Molly Cooper is a member of UNISON in University College London. Education is at the frontline of the struggle against cuts, austerity and privatisation and a successful fight against them needs to involve both students and trade unionists. This is a transcript of a speech Molly gave at a Socialist Resistance meeting describing how Bloomsbury Fightback! has brought together both groups. It is an experience with important lessons as we get ready for an autumn and winter of intense class struggle.
In December last year, as School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) students ended their occupation, student union activist Clare Solomon said in her speech that we are all leaders now, in the fight against the fees and the Con Dem government.
Little did I know that those students and trade unionists I met in the occupations would become leaders in significant struggles, through the student, trade union and anti-cuts campaign group Bloomsbury Fightback! (BF!)
Bloomsbury Fightback! brings together students and trade union members from across the Bloomsbury campus who wish to create a broad oppositional front against austerity in the universities and more generally. We have activists from SOAS, University College London (UCL), Birkbeck and Senate House, and from the Unison and UCU trade unions.
BF! came out of the UCL Occupation, Open Birkbeck and the Anti-Cuts Space London, which was the occupation of Royal Holloway’s Bedford Square building. Since then we have supported the University and College Union strikes, helped mobilise for the TUC demonstration on March 26th, and have fought a bold campaign against UCL management plans to outsource 94 mainly black and minority ethnic Estates and Facilities staff- those who work as cleaners, porters, waste disposal and security.
The occupation of the anti-cuts space in Bedford Square was a substantial development in linking the student occupations and demonstrations with union based anti-cuts campaigns. The intention was to provide a meeting space in which to discuss ideas and support campaigns.
Management backed down
In support of the two day strike by the University and College Union (UCU) in defence of pensions, UCL students occupied administrative offices with the aim of shutting down the university. Students attended the picket lines and stopped post going in. They even organised a ‘picnic line’ which they asked staff not to cross!
UCL management issued a legal injuction targeting 12 students they claimed had a connection with the occupation and one member of UCL staff, a UCU Committee member. A demonstration was organised by trade unions and students from across the Bloomsbury colleges and staff and students formed a united front in defence of the UCL 13. The rally in the UCL Quad was followed by a march past the Provost’s Office and through the UCL refectory which is run by staff who have already been outsourced and who have since worked for three different companies. Following the march, management backed down from their threats to bankrupt students but the threat of victimisation remains.
Bloomsbury Fightback! have pressured the UNISON branch to act over UCL’s attempt to outsource Estates and Facilities, – in the teeth of fierce opposition from the UNISON branch secretary and regional official. BF! have argued that a campaign involving estates staff, wider layers of union members and students is what is needed to win.
In meetings Estates staff voted unanimously for a strike ballot and signed a petition calling for one. Both votes were ignored by the branch leadership. Staff then helped organise Emergency General Meetings at which small turnout voted in favour of strike action.
In contrast the UCL UNISON branch secretary and the UNISON region have argued that the main focus should be responding to the consultation process and the negotiations with management and the private companies O&G and CIS. They claim that any campaigning or hint of industrial action would interfere with the negotiations, dissuading the private companies from concluding a trade union agreement with the outsourced workers. This strategy has excluded the wider membership from action.
After the EGMs the branch secretary emailed the committee offering his resignation as branch secretary, as well as from the committee and UNISON. However he was able to stay in his post through the backing of the London Region and a vote of support at the branch committee. He blamed BF! for the votes in favour of action and said this undermined his position. However, Birkbeck UNISON have passed a motion in favour of an indicative ballot to resist outsourcing and have stated that working with wider campaigns, such as BF! is crucial.
Despite the mood in favour of action the branch secretary and the region have pursued negotiations with the private companies and they claim to have secured a pension deal similar to the UCL pension scheme. At the same time they are telling the staff affected that because of the small turnout in the ballot the fight against outsourcing is over and the deal is done. The date for the staff to be handed over is 1st August and UCL have now signed agreements with both O&G and CIS to confirm this.
Providing wider leadership
So I think we have to reassess how we organise in trade unions and one thing we must do is tear down the walls which some branch secretaries have built which result in them taking on massive loads of case work but not providing the wider leadership to fight the attacks. This not only gives the impression to members that the position of branch secretary is a huge undertaking but that it is also an unaccountable one. Indeed the outsourcing campaign is the first time the branch secretary has been seriously called to account. This can mean that attacks on pay and conditions are not dealt with in a collective, campaigning way and new union reps who take initiatives and suggest new ways of working are either attacked for undermining the branch leadership or patronised as not knowing what they are doing.
Bloomsbury Fightback! exists to push the leadership beyond its comfort zone. In the outsourcing campaign we have been deliberately bold. Politically the climate on campus has been changed, through initiatives such as stunts and demos, a student accosting the UCL Provost over his position on outsourcing and the videos that have been produced attacking UCL management and leaflets challenging them over their institutional racism.
We are now considering the setting up of Open UCL, which would co-ordinate activities across the trade unions and the students organised in UCL Occupation. The intention is to have a student/member lead group through which ordinary union members can be brought into campaigns and then organise in their unions to fight for an accountable and active leadership.
It is clear that such an organisation is long overdue and a model for such a group already exists in Birkbeck, where Open Birkbeck continues to campaign and organise.
Redundancy, restructuring and outsourcing are the key issues across the Bloomsbury Colleges, despite UCL having a £29 million surplus. It is not possible to fight these attacks solely through case work and negotiations. Joint union actions and campus wide initiatives which expose and put pressure on university management are essential. As indeed is strike action, co-ordinated across as many branches and universities as possible.
BF! is also campaigning against the launch of the New College of Humanities, a private university charging £18,000 a year, which is being spearheaded by prominent academics Anthony Grayling and Richard Dawkins (who would only actually teach there for an hour a year!). BF! Supporters have signed an open letter pledging to resist the building of the university and meetings organised by Dawkins and Graylings have been disrupted.
When the Secretary of State for Higher Education, David Willets, spoke at SOAS, BF! members were able to enter the building. Outside the meeting police arrested four people, with at least one student receiving a head injury. Two BF! members were de-arrested by fellow members and a demonstration was held until midnight outside Holborn Police station to demand the release of the others.
Following these actions Dawkins and Grayling have pulled out of further meetings in UCL and other Bloomsbury colleges.
Looking to the future, BF! will be campaigning against the introduction of trespass laws to criminalise occupations and the sentences handed down to students involved in the winter protests. These have seen some students sent down for 12 months for “violent disorder”, under the law of “common enterprise”.
We are also involved in the organisation of cleaners working at Senate House who have been outsourced to Balfour Beatty. We are calling for union recognition and for the implementation of the living wage. We will also be assisting Birkbeck UNISON to recruit outsourced workers employed by Ocean so that union recognition can be negotiated with this company.
Recently, one of the cleaners was sacked without notice. She was reinstated after her union, the RMT, took up her case. This new unionism, with its challenges and new ways of organising is an important development and a sign of things to come.