'Workers were determined to demand that the University employs them directly'

City University cleaners' and catering workers' protest 

The City University cleaners' and catering workers' protest - Credit: George Binette

The Recent Tory Party conference heard robust rhetoric from the prime minister describing many British businesses as “addicted to cheap foreign labour.” Amid the usual bombast and bad jokes, Boris Johnson spoke of companies’ “failure to invest in people, in skills and... machinery.”

Ironically, the prime minister boasts of surging real wages midst an absolute pay freeze for most public sector workers and as the supposed 3 per cent rise for NHS staff turns into yet another real pay cut. What Johnson conveniently ignored was the role of successive Tory Governments in undermining union bargaining power and promoting the rampant outsourcing of jobs from the public sector.

George Binette, Hackney North & Stoke Newington Clp Trade Union Liaison Officer

George Binette says that successive Tory Governments have undermined Union bargaining power - Credit: George Binette

The day after the Tory faithful departed from Manchester, several dozen cleaners, catering workers and their supporters gathered at midday outside City University in Islington’s Northampton Square for a rally organised by the local branch of their union, UNISON. Some had returned after night shifts, which had finished at 6am with several heading for other jobs later in the day even as the loss of the £20 Universal Credit supplement begins to bite. The workers, many of them Latin American migrants, were determined to demand that the University employs them directly. The catering staff currently work for French-based multinational, Sodexo, while the cleaners are employed by South London firm Julius Rutherford.

Thus far, the university administration has made only minor concessions to the union’s demands, leaving over 150 staff still privatised, without occupational sick pay and a proper pension scheme until at least 2024. While lecturers and administrators worked from home, many cleaners regularly came into the University at the height of the pandemic. The gap between the pay and conditions of these outsourced workers and directly employed staff is wide – between them and senior management it is yawning. After accepting a temporary pay cut, the salary of City’s president is still £306,500, topped up by a pension contribution of some £35,000, while 116 posts attract salaries above £100,000.

Already determined campaigns at several University of London colleges (Birkbeck, London School of Economics and the School of Oriental & African Studies) have brought cleaners and others in-house. But then workers collectively organising for better pay and conditions wasn’t what Boris Johnson meant when he spoke of ending “cheap migrant labour”.