Students are workers too

Submitted by Anon on 4 November, 2005 - 9:45

By Daniel Randall, NUS National Executive (personal capacity)

In these columns, I’ve talked a lot about why students should unite with workers, especially those who work on their campuses such as lecturers, cleaners, librarians or catering staff.

But a decade of huge attacks on education funding have meant that more and more students are forced to enter the labour market themselves. Students are workers too. And students are working for increasingly long hours and increasingly poorer pay.

Government propaganda about how much more university graduates can expect to earn is not much consolation during an eight-hour shift behind a bar or stacking shelves in a supermarket.

The situation is perhaps worst for students in sixth forms and Further Education colleges. The meagre grants given to higher education students look luxurious next to the pitiful Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) that FE students receive. Being skint, combined with the totally understandable desire to gain a bit of financial independence from your parents, leads FE students into jobs with appalling conditions and appalling wages.

During the last six months of my A-Levels, I worked as a cleaner in a local comprehensive school. Fortunately for me, my workplace was well organised and I was able to join a trade union, Unison. Consequently, I was also paid reasonably well. But for most of my friends who also worked — and for most FE students in work across the country — the situation is not so rosy.

Many of my friends worked as pot-washers in the kitchens of local restaurants, sometimes without official terms of employment in cash-in-hand jobs that paid below the minimum wage. This precarious situation made it almost impossible for them join trade unions, for fear of losing their jobs.

The National Union of Students is capable of talking the compassionate talk about student debt and student poverty, but it has done nothing to make sure its members who work know about their rights as workers and know how to fight for them. NUS’s relationship with trade unions seems to consist of Kat Fletcher dining with labour movement bureaucrats at TUC Congresses.

However, the NUS is not solely to blame. The trade unions have, for years, ignored the sectors in which many students work. Because of the high-turnover of workers in the retail, bar and fast-food sectors (and because of the intensely anti-union belligerence of many employers), the unions have failed to organise here. Where unions are established they can be in thrall to the bosses — such as the shop-workers‚ union USDAW, which has a “partnership deal” with Tesco. The partnership consists of Tesco setting the terms and conditions and USDAW giving up its members’ rights including some rights to sick pay.

Along with others on the NUS National Executive, I am developing a project with trade unionists to organise students in their workplaces. This project is aimed at ensuring both the NUS and the trade unions fight for student workers working as they do in often precarious, and unorganised jobs.

Many students work in sectors with viciously anti-union employers; McDonalds, for example, has been known to close branches where workers have tried to organise. It’s not enough, therefore, to simply give sixth-formers working part-time flipping burgers union membership forms and wait for them to sign up.

Years of bureaucratic atrophy in both the NUS and the labour movement have taken their toll, and some glossy leaflets or sharp propaganda is not going to dramatically change the situation overnight.

But if this project can go someway to properly restoring a labour movement focus in NUS, to make it take its members‚ rights at work seriously, and go someway to forcing the trade unions to reconsider their reluctance to organise in the relevant sectors, then it will have achieved a great deal.

To keep up to date with the progress of the project, check the website of the Education Not for Sale network and my NUS blog

Queen Mary: a living wage for campus workers

TELCO, “The East London Citizens Organisation”, campaign for a living wage for campus workers at Queen Mary University in east London.

Cleaners at QMUL only earn the minimum wage (£5.05 per hour), and their wages only ever increase when the minimum wage does. They often struggle to get basic rights such as sick pay and holiday pay — some workers don’t seem to get the legal minimum of 12 days‚ paid holiday. They have to pay for their own travel to and from work, which seriously detracts from their meagre budget. The TELCO campaign is fighting for a living wage for these and other campus workers — pay which reflects the high costs of living in central London.

Most of these workers are not members of trade unions, and cultural differences with the employers makes it very hard for them to stand up for themselves — many are reluctant to join in a campaign alongside student activists, since they are open to intimidation from the bosses and the fear of losing their jobs. Equally, many universities such as Queen Mary have subcontracted on-campus services to private companies, then pretend that workers‚ rights are an issue for the employers, not for the university.

In many ways, the Queen Mary campaign is a model — they have involved the campus trade unions, won over the at-first relucant student union, organised action including a rally outside the university and, most importantly, managed to involve a number of cleaning workers as activists who feel they have a real stake in the campaign.

There are problems with both TELCO‚s politics — it claims to be “non-political” and aims for a popular front of faith groups, all-party MPs etc — and in the way it organises, but its work at Queen Mary nonetheless shows student activists that it can be done!

Students Against Sweatshops activists at a number of London colleges as well as in Oxford are working to establish similar campaigns. If you want to do it at your university, get in touch!

Laura Schwartz, University of East London


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