Britain  •  UCU union  •  UNISON union  •  Unite the union

How Britain’s biggest union undermines migrant workers’ rights

09 July 2019

By Jeremy Dewar

Over the past seven years cleaners and security guards at London’s most prestigious universities have been fighting a relentless and courageous struggle for basic rights: the London Living Wage, sickness, holiday and maternity pay, workplace conditions, and end to contracting out and union recognition.

They are overwhelmingly female, migrant and people of colour. In a period when strike action is at an all-time low in the UK, they are a beacon of hope and an inspiration to millions of low paid, precarious workers. They are largely organised by independent unions, the United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB).

Britain’s biggest union, Unison with 1.3 million members, however, continues to obstruct them at every step of the way.


The six-month long campaign by cleaners at Goldsmiths University in south London is a case in point. Unusually the cleaners here organised themselves outside of any union but with the help of students and the Justice for Cleaners campaign, formerly a part of Unite. They had no contact with the local Unison branch, which showed no interest in organising them whatsoever.

In February the university’s security guards, who suffered similar conditions to the cleaners, as well as being mostly on zero-hours contracts, joined the fray. The IWGB had recruited most of the security officers and led their campaign.

Both campaigns were lively and member-led, in the sense that the workers themselves discussed their aims and the tactics and strategy to achieve them. Lively demos, pickets of cultural events, temporary occupations, music and dancing, petitions and even a breakfast club were employed to force the university to concede the cleaners’ demands.

But while there was support form the academic staff’s UCU union, Unison went out of its way to discredit the campaign, telling its members that “Unison did not organise or support any of these events” and warning of “the possibility of invalid strike action” even though no strike had been called. Unison branch officials called the security officers’ demand to be brought in-house “wholly unreasonable”.

Yet when the cleaners won their battle, Unison claimed the credit for a campaign “led by Unison” and failed to even mention Justice for Cleaners.


This is not a one-off. Although in a number of universities, especially where branches are led by socialists, as at SOAS and Birkbeck, Unison has either organised outsourced and migrant workers or supported the actions of independent unions, there is a pattern of sabotage and even “yellow” or business unionism by the giant union.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the 2016-17 campaigns by cleaners at the London School of Economics (LSE) and at Senate House. After 10 months of campaigning, including seven strikes at LSE as well as walk outs at Senate House, the workers won many of their demands. The UVW and IWGB were heavily involved and recruited the bulk of the union members.

Although these workers garnered support from rank and file members of Unison and UCU, again union officials stabbed them in the back. Unison officials denounced the UVW strikers at LSE and took part in negotiations for cleaners who were members of another union, i.e. over their heads. UVW organiser Petros Elia explains:

“Unison regional swooped in and made identical demands [to the campaign] in order to have it on record that they have done so, without having spoken to the cleaners and seeking their input or consent and without a strategy to win.”

UCU Regional organizer Barry Jones scuppered attempts by UCU and Unison activists to support the IWGB strike at Senate House, telling members that “any messages of support we put out are explicitly messages of support for Unison’s efforts to negotiate a solution for outsourced workers, and are not capable of being read as supportive of the IWGB.”

This gets to the hub of the question. Unison and UCU officials are more concerned with retaining their monopoly over negotiating rights than they are with members’ pay and conditions. Indeed if there is a conflict between these two aims, these bureaucrats will always prioritise the former.

This is exactly what happened at University College London (UCL) in January. The IWGB applied to outsourcing firm Axis for union recognition, since it organised the majority of security guards there. Six weeks later, without a word from Axis to the IWGB, the company announced that it had recognised Unison. Since under trade union legislation a company is only obliged to recognise one union and can disregard any other appeals for a recognition ballot, the IWGB was kicked out of the negotiations in a dispute that it was leading.

Democratic fighting unions

So what should socialists do? Obviously we defend the right of all workers to join unions that fight for their rights. If that is an independent union, they should join that union.

Workers in other unions –Unison, UCU, Unite, etc. – should demand full support for workers of all other unions who find themselves in a struggle against their employers. More, they should demand their unions actively seek to organise precarious, migrant and outsourced workers and campaign effectively for their rights.

Our aim is to build fighting industrial unions that organise across all grades in a sector. But they must be democratic – with autonomy for sections of workers to decide on their own campaigns where applicable – and ready to take on the employers and the state machinery, for example when immigration officers seek to deport union activists.

A campaign along these lines will necessarily start among the rank and file union membership and will meet opposition from the ingrained bureaucratism of the paid full-time officials, whose main goal is to retain their position as the sole organisers of labour, regardless of, and often in contradiction to the actual needs of the members.

Only when the trade union and wider labour movement welcomes the so-called “unorganisable” workers into its ranks and among its leaders, will we be able to build the force capable of turning the tide of neoliberalism and ending the regime of fear, racism and poverty.

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