Electoral scandal at University of London UNISON branch

By Gilad Isaacs

Workers at the University of London – campaigning for sick pay, holiday pay, and pensions – are caught between a recalcitrant university administration and an obstructive union bureaucracy.
“Obstructive” is perhaps too generous a term; the shenanigans of some of the UNISON branch
leaders, and selective efficiency of UNISON London Region, in the run up to the Senate House branch
union elections appear aimed at disenfranchising some of the most vulnerable union members.

A cleaner at one of the resident halls (who asked not to be named) told me that the only
explanation she can think of for the conduct that I chronicle here is that various union officials “have
the intention of taking the vote away from workers”. But some background first.

Cleaners, porters, security guards, catering staff, and other support staff at the University
of London administrative offices (in Senate House and central academic buildings) and student
resident halls are employed by private contractors. In September 2011 many of these workers
earned just above the national minimum wage, hardly enough to live on in London. After months
of campaigning led by activist workers they managed to secure the London Living Wage (£8.55) as a
basic minimum hourly rate.

Inspired by this success the same group of activist workers went on to launch the “3Cosas
Campaign” (Spanish for “three things”) in November 2012; the demands: the same sick pay, holiday
pay, and pensions that other University employees enjoy.

In August/September 2012 the idea for the campaign was discussed between stewards
representing outsourced workers and the union leadership, led by branch secretary Josephine Grahl.
According to a number of the stewards the leadership said that they tacitly support the demands
but that the campaign would need to be led by the outsourced workers themselves as the branch
leadership was “too busy”.

The workers duly did this, set up weekly meetings, and begun planning, recruiting and
publicising the campaign. The campaign plan and budget was brought to a union branch meeting for
endorsement on 4 November 2012.

It was at this point that smouldering tensions between the union branch leadership and
activist workers erupted. According to a number of members present the meeting became heated
with Ms Grahl declaring her opposition with a petulant “I’m the secretary and I don’t support this”
and vice-chair Simon Meredith refusing to bring the issue to a vote. When the allotted meeting time
was up, with the debate in full swing and a majority of committee members seemingly in favour
of endorsing the campaign, Mr Meredith declared that time was up, called the meeting closed
and,together with Ms Grahl and local area organiser Tony Mabbott, walked out. In an online UNISON
article six weeks later, Ms Grahl seemed to endorse the campaign. (Reference cited: http://www.unison.org.uk/activists/pages_view.asp?did=15102)

Sonia Chura, a cleaner at Hughes Parry Resident Hall and a union steward, guesses that the
schism emerged because the branch leadership felt out of control of what was clearly becoming
the most dynamic branch activity. Quite possibly there were other contributing factors (the union
leadership named have not responded to requests for an interview or comments) but Ms Chura’s
conjecture seems to be borne out by the fact that the branch leadership then called a meeting on
22 November to discuss launching an official branch campaign with the same objectives (with the
addition of maternity leave).

One of the only five workers to attend explained that none of the existing campaign leaders
were asked to participate in planning and running the meeting and that it was scheduled for a time
when many workers were already on their way to their second jobs.

The union branch elections, currently underway, have brought this acrimony to a head as
activist workers and other committee members have run a slate of candidates that excludes most
current branch leadership.

All well and good one might say, let the democratic process of union elections take their due
course. This, however, according to the workers interviewed, is precisely the problem. They argue
that current branch leaders, assisted by London Region, have manipulated the election process in a
nefarious manner that disenfranchises the outsourced workers.

The key contention revolves around the decision by branch officials to conduct the elections
via a postal ballot and the subsequent manner in which London Region has coordinated this (London
Region also did not respond to requests for an interview or comments). The Senate House Branch
rules state that the election should be“conducted by postal ballot in accordance with the procedure
and time scales contained in the [UNISON] Code of Good Branch,” the Code “recommends” but does
not enforce postal ballots.

Despite this, previous elections were held at AGMs and usually took place via a show
of hands. According to an email from Ms Grahl to UNISON members (09 January 2013) this
was to be the modus operandi for this year’s election. That decision was reversed without
explanation following the officers’ receipt of the nominations (which included, for the first time,
a slate comprising of activist workers and others who support the campaign in opposition to the
incumbents).

The workers argue that the problems with a postal ballot are multifarious and that the
decision – whilst adhering to the letter of the law – violates its spirit. In addition they contend
that numerous other facets of the guidelines have been disregarded. The inventory of grievances
includes:

That seemingly no attempt was made to update members’ addresses prior to
posting the ballots. The precarious nature of life as an underpaid worker in London
means that residential addresses frequently change.

Some branch members are incorrectly registered as being a member of a different
branch, others are not on the database at all (and therefore being informed that
they are not members, nor eligible to vote) despite regular participation in branch activities

and,in some cases, paying monthly membership fees.

Voting instructions on ballots were in English only despite the branch leadership
purportedly aware that numerous workers are not fluent in English.
An incorrect ballot was first distributed followed by a corrected version in a different
colour. The instruction that only the latter would be counted was, appropriately,
communicated in English and Spanish but Polish workers have complained that they
speak neither of these languages.

Workers claim that neither London Region nor the branch leadership have made an
attempt to ascertain which members have not received ballots and assist them in
updating their information. When campaign leaders attempted to do so they were
informed that the workers themselves need to telephonically request a ballot be
sent to a new address. Only one London Region employee speaks Spanish and he
works 9:30am to 5:00pm a time when most of the workers say they are unable to
call in.

The extent of this disenfranchisement is hard to exaggerate with campaign leaders
estimating that over 50 percent of cleaners and porters did not originally receive ballots; an
ignominy that would make United States Republican legislators trying to strip African Americans and
Latinos of their vote, proud.

A brief purview of the code of practice supports the view that these actions are at
best a shameful oversight. The code emphasises that all election material and meetings should
be “accessible” and that “consideration” should be “given to the most effective means of
communicating and balloting”. It seems probable that if unrectified these oversights could lead to
lower participation in the elections, particularly by the outsourced workers.

It is not only voter participation which activist workers claim has been undermined. In a
letter to UNISON National Executive members (11 February 2013) branch member Jason Moyer-
Lee details how three nominees were disqualified from running in the election on the grounds that
the membership fees of one of them was in arrears and that he had seconded the nomination of the
other two. This indeed appears to be the case, although the worker – an active leader in the Living
Wage and 3Cosas Campaign (Spanish speaking) – claims to have been unaware that there was a
technical problem in deducting the fee from his bank account. A letter, in English, was dispatched
from London Region notifying him of the problem although he claims not to have received it.

At issue here, Mr Moyer-Lee contests, is the principle of promoting “fair representation”, a
purported UNISON objective. By disqualifying these workers the number of low paid workers and
workers from ethnic minorities available to fill the sixteen officer positions was reduced from five to
two. What this amounts to, Mr Moyer-Lee argues, is a highly selective application of the rules with
many rules flagrantly disregarded and some rigidly enforced.

One rule recently breached, and scandalously so, is the prohibition on using official union
resources and meetings for campaigning purposes. Mr Mabbott and Ms Grahl recently held official
union meetings at residence halls to discuss the union elections and workplace elections for
stewards.

In a clearly choreographed performance, after the business was concluded, the meeting
was declared over with a “well that’s it”, upon the heels of which Mr Mabbott excused himself
declaring “I’m working [for UNISON] so I’m neutral in the elections” and left the room. Ms Grahl
after farcically noting that “this is not the official bit”, but without giving even an Olympic athlete
running for his life time to leave, launched into a campaign speech.

This appears to be a brazen disregard, by Ms Grahl, of the prohibition on using official
branch facilities and activities for individual campaign purposes, and, at best, wilful negligence on
the part of a paid UNISON official, Mr Mabbott. It appears grounds for the disqualification of Ms
Grahl from the elections.

A critical problem of the election process notes Henry Chango Lopez, a porter at Senate
House, is the sheer lack of transparency. By way of example he claims to have been denied
documentation (from London Region) specifying the guidelines that state that he, as an elected
steward (who speaks English and has some late afternoons off work), cannot request ballots be sent
to workers who have changed their address and not yet received them (purported because he is
standing for elections). If this is the rule, then that’s fine he says, “but show me where it says that”
otherwise it just looks like a way to stop some members from being able to vote.

The real story to fill these pages should be that of the University administration who
continues to deny workers these basic rights. Alas.

“When I started campaigning,” Mr Lopez tells me with a shake of the head, “I never
expected I’d be fighting the university and my own union. If the branch didn’t want our campaigns
then we would have accepted that but the majority were in favour, it was the leadership who
stopped it. That is not democracy. The leaders should do what the workers want not what they want
to do for the workers. What’s the point of a union if at the meetings three of four people dictate the
outcome?” Indeed.

Perhaps seeking to change this is why Mr Lopez spends time between his two jobs and
university studies scrambling to help registered branch members negotiate the warren of ad hoc
procedures and union bureaucracy merely so that they can vote in their own elections. Perhaps his
time would better be spent campaigning for sick pay, holiday pay, and pensions. Perhaps.

Gilad Isaacs is a PhD student in economics at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS).

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