Academy Award winning actor Jeremy Irons told striking security staff to “be reasonable” and stop shouting so he could talk about T. S. Eliot as they demanded rights and fair pay.
Irons inadvertently came across picketing security officers on the first day of their second strike over zero hours contracts and unfair pay. He was on his way to a T. S. Eliot poetry reading at Senate House, the centre of the University of London’s administrative operations.
Irons took to the megaphone to tell activists: “The world can only be run by reasonableness,” giving his take on the British way of resolving disputes before adding: “So I would be most grateful if you would let us talk about Eliot.”
Security staff picketed Senate House in protest at widespread use of zero hours contracts and the university’s failure to deliver on a pay rise promised six years ago.
Strikers supported by the IWGB objected to the roughly £20,000 a year pay rate for staff, many of whom have staff to support. They had been promised their pay would increase in line with pay increases for other staff at the university in 2011, and demanded that this promise be kept.
They also objected to the use of zero hours contracts and short-hours contracts, which are described as “not materially different” from zero hours, across the university, which makes staff financially insecure.
UoL had repeatedly refused to negotiate with strikers; a fact which Irons appeared not to recognise as he told those on the picket line that shouting would not solve their predicament and that they would need to get round the negotiating table.
Irons told the strikers: “There comes a time when shouting is necessary; but there also comes a time when stopping to shout, and to listen and to discuss is also necessary. I believe your point is made. It’s a good point; those of you on zero hours, if you exist, shouldn’t be. The wages should be maybe higher than £20,000 a year if you’re raising a family, but it’s complicated. It needs talk; it needs reasonableness. The world can only be run by reasonableness.”
He then went on to somewhat clunkily explain to the crowd, some of whom are migrant workers, that in Britain the done thing is to negotiate disputes. He said: “Those of you who are here from other countries are here, I hope, because England is reasonable. I beg you to be be reasonable. This is a country that has had many uprisings, many small revolutions for many years, and deals with it quietly.
“So I would be most grateful if you would let us talk about Eliot, be reasonable, your point is made, we have the leaflets, we understand where you’re coming from, and I wish you every success. But please don’t keep shouting, because that’s not the way we do it here.”
IWGB chief Dr Jason Moyer-Lee pointed out that the IWGB had repeatedly offered the university opportunities to negotiate, even offering to call off the strike if UoL agreed. He said: “We’re being reasonable; they’re not.”
Irons’ history of political weighing-in is not coloured in glory. In 2013, he commented that gay marriage would enable fathers to marry their sons for tax purposes.
The Twitter reaction to Irons wading into the conflict was largely negative. Daniel Stone called his speech “utter condescension”, while Ben Gidley accused him of “whitesplaining to migrant workers”, calling his speech “appalling”. Seambreamlatte wrote: “How patronising and historically ignorant can you get”.
As Irons left, strikers cheered, banged drums and used (possibly) vuvuzelas to create a defiant wall of sound. He signalled at them to quieten down, which they did not do, before turning around and entering the building.