Cleaners at the London School of Economics struck on 15 and 16 March.
The 5 a.m. picket lines were brightened by 48 hours of painting, teach-ins, music, and protest. The high point was the occupation of the grandiose offices of the cleaner’s managing company Noonan based at Number One Kingsway.
The strike represented the first of its kind in the 126 year history of the school, but its significance extended far beyond its status as an episode of historical labour memory. The simultaneous adornment of banners across both the steps of the Victorian Old Building and the postmodern glass protrusions of the Saw-Swee-Hock student building visually conjoined the persistence and continuity of the issues driving the dispute with the recent optimism of the campaign. The banners had been compiled throughout the year, their proliferation embodying growing and diversifying support across the LSE student body, and beyond. Many of them were emblazoned with campaign-specific slogans representing few of the numerous complaints against the infamous outsourced managers, Noonan. Amongst the visual emblems were calls to “reinstate Alba” an allusion to the arbitrary dismissal of a longstanding cleaner, and “LSE students condemn homophobia” referencing the School’s and Noonan’s institutional cover up in response to a sickening case of homophobic abuse reported earlier in the year.
Yet the campaign for justice by the cleaning staff reaches back substantially further than either of these horrifying and typifying episodes. Decades of marginalisation were epitomised in the completing of the outsourcing of the cleaners to Noonan, the worst abuses of which could not be overstated. No article could convey succinctly the pervasiveness of the exploitative culture that underpins a highly racialized division of labour, the institutional cover-up of bullying, unmanageable shifts and a culture of fear, isolation and retaliation. The central strike demand was parity of conditions. (This was despite attempts by the school and Noonan to deride the struggle as a misinformed mobilisation over wages.)
Not only are cleaners afforded a derisory number of paid sick days and offered an insulting amount of holiday but they are expected to cover the shifts of sick employees and frequently provided with provisions that are totally insufficient to meet even the most minimal health and safety requirements. As for pension provision, there is simply nothing to write about. The campaign represented more than a dispute over conditions, but sought to challenge the outlook of the university regarding the position of the cleaners, many of whom described themselves as feeling second class, or even akin to the dirt they clean whilst on campus. This perception is visibly affirmed by their notable absence from all university events, and their tucking away through unsociable shifts, tightly controlled rota and strictly specified space.
UVW were the Union behind the strike, itself a fact representing the growing frustration with the inhibiting tendencies of mainstream unions, which has sidelined many of the cleaners on campus, and has given rise to smaller, worker-led grassroots unions emerging across London; the most notable perhaps being IWGB, famed for its role in the Deliveroo Workers’ Strike. Having now become the dominant Union on the LSE campus, attracting more members to an refreshingly active preexisting group, the present strength of the movement for change is unprecedented. UVW have galvanized support amongst students, cleaners and academic faculty through creative events, active personnel and an unshakable desire for something non-negotiable, dignity. That at on the first day, the first notable event of the strike was the arrival of SOAS cleaners affirmed the endemic problem of outsourced labour in central London and the growing militancy and organisational focus targeted against its accompanying abuses.
The LSE strike was undoubtedly successful. Not only as an expression of strength. Not only in the attraction of new Union members. Not only in its transformation of the attitudes of students and academic staff towards the cleaners. Not only even in its total transformation of a usually apathetic and dour campus into a beautiful expression of political energy, learning and solidarity but, in concrete terms, in winning unprecedented talks with the school, negotiations which will figure cleaners at centre stage. Regardless of the outcome of these talks, the LSE cleaners are certainly no longer invisible. La Lucha Continua!