lessons of the tower hamlets esol strike

Two workers who took part in the recent strike over cuts to teaching roles and student places in English for Speakers of Other Languages and other subjects spoke to The Commune about the lessons of the dispute.

esolpicket

Tell us about what unions workers are in, their organising capacity, and of their previous relationship with management

All teachers are in the University and College Union. Support staff/admin staff are mainly in Unison or no union. UCU has always been strong in the college and in the two years before the strike successfully campaigned to make 60 hourly paid teachers into permanent employees with higher pay and more rights. UCU also led an unofficial walkout earlier in the year to support our longstanding caretaker who was sacked.

What cuts were proposed?

The original Securing the Future document proposed 40 full time jobs and 1000 ESOL places cut, as well as a general attack on our conditions and contracts, which had been quite good.

How did the campaign against the cuts begin?

Before the document was issued we’d already had an indicative ballot for industrial action based on suggestions that we’d be facing compulsory redundancies. This saved us crucial time as the ballot process is so lengthy. We were officially balloted a couple of weeks later. The campaign began immediately as everyone’s classes became campaigning ground, with teachers and students creating materials relating to the cuts, writing letters, discussing, and spreading the word. It was a creative and exciting time with masses of participation, ideas, actions including:

« Unofficial walkout on one site

« Community demonstration

« Two one-day strikes

« Mass rebellion of 250 teachers against imposed staff training: corporate trainers forced to flee the college

The campaign began to focus more on the 13 jobs remaining at risk after 25 people took voluntary redundancy. Casework began to defend individuals who had been selected through a punitive performance-related scoring matrix for redundancy.

Negotiations were ongoing during this time but were characterised by complete intransigence by Principal Michael Farley who refused to extend the 30 day consultation process to allow alternatives to be considered. Union reps put forward detailed suggestions on money-saving but it was clear that Farley did not explore other cost-cutting measures because the process was designed to ensure that there would be compulsory redundancies at the end. There was never a serious irresolvable financial crisis; there were funding cuts, but they exploited these in order to try to destroy the power of the union.

What actions were undertaken over the summer?

Very little happened over the summer because teachers go away. Some people in London met and began to plan for pickets. We found a strike headquarters at London Action Resource Centre (LARC) in Whitechapel.

Indefinite strikes are very rare – how was the decision to take this course of action made?

Farley had planned the thing so as to make strike action impossible – the 30 day countdown to mass redundancies at the end of the year meant that we couldn’t get a strike ballot together in time to make a meaningful withdrawal of labour (the end of term is trips and parties).

It felt like a real stitch up because the next striking possibility was September when people would have already been sacked. After meeting and discussing (the one day strikes were discussing across sites) we realised that there was a huge opportunity to threaten strike action in enrolment week. We held a union meeting directly after the teachers’ revolt over training and it was at this meeting where we voted unanimously to go on all out strike in the most strategically important time of the year for the college-enrolment week (funding is based on student enrolments). We may not have been able to make the decision without the strength and solidarity created during the training revolt.

What was the mood at the start of the strike?

Fantastic. People were immediately mobilised into action. Everyone came out to the picket lines – not only the usual activists. Autonomous activity was undertaken by all sorts of people carving out roles in publicity, fundraising, artwork, meetings, leaflet writing, picket line, communicating with students, translating leaflets, organisation and so on.

How solid were the pickets, and to what extent was support mobilised among other workers and from students?

Pickets were solid across the three sites. At our site the very few scabs came out with us after a few days. Middle managers were also on strike for the duration. Students stood with us on the picket lines and gave their full support (we’ve started teaching again now and the support and solidarity continues to be amazing). As for other workers in the college, individuals helped us many small and large ways and that help was so key to the morale on the picket line. We could have done more to work with Unison who are not well organised in the college.

How was the strike organised?

Although there was initial agreement that were would have daily strike committee meetings, in fact the two branches organised themselves in very different ways. Poplar organised on the basis of picket line meetings. This branch is a more traditional branch with Socialist Workers Party members in the key positions. Their strike was based around relentless fundraising and delegation work with little time for discussion. The Arbour/Bethnal Green Centre branch has for years had a decentralised, anti-hierarchical organisation and a focus on real local issues. There is also a culture of discussion and involvement by members. One of the many things that inspired us during the strike were the daily strike committee meetings where issues were brought to the meeting for discussion. The many action points arising from the meetings were taken away and reported back on or further discussed. The effect of this was effective action underpinned by a deep collective understanding and commitment. Each issue that was thrashed out with whoever was there made us stronger.

Did you perceive the strike as losing momentum?

No, the strike got stronger over time. The Poplar reps who came to the strike committee meetings said weekly (from the first week!) said repeatedly that their members did not want to stay out much longer and were starting to drift back to work. This was puzzling to us from other sites because, although there were more scabs at that site, at each weekly mass meeting there was the same huge vote (150+ people) to stay out, and there seemed to be little difference in the strength of feeling between the two sites. Certainly the Poplar reps were pushing for a settlement much earlier than anyone else and it seemed to us that this didn’t reflect the feelings of the strikers, but we didn’t spend enough time over there so we don’t know for sure.  There was the same mass vote to stay out two days before we heard about the settlement deal. Definitely people were feeling like we were getting near the end – financially of course it was so hard on people, and there was more talk about people ‘worrying about their students’ and so forth but people wanted to see it through until we got a decent deal. There were still loads of people on the picket lines and being active in other ways. Striking ESOL tutors had started teaching free ‘solidarity’ classes in community centres. On the day of the final meeting some of us had been on a demo/banner drop action in the City to put pressure on a College Governor. There were busking dates and gigs and delegations being organised. There was loads going on.

Those of us in the minority who voted against accepting the offer didn’t think we would be out for ages more, but we thought we could have done better. Even going back to work on the following Monday would have made us feel a lot stronger than dancing to Farley’s tune and starting work on the Friday.

We still don’t understand what the strategy was for the Poplar reps and how similar or different it was from the national union. The UCU negotiator Barry Lovejoy had indicated in the summer that he thought it would be all over in first week, if we even had to strike at all. He also apparently said that strikes are won or lost by four weeks so at the time we took that to mean that we couldn’t expect strike pay after this time and sure enough, the strike ended after four weeks.

How did the strike come to an end?

The so-called victory is that there are no compulsory redundancies. Instead the 13 at risk were re-deployed or won appeals or have accepted so-called voluntary redundancy.

There was no withdrawal of the threat of compulsory redundancy.

There has been no agreement that there will be no further compulsory redundancies, or any other agreement about honouring our existing terms and conditions.

Through threats and bribes some of the compulsory redundancies have been re-named as voluntary. The pressure came both from management and from the union. Both national and local officials phoned up people at risk and told them they should take so-called voluntary redundancy. Two days before the Acas ‘breakthrough’ our mass meeting had affirmed that, it was clear that though most people wanted the strike to be over soon, we were prepared to see it through in order to protect these people, and these people were not under pressure to accept a deal.

The agreement states that compulsory redundancies have been avoided and this is the “victory” that the UCU, the SWP etc are crowing about. In fact there have been compulsory “voluntary” redundancies – people have been bullied into accepting “voluntary” redundancy.

This deal was sold through with the most outrageous manipulation of the mass meeting where discussion was suppressed before and during the meeting as far as possible, with members being shouted down by union officials.

In the short time there was for debate, many people spoke against accepting the deal but in the end there were 24 votes against, many abstentions and the clear majority voting to accept and go back to work (though the meeting was of course smaller than our usual weekly meetings).

What is the mood among the ESOL staff now?

Ready to fight the battles that we’ve got to fight, but also ware of opportunities lost in the strike – maybe we could have saved more courses. Definitely ready to take on the management over day to day issues – this is already happening with good results.