Senate House protest

Senate House at the University of London, a tall slab designed by Charles Holden as the start of a larger scheme for the university in the 1930s continues the Orwell theme of a few posts ago.

During the Second World War, the building was taken over as the Ministry of Information. George Orwell’s wife Eileen worked there and it was the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in his ‘1984’, published four years after the war ended. (It also inspired Grahame Greene a few years earlier, writing his Ministry of Fear and the film version by Fritz Lang in 1944.) Somewhere inside that vast hulk was Room 101, though what happened there was prompted by Orwell’s experiences of long and tedious meetings in the Conference Room of another iconic 1930s builing, the BBC’s Broadcasting House.

Senate House is the administrative centre of London University, part of a block that extends along Malet St and to Steward House in Russell Square, and it is a location I’ve visited many times over the years, including for various conferences and while working as an assistant examiner.

But my visits in recent years have been rather noisier, accompanied by cleaners and other low-paid workers, campaigning for a living wage, for decent conditions of service, and most recently to be brought back ‘in-house’, to be directly employed by the university rather than at the non-existent mercy of contracting companies, always out to squeeze maximum profit by exploiting them.

Slowly, slowly, all of these campaigns have reached a satisfactory conclusion. The University management know they have no leg to stand on and cannot support the way these companies treat their workers – and the members of the university – staff and students – let them know that they support the workers.

The delaying tactics continue – and it took the workers at SOAS next door to the Senate House ten years of protests to finally be brought back in house this year. The staff serving Senate House and the nearby University Halls – cleaners, porters, security etc – know they need to keep up the protests to keep the managment on its way to their goal.

At this protest, the workers didn’t actually go inside Senate House, though the rattled the gates at the bottom of the block from both sides, and walked all around the building, blowing vuvzelas, speaking through a powerful megaphone and shouting slogans to make their presence felt. The University had employed extra security staff for the occasion as many of the usual secuirity officers were taking part in the protest which came at the end of a one-day strike by cleaners, porters, security officers, receptionists, gardeners, post room staff and audiovisual staff.

The event was organised by the IWGB (Independent Workers OF Great Britain) University of London Branch, and they were supported by other trade unionists, including some from United Voices of the World, SOAS Unison and the UCU, and by ‘Poetry on the Picket Line’. As at a many other workplaces, the management has failed to recognise the union to which most of the staff now belong, perferring to stick to old agreements with more traditional unions who have often done very little to support low paid workers and have lost credibility. As well as getting better conditions for the workers the IWGB and other grass roots unions are also fighting for union recognition and an end to discrimnation against union members and activists.

More pictures: University of London staff in-House now


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