Trade unions are having to adapt to a new world. The spread of “subcontracted capitalism” across both the private and public sectors has made it increasingly hard to organise workers and win union recognition.
After all, when you’re outsourced, do you complain to your contractor or your employee? And how do you build and nourish a successful campaign when hours are antisocial and contracts are temporary?
But where some see crisis others see opportunity – and the most innovative and powerful forms of labour struggles have emerged exactly where so called non-standard workers are concentrated; in the low-paid, migrant and labour-intensive sections of the capital’s service economy.
A good example comes from the University of London (UoL), where my research into migration and trade unions has caused me to look at a campaign known as 3Cosas.
Since 2011, outsourced cleaners, porters, security guards, catering and postroom workers on Bloomsbury campus, mostly from Latin America, have confronted their employer and contractors in an attempt to improve their pay and conditions. What started as a successful, Unison-backed campaign for the London living wage eventually morphed into something new.
In September 2012 the outsourced workers began demanding three fundamental things (“cosas”): sick pay, holiday pay and pensions in line with directly employed staff. Unison did not seem able to live up to the challenges of engaging a migrant and diverse workforce, especially given the workers’ demand for self-organisation. The national union eventually withdrew its support from the campaign and UoL’s outsourced workers instead organised themselves around a newly formed branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).
UoL, for its part, refused to deal with 3Cosas or IWGB directly, stating that they were “not recognised trade unions of the University of London”. Unison and the academics union, UCU, were “the only unions with whom the university will discuss employment matters.”
The question of which union to recognise is indeed highly contentious. On their side the IWGB claimed to be the largest union among the Balfour Betty workers, and the true representative of the workers in negotiations. It argued that any agreements made on behalf of workers by Unison were invalid.
The case points to the frictions that emerge when unions organise a diverse workforce as well as the challenges of internal democracy in workplaces characterised by multiple employers. Yet, it also highlights the innovation that can emerge in these difficult contexts.
The 3Cosas campaign has done lots of things a typical labour campaign wouldn’t, from informal bargaining with employers on the ground to the provision of free English classes and “language exchanges” with students. These meetings became a space of empowerment for the workers and a place where the barriers between students, academics and the university’s “invisible inhabitants” were torn down.
The campaign has a strong online presence, with systematic use of Facebook, Twitter and a YouTube channel featuring interviews with workers and students. 3Cosas obtained impressive support and solidarity from a wide range of allies: students, academics and community-based labour organisations such as the Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK.
Clashes with police occurred late last year when an attempt was made to occupy university buildings in protest over working conditions. UoL was heavily criticised for its role in allowing the police onto campus, but the developing alliance between outsourced workers and student activists only strengthened.
After strikes last November, the workers obtained an important victory. The then contractor Balfour Beatty offered holiday pay in line with that of directly employed staff – and nearly equivalent sick pay.
But IWGB, 3Cosas’ union, was unsatisfied, especially as the contractor agreed a deal directly with Unison, keeping it out of the negotiations. On these grounds 3Cosas called for further strikes, focusing on pension rights and union recognition for outsourced workers. The latest round of strikes took place on January 27-30 and featured a “bus of justice” going on a tour from the university picket lines throughout the city, informing the public about the working conditions of outsourced workers at UoL.
Stunts such as this help connect the dots between the invisible working lives of excluded workers and the public who are engaged by actions that move beyond the static performance of the picket line.
The risky and imaginative tactics employed by the cleaners, porters and other outsourced workers in London provide the wider labour movement with several lessons.
To an extent, of course, these innovations have emerged from the social composition of the workforce. The Latin American background of the great majority of the workers in IWGB and some of its leaders undoubtedly provides an important cultural glue and helps explain the strong sense of unity and high spirit maintained during the protest.
Arguably “ethnic” homogeneity in any social movement and forms of “identity politics” have advantages as well as downfalls, but it cannot be denied that bringing cultures together has been a central aspect of the 3Cosas campaign. The rage of the protesters has been intermingled with songs, parties and dancing organised on campus by the workers coming from different Latin American countries together with the students and activists, themselves from a variety of backgrounds.
One of the key lessons of the 3Cosas campaign is that worker democracy is paramount for the success of any labour organising. As one of the banners that made the tour of London in the past few days said, “putting the workers first” is essential not only in terms of spotlighting their conditions of employment and their essential role in larger organisations, but also within the union itself.
You might think this was already the case within unions, but not so. Worker democracy is indeed one of the big challenges of trade union renewal, especially as the labour force becomes increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, migration, language and contractual position.
3Cosas has shown us that new forms of labour organising are possible and indeed are already happening. The imaginative mobilisation and colourful visibility achieved by the 3Cosas campaigners stands out even more when contrasted with the timid two-hour strike called by our academic unions in these very same weeks.