The Challenges of Solidarity: IWGB and The Struggle Against Outsourcing

The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union has been organising, in its words, ‘some of the most vulnerable and under-represented workers in the UK’ since August 2012.

The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union has been organising, in its words, ‘some of the most vulnerable and under-represented workers in the UK’ since August 2012. Last Thursday, the union bussed workers and supporters from a strike against outsourcing at the University of London (UoL), across London, to stage a surprise demo in support of cleaners at the Royal College of Music (RCM).

They’re confident of a win against outsourcing at UoL, and able to build support across workplaces and disputes; how far will IWGB take its struggle this year? I spoke with IWGB President Henry Chango Lopez about the UoL campaign, and the difficulties of solidarity.

IWGB workers at the UoL are now striking and protesting to be brought in-house – and against outsourcing in general at UoL. Could you give a sense of the history of the campaign?

Really, this UoL campaign started with Tres Cosas in 2012. Our aim then was to get equality of pay and conditions with direct employees - that was the main aim of the Tres Cosas campaign. Tres Cosas was the first strike of outsourced workers at the UoL, and we managed to get some good, I would say, good concessions, over sick pay, and holiday pay. There wasn’t security [officers, or SOs] involved in the campaign – or, only a couple, and there are 70 at UoL, I think.

As the union grew, we had other campaigns going on as well. We didn’t have enough resources to keep campaigning for equality of condition at UoL. We had started campaigning at other workplaces.

The campaign was initiated again, with the dispute with SOs, which was initially over pay, last March. UoL said they’d pay a living wage to everyone, and that they’d maintain pay differentials. They didn’t keep their second promise. [SOs] had complained, but nothing was resolved.

We saw LSE and Soas workers brought in-house last summer, and so workers were enthusiastic – people asked, ‘why can’t we do it as well?’. And, especially at the main building of the University of London, the headquarters - why not? So, we launched a campaign to be brought back in-house. So, in a way, this campaign against outsourcing is a re-initiating of Tres Cosas.

At the 21st November strike and protest against outsourcing at UoL, there were speakers from Bectu, Soas Unison, BFAWU, UVW, and also non-union groups – I remember Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants. Were you surprised at this support?

There has been a failure of communication before. But, now we see that it is working. We are more in touch. We have been meeting people at the LSE, from UVW; meeting the Justice for Workers campaign at Soas. Bectu, and the others, we have been supporting them – and so we ask them to support us. We have been in solidarity with them.

We have meetings with different campaigns – we are trying to build a coalition of campaigns, in order to work together, to support each other. Emails, talking in person, communication, solidarity - with the main reps, the main activists. So, no, we’re not surprised at the support, because we have been working hard to get it.

A diffusing of workers’ and unions’ opposition across organisations – across sub-contractors, contractors, and across different managers - seems one of the main anti-worker, more ‘political’ effects of outsourcing. Is there a danger that winning direct employment will hurt organising – that people will think a direct employer won’t be looking for savings?

We’re not going to stop as a union – we have a good density of workers at UoL. At the moment, we are the biggest union on campus. But, the aim of this campaign is to have workers brought in-house.

As you may know, outsourcing is one of the worst things that can happen to workers, and not just in terms of pay and conditions, but also in terms of treatment. It’s all sorts of problems these workers face, when they are outsourced. For the union, it is a lot of work. It drains a lot of resources, in terms of casework, dealing with these companies.

We have a lot of members in administration at the UoL, and the difference is such a big one – the way UoL deal with workers compared with how the outsourcing company does, the way they deal with the workers. UoL workers have meetings with management, but with the outsourcing company, well (laughs) – you don’t meet the management, not when you have collective issues.

We hope that by bringing the workers back in-house, the level of treatment will get better, and that the number of problems that we have with the outsourcing company, we won’t have with UoL. The campaign is about outsourcing – if they are brought back, the campaign will stop. But as a union, we will keep working. As people are more happy with the union, with the work we have done, the union will keep growing.

Cleaners at the Royal College of Music, they’ve suffered a successions of sub-contractors, and now they’re fighting against halved hours. Cristobal Barzallo, and IWGB activist and cleaner at RCM, alleged victimising of trade unionists there, at last Thursday’s surprise demo. It’s already very scrappy. What do you need there?

On campus, we don’t have many supporters, in terms of unions. We have not that many members, and the campus is not that big. We have really started to campaign now, with protests and strikes. But, so far, the college just want to cut their hours. We need as many people as possible to come to our protests there. The first publicly-announced protest there, at the RCM, is [February 1st].

Many of your members work on university campuses. The UCU strike is coming up, with the first work stoppages threatened for February. I know the IWGB have gotten support from individual UCU members – but, and here please correct me, I don’t believe there was any sustained institutional support for security officers’ strikes last year, or with the anti-outsourcing campaign so far. Are you going to be on academics’ pickets this February?

We’re always happy to support and to engage with them. It’s them that don’t want to engage with us. We have an issue with Unison at UoL, from when we started organising there. Because of that, we have a problem with UCU officials – they’re always trying to avoid engaging with us. As you say, there are some individuals people there, who want to help, to engage, to work together, but there are officials that want to disengage from any work with us.

Your members tend to be people working in high-attrition sectors, and tend to be migrants - very difficult to organise, and often without much industrial power. Shouldn’t unions’ resources go elsewhere?

That’s the thinking of the big unions – they’re doing nothing about these workers. Yes, in a way, they are hard to organise, and there are many barriers, of language, of fear, and the way they are working, and the way they are treated by the company. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, to change attitudes, to change the fear. That’s the work we do - teaching how the system works in this country, how employment law works, about rights.

It’s wrong. These are the people that need help at the moment. Big unions are so happy to represent workers that are native to this country, because they don’t give them problems. Every workplace is hard to organise at the beginning. And, amongst these workers, you tend to find good activists. Of course, there are exceptions. Unison did a great job at Soas, and Unite has done some good work organising cleaners in places like St Bart’s. But, overall, migrant workers are ignored.

Some of the bigger unions have branches representing similar workers to you, using similar tactics. You’ve mentioned some - there’s also Unite’s Hospitality branch, and recent efforts from Unite Construction seem very promising. Is there a possibility of your working together?

We are open to work with any trade union that is willing to work with us. We are very open to help workers, in any workplace. If they help us, we will help them. Solidarity - we have no problem with that. Those unions have a bigger problem working with us than we do working with them.

IWGB’s ‘Stop cleaner cuts at the Royal College of Music’ demo takes place tonight (February 1st), 18:30, outside the Royal College of Music.