The Tories’ attack on unions has given bosses a green light to move against leading trade union militants.
Weakening union organisation is central to the Trade Union Bill—but workers have shown we can still beat the bosses.
Sandy Nicoll, the branch secretary of the Unison union at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), was reinstated last week after a magnificent series of unofficial walkouts.
Management suspended Sandy on trumped up charges of “gross misconduct” linked to supporting a student protest.
But the next morning a rebellion of staff and students shut Soas down. Some 60 Unison and 20 UCU lecturers’ union members walked out unofficially and mobilised students behind them.
Their action grew stronger on day two as solidarity poured in from across the trade union movement.
Workers didn’t wait for a ballot. They defied the trade union laws—and they won.
And because the Unison branch has supported other Soas workers and students, people returned the solidarity when bosses attacked Sandy. This was also key to shaping the Unison members’ response.
“We were clear to people that if they walked out without a ballot they had no legal protection,” Sandy explained to Socialist Worker.
“But they were bolstered by knowing we’d get a strong response from UCU and the student union.”
Sandy explained, “This all happened through political argument over time. We argued about making Soas work the way we want it to work—instead of management’s spiral of decline.”
The backdrop to Sandy’s victimisation was management’s plans to slash the budget by 10 percent—some £6.5 million.
Claire Locke, Unison chair at London Metropolitan University, told Socialist Worker it was “no coincidence” Sandy was targeted when management was planning large cuts.
“They targeted our branch secretary Max Watson through compulsory redundancy just before announcing the closure of our City Campus,” she said. “We’re now looking at a third of jobs being cut—the university wants to weaken the union to push that through” (see page 18).
New Soas director Baroness Amos has been leading the charge. But students saw the writing on the wall and went into occupation last month.
Sandy explained, “Ever since management has been desperately trying to regain the initiative. My victimisation was part of that attempt—but it has blown up in their faces.”
He explained that patient work has built a “two-way street” of solidarity between the unions and the students.
“There will be issues, such as tuition fees, where we don’t seem to have a direct interest but still support,” he said.
“Soas Unison supports free education and we make sure our banner has been on every demonstration.”
Mobilising support for Sandy in the movement was easier because the branch’s banner is well-known for bringing solidarity to many struggles.
Steve Hedley, RMT union assistant general secretary, brought solidarity to Soas. He told Socialist Worker, “Picking out class fighters like Sandy and Glen Hart (see page 18) is part of the Tories’ and bosses’ strategy.
“We must smash their plans with coordinated industrial action.”
For many Unison members the walkout was “the right thing to do”. Library worker Val explained, “I’ve seen Sandy support so many people in the past—we need him to continue to do that.”
A UCU member added, “Management wanting large-scale cuts lies behind all of this. And that’s why I’m refusing to go against my Unison colleagues’ decision not to go in.”
This may all feel like a far cry from workplace organisation generally.
But, as Sandy said, “There’s nothing magical about Soas. You build loyalty from branch members because they know their situation would be shittier if the union wasn’t there.
“Like every other union rep I spend a lot of time doing case work—it’s unavoidable and necessary.
“But it’s absolutely vital for trade union branches to take up political issues. You can’t build the kind of strength you need by just focusing on ‘bread and butter’ issues.
“We’ve spent time building relationships with the students and lecturers. We’ve worked together on campaigns ranging from Justice for Cleaners (see box) to climate change, tuition fees and opposing the Prevent agenda.”
Sandy explained this means there’s a “natural feeling of unity”, but that they “have to constantly build on it because management always try to fragment it”.
Sandy said, “That means having a political approach to taking on the arguments.”
Taking up hard arguments became crucial when management argued that student occupiers were being aggressive towards staff.
Sandy said, “It’s like the opening scene from the film Suffragettes where they are smashing windows on Oxford Street. There’s the obvious question—did that distress or alarm shop workers? Quite possibly. Were they a target of it? No.
“You always need to think about who the real enemy is—then you identify the issues that you can build relationships around.
“That’s so important to forging the solidarity we’ve seen.”
Every union faces the problem of creating new layers of activists. Sandy argued, “You can relate to a layer of people that will become union activists if you show the union takes up bigger issues and is key to mobilising.
“Some of Soas’ best union case workers were recruited almost directly from the anti-war or student movements.”
“I’ve struggled, like most branches, when people end up moving on to other places. It feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall but you’ve just got to start again.”
Keeping on looking outwards and fighting to get out from under the load of casework is key to finding new opportunities.
Activists this year set up a stall at the fresher’s fair to explain trade unionism. “We got a huge amount of interest from people,” said Sandy.
“This is something we could take up across the movement. While there are always local specifics the issues we face are the same—shit pay, cuts and privatisation.”
With working class living standards threatened by billions more in Tory cuts this is more urgent than ever. Public sector workers need to look to the people they deliver services to as allies.
Barnet Unison’s campaign against the north London Tory council’s privatisation programme also shows how unions can link the local community into struggle. Residents mobilised by Unison are now central to dismantling the Tory council’s arguments.
Sandy said, “Through working with the community and having a political approach we can take up campaigns and win the arguments.”
“Sometimes unions don’t want to get involved in things they don’t dominate—that’s a big mistake.
“That’s why I’m supporting John Burgess, the Barnet branch secretary, to become general secretary—instead of the leadership’s control freaks.”
Building these kinds of alliances can transform what the unions can do on the ground and what it’s possible to win with that wider support.
“If you get stuck in your bunker you end up getting battered,” Sandy said. We need fighting unions that stop austerity.”
The Trade Union Bill is another attack on union members. It also shifts the balance of power in the unions further towards the bureaucracy.
Sandy argued, “The only way we’re going to defeat that is by taking unofficial action beyond what our union bureaucrats will permit.
“Soas shows this can be done. And if we’ve got the confidence to do that we can rebuild rank and file confidence to take action.
“That’s fundamental. And it can help us transform the balance between the rank and file and union bureaucracy in a positive direction.”
Soas cleaners’ campaign built union across London
It has actively backed solid strikes, which have won real gains for the cleaners. But it hasn’t been an easy or quick campaign without its casualties.
Cleaners who’ve been willing to stand up and fight have been victimised or lost their jobs. But people have kept fighting—sometimes against huge odds.
Juan Carlos Piedra was a Soas cleaner. “I’ve known Sandy since 2006 working in the cleaners’ campaign,” he said.
The experience of the struggle he gained at Soas strengthened him for other battles. Now a University of East London (UEL) Unison cleaners’ rep, Juan Carlos said, “I’m now putting all those lessons into practice in our fight for union recognition at UEL.”
Sandy said, “In a lot of universities the relationship between the academics and the support staff is fraught.
“They don’t see the contribution support staff make.
“When we were building the cleaners’ campaign we went to the UCU branch and talked about how support staff provide spaces fit to work in.”
Taking up all these arguments “puts us in a much stronger position to challenge management more systematically”.
Everyone benefits from a campaign against outsourced services and low pay and bad terms and conditions.
And in the best tradition, people are spreading the lessons of working class struggle. Around a dozen London universities have been touched by the Soas cleaners’ experience.
Several bosses have tried to victimise rank and file union activists.
But there is a small list of militants who’ve won their reinstatement in the last year after campaigns of strikes.
That includes Rotherham Advertiser NUJ union rep Phil Turner and Candy Udwin, PCS union rep at the National Gallery.
Now Sandy’s reinstatement again demonstrates the kind of action that can beat the bosses.
Soas bosses’ ongoing disciplinary procedure may well be a face-saving exercise,