‘Support Our Staff’ should look to London

Sick pay, paid holidays and pensions are often the first employment rights to be eroded in a time of austerity. Increasingly, they are depicted as a part of a ‘something-for-nothing’ culture, yet they remain essential to employee wellbeing and it is important to defend them during waves of financial cutbacks. Some, however, have nothing to defend: many of Britain’s workers still have no access to adequate sick pay, paid holidays or pension packages.

3Cosas (‘three things’) is a campaign uniting outsourced employees from across the University of London. Their demands are simple: outsourced and agency workers should get the same employment conditions and rights as other university workers. Where workers directly employed by the University are offered sick pay increasing with their length of service, outsourced employees are never offered more than the government minimum. The prevalence of zero-hours contracts has increased the number of outsourced staff who receive no paid holidays at all, and others are told when they can and can’t take holidays. As for pensions, most outsourced workers are offered either an unfavourable scheme or none at all. 3Cosas have spent the last year organising and fighting for better conditions using tactics that leave most trade unions running scared: three-day strikes, marches, picket lines and overtly left-wing political statements.

Even if you disagree with the politics of 3Cosas, their basic arguments are hard to refute. For no good reason, some have found themselves worse off than others doing the same jobs, and they aren’t willing to accept that. Instead of turning against colleagues receiving a better deal, they have come out to fight for better conditions themselves. Their campaign has already won a few compromises from the University of London, including an improvement in holiday and sick pay conditions, though not in line with their original demands. 3Cosas have agreed to keep taking action until their conditions are the same as other University employees.

In Oxford, the collegiate system makes the matter of fighting for better conditions more complicated. Every college has its own employment contracts, and many colleges’ positions as trusts rather than businesses mean that employment rights are more complex. Promisingly, in November 2013 the central university pledged preliminary support to paying the living wage to all its workers (including the outsourced ones), but conditions for non-academic staff remain far from ideal. Oxford staff of all denominations have taken action over pay and conditions during the last few months, and no agreement had been reached at the time of writing.

So what can we learn from 3Cosas? Firstly, that under-publicised two-hour strikes like those recently held in Oxford are ineffective. Longer, better-funded strikes may be more disruptive, but only in the short-term; one long, visible strike can force the University’s hand, where small protests can be ignored by authorities. With three-day strikes, 3Cosas are making big wins, and in the process drawing attention to problems which are widespread in the service sector.

It’s also worth looking at how students of the University of London stood in support of 3Cosas without appropriating their movement. Whilst recognising that fee hikes, decreased bursaries and wage reductions are all part of the marketisation of higher education, students must see when something is theirs to organise and when it should be led by staff. In the case of better pay and conditions, it’s Oxford’s workers who should take the lead – but student support is critical.

On February 17th this year, representatives from 3Cosas are coming to speak in Oxford – you can find details of the event on Facebook.