The UNISON members complained of widespread, systematic missing overtime payments, and a failure to honour the University's commitment to pay the Living Wage.
Their grievances had been going on for months, they were tired of waiting for false promises - as some of them had not been paid properly for up to eight months, and were having severe problems because of this, including some workers facing eviction - and so yesterday they decided to take action.
Management tried to intimidate them with threats of dismissal if they walked out but they stood up to them. At 7.45am today they walked off the job and a solidarity protest had been arranged quicker than you can say 'Wildcat'.
Local UNISON activists from the Bloomsbury Fightback! group and staff and students from the surrounding colleges had organised solidarity from the wider community to stand shoulder to shoulder alongside them.
It meant a lot for the workers to see local UNISON reps on their (unofficial) picket lines with them and they were emboldened by the support from across their union. They had invited me as their NEC (HE) rep and other local reps to show support for their action so at 8am I told them*:
"Too often we in the union movement are frightened from taking unofficial action against an employer by the threat of Thatcher's anti-union laws.
"Yet employers like Balfour Beatty are quite willing to break the law themselves by failing to pay wages or other contractual obligations.
"It is not the cleaners who have taken unofficial action today who should be worried, it is Balfour Beatty and Senate House who will be frightened by your actions.
"Your action is inspirational, and deserves our full support. I pledge to promote your struggle, to call on the union to back you, and to do everything in my hands to ensure you win this fight."
As I left the protest, the employer was conducting negotiations with them via their elected reps, and the unionised cleaners were insisting not only on their back-pay but also the London Living Wage (now £8.30) to be paid immediately.
Currently they're on £6.15ph, when workers in Birkbeck and SOAS doing similar jobs have just got a pay rise to £8.30 per hour, thanks to the successful Living Wage campaigns that the workers and the UNISON branches led with support from students, staff, and the other unions.
They're also demanding a commitment to no victimisations, of course. The employer had asked them to commit not to walking off the job again if they received their pay - and they quite rightly refused.
Good for them - us trade unionists can so easily be put off by talk of what is and isn't allowed under the law, but the key to winning should be about what is right and what are people prepared to stand up for.
On those grounds, their campaign has every chance of success, and the story of how to win the Living Wage will have a new chapter written. The cleaners of Senate House have acted inspirationally and we must not only support them unconditionally, but also learn the lessons of their bold action. Watch this space...
-- this is from a quick google search for some background --
* Of course I was speaking this morning in a personal capacity
VICTORY FOR UNIVERSITY OF LONDON CLEANERS!
Wildcat strike and 3.5hr demo ends with written approval being given by Balfour Beatty admin that:
* all 3 months' stolen back-pay will be given by Friday
* no victimisations
* each case will be looked at individually with our own interpreters at every meeting
* supervisor who worked there for 10 yrs, suspended yesterday for gathering support for the strike, has been given pay til end of Nov though she will stop work today to care for her sick husband