Why help the Tolbiac cleaners’ strike?

In more than two weeks of strike, the Tolbiac cleaning workers had time to tell about their working conditions, their sufferings, their life as a “little invisible hand” that had passed in the shadow of one of the centers of the “prestigious” Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne University . They have been on strike since November 7th and are fighting for the reinstatement of their team leader, for better working conditions and for dignity.

For the time being, the Arc en Ciel supplier company is counting on the intensification of the conflict and the precariousness of the strikers and deliberately ignores them, for example by refusing to take part in the negotiation session on November 9th. For its part, the Paris 1 Presidency has done everything to try to make its struggle as invisible as possible. Willingness to take the pickets out of Tolbiac’s hall, banning them from taking their demands to students and teachers, pressure on staff to show their support for the strikers: they were spared nothing. The self-proclaimed “university of social empathy” actually stands with Arc en Ciel to silence the exploited.

His only suggestion to the strikers during a meeting in Tolbiac with the latter was to bring up the breach of contract with Arc en Ciel in favor of another subcontractor. A process which, on the one hand, offers the strikers no guarantee and is totally unresponsive to their demands, and which, on the other hand, allows Paris 1 to continue using the system of subcontracting and free itself from responsibility for the situation of the university workers.

Necessary work, miserable conditions

The only good thing about outsourcing Arc en Ciel is the name of the box. The reality of the working conditions of the employees working there is terrible. These shadow workers, whose hours intersect so little with those of students, professors and users of the university, have a tough job that is painful from start to finish of the day and for some is forced to combine positions in multiple centers to make up the month to end . At Tolbiac, the first team of the day starts very early in the morning and the last team leaves at 10pm.

Everything is missing on site. The equipment is not renewed by Arc en Ciel and the premises provided by Paris 1 to store the tools are too small or poorly positioned, which forces the workers to make many unnecessary detours. Employees are sometimes forced to use equipment left behind by previous provider Challencin. As for the premises allocated by Paris 1 as changing rooms and rest rooms, their condition is unworthy of unhealthiness. Located in the parking lot of the PMF center, these are getting damp, lacking amenities and recently, workers have not even had access to toilets near their university-closed premises. Shadow workers in the basement: A whole program for Paris 1.

Labor law is also the least of the subcontractor’s concerns: workers without contracts, unpaid overtime, unpaid bonuses. So the university has a good game to ignore the villain boss’ practices that Arc en Ciel is to blame for.

However, among the center’s staff, it’s difficult to do a more important job than cleaning a public place that thousands of students pass by every day. Without those invisible little hands despised by the presidency, the “elite” university would be nothing but a giant dump of garbage and clogged toilets. A real double standard between their indispensable role at universities and the almost unimaginable working conditions of these precarious cleaners.

Racism and (over)exploitation

When a university subcontracts with a company, especially cleaning, it not only obliges a company to make its employees work in inhumane conditions for starvation wages, it also condones the racist exploitation to which they fall victim.

As evidenced by the portraits of the strikers recently produced by Raised Fist, the vast majority of these workers are migrants and find themselves in extremely vulnerable situations. The sector bosses then have no trouble keeping them in this precarious position and using them against them to put pressure on wages or working conditions. As recalled in the press release in support of the strikers, published by the feminist collective Du Pain et et Roses “ If the cleaning bosses allow themselves the worst scares, it’s because the workforce in this sector is largely immigrant, racist, and feminized. The bosses know this and take advantage of it, it is no coincidence that the most difficult and least well-paid jobs are systematically occupied by foreigners or racialized people and to a large extent by women: it is a deliberate racist and sexist division of labor between the bosses, in order to maximize their profits “.

Relying on the subcontracting of activities that are nevertheless classic and constitutive of the functioning of a university itself, the presidencies know exactly what they are getting themselves into, to which predatory companies with racist exploitation of their workers they entrust the maintenance of their centers. But, accomplices, they close their eyes and suffocate employees when they try to lift their heads, and prioritize morbid financial logic above all things. The Tolbiac case is anything but isolated.

A fight against subcontractors

In particular, what this strike has allowed to bring to light is the situation of general subcontracting, which is particularly widespread in higher education and research (ESR). More and more university tasks are being outsourced, especially cleaning and security, but also food.

In the face of misery and poor working conditions, a number of struggles have emerged in recent months that go beyond the mere framework of subcontracting and highlight the serious shortcomings of the ESR. Crous workers striking for wages and hiring, or even employees of Arc en Ciel in Jussieu fighting for respect and dignity.

Today, in Tolbiac, it is also about questioning the subcontracting system operated by the strikers, demanding that the University of Paris 1 internalize it among the university’s employees. No college without teachers, but also no college without cleaners! The practices of the ESR and the accounting logic that governs all university deliberations and actions undertaken by governments and successive university presidencies require reflection and establishment of another university project.

The basic question: Which university do we want?

Beyond subcontracting, the Tolbiac strike situation raises the question of which university to defend and which university to want. We defend and have always defended a university that is open to all, the masses, against the elite that won’t leave the children of the working class at the door. A university that has emancipated itself from patriarchal, racist and anti-LGBTI+ oppression. A university that refuses to convey reactionary and discriminatory ideas and discourses for a part of the population. Of course, such a project cannot be carried out for the sole benefit of students and teachers, ignoring the fate of workers and staff.

If we deny that the university is for a minority, we also deny that it operates on the misery and over-exploitation of thousands of workers through subcontracting. The emancipated university must be emancipated for both students and employees. That is why we stand up for their demand for internalization and defend it together with the strikers, in order to start breaking the permanent logic of precariousness of all university actors. Queues in front of blackboards, underpaid student jobs: the plight of the cleaning staff is just one facet of the university’s plight, which has turned into a huge pain box. A sounding board of a degraded public university.

Students – workers: all in solidarity

The Tolbiac workers’ strike is a reminder of the importance of solidarity and the bonds created between students and workers. It is this solidarity that has made it possible to bring more than 12,000 euros to the strike fund, giving the strikers strength to continue their struggle. These links are all the more important as they run counter to the project of the Presidency and the Ministry for the University. While the latter split, wanting to make workers invisible in order to be able to profit cheaply from their exploitation on the one hand and to continue destroying the university on the students’ backs on the other, they see a bleak picture of the two groups coming together.

For this reason, the Presidency has done everything in its power to try to sever these links to ensure that the meeting between students and workers does not take place, knowing the explosive potential this can have. There you have it, another lesson to be learned from this Tolbiac cleaning workers’ strike, a lesson on a small scale but of great importance: it is the workers’ and students’ union that is likely to open up a different horizon first the university, but also everywhere else.

To support Arc en Ciel workers in their struggle, donate online to the strike fund!

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