My friend was punished for doing everything right. Why you should stand with the striking UCL workers.

Today outsourced workers at UCL are on strike. They’re striking not only for decent sick pay, holidays and pensions, but for dignity. I’ll try convincing you that pretty much nothing any one of us might do at UCL is more important than the security guards and cleaners improving their conditions. But first, I want to tell you about a friend.

Recently I chatted to a security guard I know at UCL. He’s been there far longer than me and most of the current bosses. I’ve known him for most of the years I’ve spent around Bloomsbury. He’s old enough to retire, but has stayed on at UCL.

Numerous outsourcing security firms have come and gone at UCL this past decade. One follows the other as they fail, in farcical succession, to manage the contract (recently the contract fell to the ominously named Axis Security…). As new bosses scramble to manage the mess left by their predecessors, my friend knowingly shakes his head and laughs.

My friend told me is this: Not long ago he had to take several weeks off work while recovering from an operation. During that time, he received no pay apart from the minimum statutory sick pay. That’s £94.25 a week. If you live in London you don’t need me to tell you that you cannot live in London on £94.25 a week.

Punished for following the social contract?

Think about it. My friend has done everything right. He’s followed the rules society set out. He’s done his job, worked hard, paid his taxes all his life, done his civic duties. Yet, when he’s over sixty he’s suddenly told he can’t take ill. Imagine you’ve gone through life expecting, if not a luxurious retirement, at least some dignity in old age and a roof over your head. Then you find out you’re one illness away from being unable to pay rent.

Before you ask, most of us do not have savings or the bank of mum and dad to cover our backs.

What has my friend done wrong to be treated like this? He’s had a steady job for decades. He’s kept generations of scientists safe from burglars and unwanted intruders. These questions, to me, bring out the deep injustice in what happens under our noses at UCL and many other workplaces.

My friend could’ve been my grandparent, my uncle or my mentor. He’s certainly taught me one or two things over the years! As far as I’m concerned, all people are brothers and sisters in humanity. What would you do if someone close to you needed your help to ensure their boss paid them a dignified wage when their ill? Would you say, “oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, but I just must attend this seminar”? Is whatever you’re doing at UCL really that important?

Who are we for?

Rabbi Hillel asked the question two millennia ago: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Today, if we don’t support our friends and fellows in the UCL security and cleaning staff when they strike, by not crossing their picket line, then who are we? Are we so much part of this system that we can’t break our daily routines to join the picket?

If you’re at university because you think you want to improve the world, or you just want a better life for yourself, I implore you: we make the world better together, and we only do by sticking up for our fellow humans. If we don’t stick up for them, who will stick up for us? So skip you seminar; don’t go to lab; postpone your meeting – or ask them to relocate to somewhere outside UCL – or study in the British Library. Even better, join the picket line; find the others; realise the moment you’ve been waiting for to break out of the boring grind of daily life is now!

Maybe, you already agree with everything I’ve said. If so, please pass this on, and use these arguments to convince friends to join you on the picket. If you disagree, tell me – if you make a strong argument you might see your words published here, to give them a fair hearing.

What I really what to say is this: I have nothing but love and respect for the workers striking at UCL. All power to you, solidarity, and see you at the pickets!

Photo credit: Socialist Appeal, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), with modifications.

Want to write a reply? Email me at david.dahlborn.13 [at] ucl.ac.uk.


Opinion Editor. Cambridge History PhD student.

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