zimbabwean workers so often invisible, patronised, abused. In a scene in An Ounce, an unofficial strike is in its second day, and a union official Terry turns up to tell the workers they must return to their posts. He is shouted down by Tendai, who is one of the main organisers of the strike:

“Terry blustered again. ‘Management have told me if we don’t clear the car park and move away from the main entrance they will be forced to call the police, who may make arrests. I don’t know your individual circumstances, but they will check papers. As you are on an illegal strike, your union can’t support you.’

A woman screamed from the back: ‘Bastard. Go back to Mummy or we’ll spank you!’

Terry turned to Tendai, his eyes wide, his lips puckered and tensed. Tendai raised his arms in a slow, dramatic shrug. There was a cheer. Tendai’s locks flowed over his shoulders; his coat was too small, the sleeves above his wrists; a silver chain was visible on his open neck; his taut body, stripped of fat, stood tall. When the cheering subsided the same woman jeered affectionately and called out, ‘It’s Jesus. It’s the black messiah!’

Tendai’s insolent, drawn face was serious. He shook his head and spoke in English: ‘This man says we must return to our jobs, to the insults. He says if we don’t, the police will come and arrest us and send some of us home. The union won’t fight for us.’ Tendai paused, then spoke more loudly. ‘I say that we are the union, and if we fight then the union is with us!’ There was another cheer. Tendai’s voice carried over the heads of the strikers to the offices and departments above the car park. ‘There are no foreigners here except the bosses.’

That was the end of it. Terry was jostled from his place and the crowd rejoiced as though they had already won. They embraced each other, linked arms, kissed. Then they marched around the university singing in Spanish, Polish and Shona – exclaiming, encumbering the streets, the road filled with their bodies. Two London buses were forced to stop. The passengers stared down from the top deck, smiling despite themselves. The autumn trees rained leaves on the marchers, who danced and skipped like children.”

In the novel, the strike continues for several weeks and follows the lives of the cleaners. The second part of the story the action moves to Zimbabwe, where the protagonist, Viktor Isaacs, meets a small group of activists. I have attempted to create a cast of Zimbabwean migrants at the centre of labour protest in London, who were once active in the movement against Mugabe’s dictatorship. An Ounce of Practice is a story about the connections of the Global North and South, the link between how we live, love and struggle.

The strike of security workers at Senate House and cleaners at LSE demands our support. In their militancy, daring and courage they challenge all of us to step forward – as Nina Simone once sang, ‘there will be no one unless that someone is you.’

Support and solidarity is welcome. You can donate to UVW cleaners here, and to IWGB security officers here.

 Leo Zeilig is the author of An Ounce of Practice (Hoperoad, 2017) and works at Senate House, University of London. He is a member of the IWGB.

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