‘something out of the ordinary’

College worker Siobhan Evans reflects on a hard-fought struggle against redundancies in her workplace.

A few months ago management in our college announced that 88 teaching and learning support staff (about 20% of the total) were “at risk of redundancy”. Now, after months of struggle and direct action, the redundancies have been withdrawn.

The dispute overlapped with the June 30th strike day

The college, in a poor area of London, has been badly affected by funding cuts. To give a concrete example, there are massive cuts in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Until recently ESOL was free. The department had about a thousand students. They were mostly people out of work or on low incomes, often with health problems and housing problems. Fees were introduced about four years ago for any students who were not recieving benefits, and since then the number of students has halved. Now even worse restrictions have been introduced which mean that the only students able to get free classes are those on jobseekers and other active benefits, so again more students, mostly women, will be excluded. The Save ESOL campaign calculate that 99,000 people, more than half of all ESOL students, will lose their free classes. To make matters worse the jobcentre harrass the students who are eligible and often force them off our courses because they are studying too many hours.

Important services such as the creche are being cut. Fees have also been introduced in other departments which traditionally were free, for example literacy. It looks like a lot of the students are being written off. The state is making it less and less possible for them to learn skills so they can work, at the same time as forcing them off benefits. Unemployed people are supposed to “invest” in their own skills but of course these students on the breadline are unable to pay for courses.

We have had redundancies at the college every year for several years but this time it was affecting a much larger number of staff and attacking some very militant departments. The staff responded by starting to have regular meetings in some of these affected departments. There was an attitude that things had got to some kind of bottom line where we had no choice but to go beyond the normal responses.

In our department we had meetings of all the staff either weekly or fortnightly. The meetings would be chaired by our shop steward but they were not run like union meetings and everybody came including non union members. There was a feeling in the meetings of something out of the ordinary. People would suggest all out indefinite strike action, wildcat action, or a walkout the next day without a ballot, and get a lot of support. At the same time there was often a strong current of trying to resolve the funding crisis – people would suggest setting up working groups to look for different funding, to change the courses, to help the college out of its financial difficulties in some way. I wasn´t comfortable with this but it was something a lot of people felt was the right thing to do so I never challenged it.

The first list we received of people who would be made redundant caused an uproar in my section as it included all the black and Asian members of staff plus two white teachers. These teachers were often people who had been teaching difficult classes for years, which had lower “success” rates, and now they were being penalised for taking these classes on. The management responded by saying that if we did not accept this list maybe they would put everybody in the department on the list, thinking people would back down. They did not and so the whole department was placed on the list. The redundancy process involved everybody having to reapply for their jobs. Some people would not be successful and would therefore be made redundant. This could have been a horrible divisive process and people put an impressive amount of effort into making sure that it wasn’t. There were discussions about everybody turning in an identical application form and other ways of objecting to the process. In the end people applied for the available jobs but people supported each other and there were certain things that everybody agreed to do, such as making the applications anonymous (they were numbered by the HR department, and given to the selection panel without names.)

The process went on for ages and was stretching people’s nerves to breaking point. There were high points, such as our famous storming of the board room, and there were meetings where the militancy seemed unstoppable. There were also meetings where everyone seemed in the depths of despair. The negotiation process went up and down and backwards and forwards, with numbers whittled down bit by bit. This was not a purely positive process. The college had issued at risk of redundancy letters to 88 people but they had obviously never intended to get rid of 88 people, rather to get rid of some and redeploy the rest. In the unions “no compulsory redundancies” is a major demand. This is more complicated than it sounds. In our college we won “no compulsory redundancies”. Officially. However, people took voluntary retirement because they thought the redundancy package was quite good and if they didn´t take it they would probably lose their job soon anyway and with a worse package. A lot of people were redeployed and changed their job role to one they weren´t happy with under threat of no job at all. Nine people were forced into early retirement which they were very upset about. Then there was the whole question of the hourly paid workers, which is a can of worms I will come back to shortly.

30th June

In the middle of the dispute there was the J30 pension strike. Early on it didn´t look like people would have the energy to care about J30. However, on the day the strike was better observed than usual. Some people who usually crossed picket lines had joined the union during the redundancies dispute and kept the strike. People turned out to picket in large numbers. The morning of the strike itself was a great atmosphere. Pickets were amazed to see such a stream of people turning up on pushbikes handing out bagels, supporters coming from the local trades council and various socialist and anarchist groups, red and black flags up and down the street, the local librarians doing a stint on the picket line before they went in to work and best of all a march of forty people which came from other picket lines in the north of the borough. People reported that management were looking out of the upstairs windows at the size of the picket line and the comings and goings of supporters. Next day people said it was the best picket line they had ever been on and they had had the time of their lives. It was definitely a good shot in the arm for peoples´ confidence and showed both us and the management that we had support in the outside world.

As the end of the academic year got closer the urgency grew as we had to resolve something or people would leave for the summer and we would all be isolated and dispersed, and work would stop giving us no leverage. In a branch meeting we talked about action we could take to keep our ballot live so that we could use it in September, possibly on the first day of term. It was suggested by a union official that we should do a token action such as a lunchtime walkout. Instead people raised the issue of the staff conference. Most people hate attending the staff conference as the management use it to tell us how great they are and people consider it a monumental waste of time and an indignity. Someone said he wanted to boycott the staff conference. This was immediately taken up and, against the admonitions of the union official, people pushed through a vote and decided almost unanimously to organise a strike on the day of the staff conference.

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Victory?

We started building for the strike and were pretty confident of a good turnout. And then a few days before the planned strike day, we heard that the regional official from the union was coming in to negotiate and that there was a possibility of no compulsory redundancies. This was a tense but hopeful time, until it was confirmed: the strike was cancelled and we had won!

Almost…

Originally when the results of negotiations were announced I thought that the hourly paid staff were also included in the “no compulsory redundancies” agreement. In fact they weren’t. In fairness I wasn´t misled by the union, it was more a mix of misinterpretation and wishful thinking. So the situation is now no compulsory redundancies for the permanent staff and, as the college still wish to make savings and close courses, a very uncertain situation for the hourly paid staff, as we will have to wait until September to find out if we have work or not.

According to my colleague when people in the union use the phrase “no compulsory redundancies” it is assumed that this means permanent staff. This isn´t stated but is the implicit assumption. Normally cuts to hourly paid staff don´t get negotiated with the union. At the moment some of the reps are taking up the issue of how the hourly paid staff are treated and trying to renegotiate the contract to improve it.

This article would have been a lot easier to write if I had finished it while I believed there was no threat of redundancies to anybody. An important victory, direct action gets the goods, united we can win…. Although I feel more confused and ambivalent now about our struggle, as I prepare to spend the summer waiting to find out if I´ve got a job or not, the battle against those redundancies did mean a lot.

People did go beyond the normal boundaries of “acceptable” limited action. We took direct action, we were tenacious, brave and united, and we saved a lot of people their jobs. Now we are left with a lot of uncertainty, especially as everyone takes it as read that there will be more redundancies in the next academic year and we will have to do it all over again. So we must urgently address the issue of organising across the whole college, not just in the strongly unionised departments, and including the hourly paid staff, before the redundancies start up again.