Earlier this year, students broke into the office of Adrian Smith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London (UoL), stealing a collection of documents, two of which have revealed shocking information about the past years’ wave of privatisation within universities.
In the first document, managers disclosed that the private outsourcing of facilities - such as cleaning and catering - has actually raised costs and cut services. This is in sharp contrast to the public pretence put forward by the managment of "the efficiency of privatisation".
The second document reveals the criminal role of the trade union leadership within UoL, with evidence that Unison officials had been colluding with university management to repress the “3Cosas” campaign by outsourced workers.
Despite Balfour Beatty Workplace, the largest holder of outsourced university contracts, revealing “an apparent £800k-£1m” loss on the contract in 2012, the UoL continued with further privatisation, and, in order to minimize costs, used the workers’ own union to keep down wages.
Outsourced workers, coming mostly from Latin America, are left with £9,000 a year after taxes for working three jobs, while Vice-Chancellor Smith enjoys a £153,000 annual salary for his three-day workweek. These conditions exist following the workers’ 2011 struggle for a London living wage, after which they started calling their campaign 3Cosas (Spanish for “three things”), demanding holidays, sick pay, and pensions.
Faced with a lack of support from the officials of the recognised union for cleaning staff, many of the cleaners left Unison in order to continue their struggle, joining the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union. Organised in the IWGB the militant cleaners launched a successful strike in November that won them improved sick pay and holiday leave.
These leaked documents now indicate that the Unison officials were not only distancing themselves from the struggles of the cleaning staff, but were actively in bed with the bosses the entire time, discussing with management about how "counter" the 3Cosas campaign.
The militancy of the cleaners in the 3Cosas campaign is clearly anathema to the trade union leaders, who prefer a quiet life of negotiating rather than organising and fighting. The Unison leadership’s collaboration with the bosses shows clearly how out of touch these officials are with the lives, needs, and demands of ordinary workers, who have no option but to fight against the exploitation they face.
Privatisations and austerity
All of this follows the privatisations that have ensued since the crisis of capitalism. After bailing out the banks, the UK government has had to recover funds by implementing a brutal programme of austerity, with most cuts yet to come.
In the universities, this austerity entails cutting funds, contracting services out to private companies, and recovering money from students and workers alike. Maximum tuition fees were tripled in 2012 (with most universities charging the full £9,000), leading to a situation where 60% of UK students are forced to work alongside their studies. At the same time, the majority of university staff have experienced a 13% pay cut in real terms since 2009, whilst managers have received raises. Furthermore, outsourcing meant relegating labour to a super-exploited migrant workforce, which could be forced to accept far lower wages than those who are directly employed by the universities.
But there cannot be oppression without resistance. This academic-year has seen a series of protests and occupations on the part of students. Such displays of activism and protest have attracted the eye of the state, with police violence and arrests being seen, whilst university management have sought to ban on-campus protests.
The plans to close the University of London Union (ULU) without consulting any students, although certainly financially motivated, also signify a political attack against the democratic organisations of students. As corporations encroach on our public spaces, we lose the right to band together and fight the ruling class.
Education is on the path of becoming nothing more than a commodity consumed by students - themselves becoming commodities whose formation is dictated by the whims of the market. The university staff, having a first-hand relationship to education, understand this trend well, and are increasingly finding themselves close to the students in their fight against a common enemy.
Militant struggle needed
The 3Cosas campaign should act as an example of the militancy required in the rest of the trade union and student movements. In contrast to the struggles of the cleaners, university staff in the UCU, Unison, and Unite have been led down a blind alley of isolated one-day - and even two-hour! - strikes, again and again to no avail. With no plan or perspective from the trade union leaders on how to win their demands, it is no surprise if demoralisation and frustration creeps in amongst rank-and-file members.
The task now is to take the militancy of the 3Cosas campaign and replicate it throughout the trade unions and student unions. Workers and students should demand organisation, action, and ultimately a strategy from the their leaders. Where the leadership is unwilling to lead and fight, they must be replaced by a leadership that is worthy of its name.
The outsourced workers have seen the limitations of negotiation and collaboration with the bosses and have provided an inspiring example in how to organise and fight. However, the trade union struggle for improved wages, pensions, and conditions is not the be-all and end-all of our problems. Petty concessions on the side of the employers can only go so far in these times of crisis, which bourgeois economists are calling a “permanent slump”.
It is necessary for all workers to go beyond just demanding crumbs from the table and for students to go beyond slogans such as “cops off campus”. These battles must be united against their root cause: the barbaric system of capitalism, under which there can no longer be any progress. Let us make something more of the slogan: “Students and workers, unite and fight!”