On Monday, 18th March, students formed a picket line outside Senate House Library to protest the University of London’s outsourcing of workers. All entrances were blocked by protesters, who held signs and shouted chants such as ‘in house now’.
The event took place in response to Senate House’s University of London Landlord Forum event, which was marketed as ‘a necessity for anyone who lets, or is thinking about letting, to students in London’. Meanwhile, the student protesters held banners which included such slogans as ‘rent strike everywhere’.
After only half an hour the protest was forced to move to the back entrance of Senate House, where non-protesting students and staff had also been told they could gain access. But the protest continued there, with a sign emblazoned ‘clear up outsourcing’ being held up while the door was blocked; any entrance to the building was therefore not possible. The main gates at the front of the building were locked throughout events.
Tensions ultimately escalated between security staff and protesters, but also between students, some of whom were expressing their frustration at being denied access to the University building. One of the protesters sought to address the crowd, encouraging students to “write to the Vice Chancellor” of the University of London and “tell him to end outsourcing”. The same individual stated “let everyone in except the landlords”, referring to those attending the Landlord Forum event inside the building.
The link between the protest and the Landlord Forum, however, seemed tenuous. The ‘Boycott Senate House’ Facebook event, as well as the protesters on the day, appeared to focus primarily on the University of London’s practice of outsourcing the employment of their security, cleaning and catering staff and various other forms of work. According to the group, the practice of outsourcing ‘creates precarity at work…and leaves [workers] more vulnerable to bullying and abuse by managers’.
Discontent also extended to the private housing sector and the ‘precarity at home’ it creates for outsourced workers, as well as the growing costs of renting at University of London halls of residence.
To what extent are the ‘Boycott Senate House’ crowd legitimate in their anger? Certainly, Roar followed the King’s campaign Justice for Cleaners, or #J4C, which fought alongside Unison for cleaners and security staff to be brought in-house. Last autumn, the College Council voted to bring cleaners in-house sometime in 2019, though King’s has not confirmed this date to Roar.
For University of London, outsourced workers, led by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, have protested repeatedly in recent years in the face of outsourcing and the insecurity and poor working conditions it creates. While the University of London committed to bringing workers in-house over a number of years in 2018, protesters claim they have since gone back on this commitment. Students distributed flyers at Monday’s protest seeking support ‘for an end to lies’.
Nevertheless, Monday’s protest may have missed the mark with their picketing efforts. The predominant impact of their campaign seemed to be to frustrate students waiting outside Senate House, either to be allowed to enter or to return having momentarily left the building. One of the latter group even defended the security staff following argumentation between protesters and those working on the door, stating ‘they’re just doing their job’.
Similarly, the amalgamation of several targets of protest – outsourcing employment, private London landlords as well as high rent at London halls of residence – seemed to dilute the impact.