Protesters fasten a “WHO KEEPS THE CUBE WHITE?” protest material on a Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art sign (all images courtesy Goldsmiths Cleaners)

Justice for Cleaners has been utilizing artistic practice and labor organization to challenge the Goldsmiths University of London on their treatment of professional cleaners on staff. On September 6, they interrupted the press preview of the newly opened Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art — worth £4.5 million (~$5.8 million) — to raise awareness about the status of domestic workers at the institution. Rallying around the cause “Who keeps the cube white?” the group disrupted the preview, blowing horns, leafleting, and blocking the media from entering the space, relegating them to the back entrance. They are currently protesting at the grand opening of the CCA this evening, September 7.

Justice for Cleaners (J4C) representatives told Hyperallergic via email that their cause began on June 28 when 25 cleaners at Goldsmiths self-organized to confront university administrators during a council meeting. J4C says the cleaners demanded “that [the university] halt the shift pattern restructure that had been threatened by outsourcing company ISS.”

They explain, “Many of us stood with the cleaners as they confidently explained to senior management how the restructure would impact their lives and how their rights as workers were being abused.” Inspired and outraged, they arranged a meeting “to decide how best to follow up managements’ tepid responses to cleaners, and make sure their voices were heard.” Their group is currently comprised of about 20 participants.

When asked about their demands, J4C said:

Immediately we want to see the halting of the terms and conditions of the restructure. We want accommodations made for the 20+ staff who have lost their jobs or are in the process of losing their jobs because of the restrictive conditions of the restructure. We want all outstanding cases brought forward by cleaners against ISS properly investigated by the university. We want ISS out of Goldsmiths by the end of their contract term at the end of October. We want full in-housing of all cleaning facilities staff and we want ongoing meaningful consultation with cleaning staff and their union representation throughout the process.

“CAUTION” artwork made by organizers

Richard Noble, head of Goldsmiths’s art department, called the protests “fairly typical for Goldsmiths,” according to reports by The Art Newspaper. He added, “This is the context in which the gallery has been created.”

When asked about Noble’s statement, J4C called it a “PR strategy” and “deferring to Goldsmiths’ political reputation as a way of mitigating the bad press of the demonstration.”

They add:

Anyone who has studied at Goldsmiths, or who is an artist with a shred of political integrity will be unsurprised by these appropriative reflexes … This reputation for a politicized student body refers to specific concrete actions taken by groups of staff and students who have committed their time, physical and emotional labour to addressing the ongoing failings of this institution. When this reputation is exploited by marketing departments or PR savvy opportunists the efforts of these real people to improve the conditions of Goldsmiths are used to accrue value, monetary and otherwise, to the institution.

Representatives of Justice for Cleaners list sexual harassment, mental health, and gentrification as imminent threats to Goldsmiths’ workers, students, and surrounding community, and are not properly addressed by university administration. The group claims cleaners are required to take English language tests to maintain their jobs and unionized members are at risk of demotion. (Hyperallergic has reached to ISS to inquire about the English language testing, and will update the post after we receive a response.) They say, “If Richard Noble wants to appropriate the political spirit of particular groups who happen to be at Goldsmiths, he should pay the price for doing so; he should take the risk that we’ve all taken and speak specifically to the concrete political issues that are being raised.”

They say they have received nearly unanimous support from staff and students:

The aims and objectives of the campaign are fairly uncontroversial among staff and students because most people are naturally disgusted by the fact that the lowest paid staff, overwhelmingly BME [Black or minority ethnic] and/or migrant, and predominantly women, could be treated so poorly at Goldsmiths.

Responding to Hyperallergic’s inquiries, a representative of the Goldsmiths said that the institution is liasoning to host meetings about the prospect of keeping cleaners in-house. “Steps will be taken to ensure these meetings are scheduled to allow for maximum attendance by cleaning staff, whose time will be reimbursed,” they guaranteed.

They added that all cleaners working at the institution are paid the London Living Wage. A statement made by a Goldsmiths representative said:

Goldsmiths respects the right to peaceful protest and acknowledges the concerns expressed by some students and staff about the terms and conditions of cleaning staff. We are currently involved in discussions with cleaners and their recognised trade union UNISON.

Our cleaning contracts are due for renewal this autumn and one of the options we’re looking at is taking this important work in-house. As part of this process we have committed to ensuring that the terms and conditions of cleaning staff are harmonised with those of other Goldsmiths staff.

Their current cleaning contract with ISS will commence on October 31, 2018.

Jasmine Weber is an artist, writer, and former news editor at Hyperallergic. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.