London Met – how we beat the privatisation sharks

"Our members can once again hold our heads high going into the next round" of battles against privatisation and job cuts in higher education, writes a leading activist in 10-month campaign against Coalition-backed plans to outsource hundreds of staff jobs.
by - 26th October 2012, 8.15 GMT

Since January 2012, London Met UNISON have been engaged in an ongoing fight against wide-scale privatisation proposals.

(Image courtesy of London Met UNISON branch)

We are delighted to declare we have won battle – for now – and whilst we recognise the ongoing war continues, we think it is worth reflecting on how we won our most recent battle.

Last week, the university finally caved in and admitted what we in UNISON had been insisting on for some time: their ‘Shared Services’ proposals were not only deeply unpopular and unnecessary but ultimately they were completely unworkable.

Our campaign has been vindicated: rather than negotiate, we agreed to fight the proposals outright, which severely delayed and disrupted their plans until it was too late to implement them.

It proved to be the right course of action.

It shows that you can fight off privatisation.

Others in similar battles – notably Barnet UNISON, from whom we took our lead and much inspiration – should feel emboldened by our success.

The university conceded on ‘admitted body status’ to the LGPS [Local Government Pension Scheme], for example, only after a great deal of pressure from our campaign and only after we announced our intention to ballot our members for industrial action over their proposals.

They knew full well we would win a resounding “yes” vote and could take potentially very disruptive action short of a strike, as well as smart strike action, over their plans to change the identity of our employer.

This is backed up by our recent overwhelming landslide victory when UNISON stood a candidate for election to the Board of Governors this month on a strong anti-Shared Services platform.

Our campaign was member-led, from the bottom up, and we used everything we could in a union organiser’s toolbox and engaged the imagination and creativity of our members.

Following a mass meeting to launch our campaign, we organised a flash-mob photo-shoot covering up the university’s ‘Proud to be’ marketing slogans and replaced with UNISON placards that read ‘Not allowed to be London Met’ (pictured, below).

Then we launched an email campaign, encouraging our members to state clearly they refused to be transferred over to a new company – and we met our target of over 100 members emailing the Vice Chancellor Malcolm Gillies.

We knew it was having an effect because eventually the university tried to block the emails coming through from our website!

Local MP Jeremy Corbyn signed up to our campaign and wore one of our specially designed ‘Shark Services’ tee shirt to show support.

Hundreds of ‘Shark cards’ were given out to all members of staff, informing them of their rights, advising them remain silent and give ‘no comment’ if approached by one of the private companies on the shortlist.

A petition also gained widespread support from staff and students alike.

We organised a ‘virtual lobby’ of the governing body and over 50 staff were photographed with a ‘NO TO SHARK SERVICES‘ message and an electronic slideshow was sent by email directly to all the governors on their awayday, re-enforcing our position that our members refused to accept their plans.

When the private companies did come on site to meet management, we got wind of it and they were greeted with our activists, leafleting them on the way in. We ensured posters were up around the meeting rooms they were using, calling for “BT – Go Home!” and “CrAPITA – not welcome here!

BT Global did indeed ‘go home’, only last month, but management kept this information from us as they knew we’d have a field day (three down, two to go!).

We developed a clear media strategy which included ensuring our side of the story was published whenever the Vice Chancellor was in the news extolling the virtues of his pet project, so called ‘Shared Servcies’, and consistently denying it was in fact simply privatisation.

We managed to get our version of events (and our intention to resist their proposals) published in the local papers, the Guardian, Times Higher Education and The Independent. Key to this was talking directly to David Hencke of Exaro News, as well as our own trade union networks such as UnionNews.

In addition to this organising, member-led campaigning approach, we used the expertise of our own consultants, the Association of Public Service Excellent (APSE), and we are indebted to their support, which was partly funded by the national union’s fighting fund.

UNISON recognised that this was a nationally significant dispute, so we are very happy to report back that we have won not only for our own members but for all those in higher education facing the threat of ‘Shared Services’ and privatisation.

The local UCU and students’ union branches also supported our campaign although their members were not directly affected by the proposed changes, and we developed some key allies among staff who were not unionised as well, but we recognised our key strength was first and foremost the involvement of our own members.

As well as APSE, we also gained the helpful support of researchers in London Met’s Working Lives Research Institute, and we hosted a seminar by Prof Steve Jefferys and put a film of his presentation on outsourcing on our Youtube channel.

Our most recent lobby of the governing body was supported by London Higher UNISON activists, and we developed national policy to launch a campaign against ‘Shared Services’ and outsourcing in London and beyond.

When the UK Border Agency overseas student fiasco hit us in July-August we took the opportunity to link the issue to outsourcing and insisted on the Governors dropping their ‘Shared Services’ proposals in order for us to work together on that issue and also to get our house in order.

When almost 200 members packed an emergency joint union meeting to pass such a motion and calling on management to allow us time off to attend a protest outside the Home Office and if they did not we would walk out anyway, management conceded this point within 24 hours.

It has been acknowledged that our political campaign was key in winning an amnesty for students who were facing deportation by among others, Dianne Abbott, MP.  Thanks to this effective amnesty we now have the breathing space to work on getting our house back in order and continue to fight to keep our services in house.

Sustaining such an intense campaign during these last ten months at the same time as resisting job cuts, campaigning against a pay freeze, and of course maintaining normal branch activities such as casework and training has been an enormous drain on our activists. We have lost members who have left the university, and activists too as a result of the way things were looking.

However, we insisted all along that we can win this one and we threw everything we could into it, which paid off.

We won new members, new activists and raised our already highly visible profile as a force to be reckoned with.

Many people refused to believe we could win, saw the proposals as a done deal and questioned why we should even bother challenging them.

We have showed how wrong they were.

Our members recognise that we continue to face an uphill struggle, but we are stronger and better prepared for those battles ahead, knowing that – against all the odds – we defeated the pet project of our government-backed Vice Chancellor.

Our members can once again hold our heads high going into the next round.

I would like to thank everyone involved for all the support they have shown. From the members who took part, the journalists and experts who played their role, the officials and the activists who took time away from their our branches to support our fight – the difference this made cannot be overestimated and it will not be forgotten.

Solidarity forever!

Chair of the UNISON branch at London Metropolitan University, Max Watson, writes in a personal capacity.

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