How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Cleaners were again on the street protesting, this time at King’s College, another of the leading colleges of London University, although as usual the problem arises because instead of King’s College employing cleaners they outsource the cleaning to a contractor, Servest. King’s doubtless feel they have to treat all employees with dignity and respect and give them decent condition of work and terms of service, but cleaning contractors seem generally happy to treat their workers with contempt, employing poor managers without proper supervision, and giving their workers low pay and unreasonable workloads and cutting things like pensions, sick pay and holidays to the minimum they can.

Cleaners at Kings belong to one of our major trade unions, Unison, and the union and Servest have been in talks at ACA, but haven’t manage to resolve the issues and Servest’s response had been to write to all of the cleaners wanting them thatthey intend to ‘restructure’ the workforce and that all of their jobs are at risk.

The warning letter came just a few weeks before Christmas, a time when family budgets are always under extreme stress, just about the worst Christmas present the workers could imagine. They felt that Servest, like Dr Suess’s Grinch, was trying to steal Christmas – and their jobs – away from them.

It seemed to be a pretty inept piece of management by Servest, with the union members about to vote on strike action, almost guaranteeing that there would be close to 100% support for this in the ballot – and it was no surprise to find 98% of them backing strike action. They also received great support from students and staff, with more than 50 academics at King’s signing a letter in support of their dispute, protesting at how the cleaners were being treated.

Although the pavement in front of Kings is wider than most, it got pretty crowded, making it a little hard to work as a photographer, and my wide angle lens was essential much of the time.

But it’s important to try an vary the views, and I tried hard to also use a longer lens, concentrating on individuals or small groups with the 28-200mm in DX mode. At the 28mm end this gives an effective 42mm, more or less a standard lens for full frame. The 50mm we usually consider as the standard is actually just a little on the long side, simply because in the early years of 35mm cameras it was a little easier to make lenses of that focal length rather than the image diagonal of 43mm (and the image diagonal is more generally the normal ‘standard’ focal length.)

It was a fairly dull winter’s day and the tall buildings around cut down the light; although it was lunchtime I found myself increasing the ISO to 1600 once the rally really got going. Although Unison is a rather more traditional British union the cleaners and their supporters soon increased the tempo and noise to match that of the grass roots unions such as the United Voices of the World, several of whose members (and the UVW General Secretary) had come to show their solidarity.

And in typical UVW style they made a rush into the foyer of King’s, confronting the security staff inside who were keeping an eye on the protest. But Unison’s organiser stopped his members from following their example.

I’m glad I stayed on until the official rally had ended, although I’d been thinking of leaving along with a couple of colleagues. But the cleaners and some of the students and other supporters remained, and there was loud music and dancing, and more space to work – and the Grinch appeared.

More pictures: King’s College cleaners Servest protest


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