The LSE cleaners campaign shows that we need a radical rethink on work

The battle to create good jobs is being lost


The first thing that struck me when I returned to the location of my student days at the London School of Economics was how the place had changed.

A huge amount of money has been ploughed into the university. The buildings, my old shabby haunts when I was there 25 years ago, have been transformed with money from thousands of foreign students who have walked through the door since I left. Presumably the colossal debt now racked up by LSE’s domestic students has helped too.

But I wasn’t back at LSE to sightsee, visit students or even take part in a debate. I was there to protest alongside cleaners on their second day of strike action. Despite the university’s immense new wealth, little of the benefits appear to reach these cleaners who keep the whole place running.

The cleaners are simply demanding fair treatment. They are allowed only 28 days annual leave compared to 41 days for in-house LSE staff and they receive statutory sick pay, which means they do not get paid for the first three days they are ill and then only £88.45 per week after this. They face poor working conditions and receive only a one per cent pension contribution.

LSE has consistently tried to shift the blame onto Noonan, the private company it outsources its cleaning services to. This simply isn’t good enough. After the university refused to concede to the cleaners’ demands, members of the United Voices of the World union voted 100 per cent in favour of strike action.The first people I met at the picket line were Daniel, Beverley and Mildred, one of whom had just finished a 16-hour shift. They are being treated as second class workers and all they want is equal treatment, dignity and respect. The LSE cleaners are firmly in the lower division of a two tier work force, where inequality is entrenched.

We were told 30 years ago, around the time when I was thinking about what university I would go to, that a day was coming when wealth would increase and there would be huge technological advances. We would all be able to spend more time with our families and friends, have high quality and secure jobs which we could build our lives on, have warm homes and proper security when things went wrong — whether that be in our welfare state, national health service or social care.

Now that huge wealth has been created. That technological advance has happened. But most of us haven’t seen the rewards, instead we have seen growing inequality and a country divided in more ways that we ever could have imagined. Instead of protection from globalisation, and control over our lives, a handful of corporate and private interests are calling the shots.

LSE was founded by Fabian Socialists with money given for the ‘betterment of society’. But depriving some of its poorest paid and hardest workers of any benefits is not the way to advance towards a society we can proud of.

It was founded with ‘a radical vision to address major social challenges and a commitment to equality and diversity’.  The claim that it remains true to its founding ethos is questionable at best. For me it seems blatantly untrue.

It is a scandal so much money has been poured into the university — but not the staff. It is a glaring injustice and if this is not one of the big social challenges of our time, then what is?

And the cleaners are not the only workers at LSE who face inequality. The university is trying to rectify its gender pay gap, following a study that revealed women earned 10.5 per cent less than men with similar experience and output. Many of the academic staff are also employed on extremely insecure casual contracts.

How can a university with such a progressive vision have fallen so short? The fact that an institution like LSE, which started out with all the best intentions, is now in this situation is a clear sign the battle to create the good jobs we all deserve is being lost. We need a radical rethink on work.

We are not after a return to the Fabian socialism of the past, but we need a bold, 21st century vision of work and an economy that doesn’t amass wealth for a privileged few on the backs of the many. Already some countries are experimenting with policies that could transform the way we live and work for the better. Finland is trialling a basic income and Sweden has thought about shortening the working day.

The bold ideas are out there, and this is what LSE once had a reputation for. The real challenge is to be determined enough to try them out. The alternative is to sit by as we face an ever-growing inequality — something that the LSE cleaners are all too familiar with.

It’s the politicians who need to catch up.

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green Party. He Tweets @Jon_Bartley

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.