Demonstrations at Senate House: Your Questions Answered

Chris Cobb, Chief Operating Officer and University Secretary, wrote to the President of the University of London Union (ULU) giving details of the University’s policy on 3Cosas demonstrations in and around Senate House in July. The 3Cosas campaign makes a case for enhancing the terms and conditions of employment of staff employed by BBW and Aramark, the University’s facilities providers. This letter was subsequently published by ULU and is available to read  [PDF 1pg, 183KB]. There have been a number of questions raised in blogs and online forums. Here are some of the most frequently asked, together with the answers.      

Why is the University banning protests?

It isn’t. Senate House is home to six of the UK’s preeminent libraries in the arts and humanities. It is a building used principally for academic purposes, with the majority of users being students and researchers. With major building works under way, and with part of the grounds being used for parking, the University has asked that all demonstrations are now held in the public spaces adjacent to Senate House in Malet Street and Russell Square. These locations are the ones generally used for trade union pickets. These measures will minimise congestion around the entrance to the building. The University is not preventing student protest; it is trying to protect the best interests of the wider student body, the researchers and other users of Senate House.

Why do this now?

Thus far the protests have been relatively small (circa 30-50 people) comprising of students, contractors’ staff and some who are not affiliated to the University in any way. The University’s total student population is c120,000. On average there are around 2000 daily users of Senate House’s six libraries and its conference facilities. While small in number the protests are generally very noisy and disruptive and cause congestion around the main entrance of the building. Some have been good- natured but some have been more militant. There have now been two arrests associated with the campaign and new rhetoric from the campaigners states that they intend to escalate the protests and instigate a “summer of disruption”. In this context, the University felt it necessary to establish some ground rules.

Why are you prosecuting students?

We’re not. The current prosecution is a police matter following a criminal investigation. Contrary to ULU’s assertions, the University has no influence or privilege to intervene in a criminal investigation or prosecution. The University is as dismayed as anyone by the way the incident escalated into violence. This is the second arrest for assault related to this campaign and this level of violence and intimidation is partly why it was felt necessary to write to the ULU President to remind him that violence will not be tolerated.
Prosecution for trespass is a civil matter and it is the only means that the University has to protect its buildings and daily activities from any damage resulting from 3Cosas activities. 

Recent protests have been in support of cleaners at Senate House. Surely the issues the protesters raise are important and they have a right to be heard?

They are. Campuses should be safe havens for democratic dissent and the University has always supported this. The issues raised by recent protests relate to enhanced holiday allowance, sick pay and pension contributions for staff employed by independent contractors . Currently the standard terms of employment include statutory sick pay, 28 days holiday and access to a pension fund. These are competitive when compared to similar jobs elsewhere and it should be noted that 95% of the staff were attracted and recruited directly on these terms. These employees have never been employed by or “outsourced” by the University.

But that doesn’t really answer the concerns of the protesters. Why don’t you just enhance the terms and conditions?

For some time, the University has been engaged with UNISON over alternative approaches within the constraints of commercial contracts and employment law as well as absorbing the impact of additional costs without needing to increase prices to our Colleges and students. The University has also been supportive of UNISON training and development initiatives for these staff.

Within the terms of the commercial contracts the University was able to support the London Living Wage. However, it is more challenging to change general terms and conditions as our contractors employ many thousands of staff across many organisations and many sites nationally.

Why don’t you bring these services back in-house?
There are several reasons. Firstly we are bound by existing contracts that would be costly to break. Secondly it would be very difficult to replicate the range and depth of services that we receive from our contractors. Contracts of this nature provide access to expertise, specialist skills, responsiveness and business continuity as well as economies of scale. Lastly, the contracts provide excellent value for money which reduce the University’s operational costs and therefore help us to keep down the rents and prices that we charge to our Colleges and students.

Why won’t you engage directly with the 3Cosas group or with the IWGB to talk about these issues?

The University has met regularly with ULU Sabbatical Officers to discuss these issues. However, these are employment matters between the organisations providing services to the University and their employees. Employment law determines the methods of settling employment disputes. Pickets, strikes and other forms of employment protest are coordinated by recognised trade unions. The 3 Cosas group and the IWGB are not recognised trade unions of the University of London. The recognised trade unions are UCU and UNISON, and these are the only unions with whom the University will discuss employment matters.