“Every action was done collectively”: An interview with newly unionised TEFL workers

Dastardly DoS

Faced with an attack on their working conditions, TEFL workers in Dublin formed a union, threatened to strike, and beat back a pay cut!

What follows is an edited version of an article by Gregor Kerr which first appeared in the the journal of the Worker Solidarity Movement, The Irish Anarchist Review. The original can be found here.

As always, the Angry Language Brigade is keen to support our fellow language workers who are looking to get organised at work. So whether you're looking to join a union or just fight back against a boss bent on keeping profits up at the expense of our wages, don't hesitate to get in contact:

teflsolidarity (a) gmail.com
Facebook
Via private message at libcom.org

One of the key principles underpinning anarchist politics is the philosophy of self-organisation.  And one of the key principles underpinning self-organisation is the belief that by doing, people learn.

Very few people come to radical politics through what they read or through ‘education’ in the traditional sense.  It is usually through becoming involved in a struggle that directly affects themselves and their neighbours/work colleagues that most people come to see the power structures of society and begin a process of analysis of how society operates and how it needs to change if the needs of ordinary people are to be met.

It is for this reason that anarchists put a great deal of our time into supporting people who get involved in what often appear to the wider world as rather small struggles.  But sometimes ‘small’ struggles have a much wider impact – not just on those involved but on wider political trends and movements for change.  Indeed, for those directly involved, there is really no such thing as a ‘small’ struggle.  Any conflict in which someone stands up to a boss has deep implications for one’s stress levels, bank balance and political conciousness.  

We decided to chat to some of the participants in one of these ‘smaller’ struggles that took place in Dublin in the late spring/early summer of 2014. The case involve a number of English language teachers at a language school who were threatened with pay cuts, organised themselves, threatened a strike, organised a lunchtime picket (which was cancelled because management had conceded before it) and managed to extract a reversal of the pay cut within a period of a couple of days.

What's notable about these workers is, for the most part, their young age and, for all them, their precarious employment. Also of note is that fact that these workers were lucky in the contacts they made very early in their struggle – and the lessons those contacts brought with them from previous struggles and the advice they were therefore able to give.

As is increasingly common, especially in private sector employments based mainly on precarious labour, these workers were not unionised. However, these language teachers joined the Independent Workers Union en masse at the onset of their dispute.

So what about the theory that it is from small acorns that large oak trees grow – that involvement in ‘small’ struggles has profound impacts on those involved, changes people’s perspectives and ultimately has the potential to change the world!!  We interviewed two people directly involved in the struggle, and we’ll let them speak for themselves.

IAR: Please give a brief background to the way in which the dispute began

B: The dispute began after the management conducted individual meetings with all the teaching staff on temporary contracts to inform us of wage cuts coming in in a couple of weeks.  We had also received an email the previous week to inform us that there would be fewer working hours as student numbers were down.  After everyone had been informed, we spoke amongst ourselves and, along with a letter expressing our feelings of unhappiness, requested a group meeting with the management.  We also joined the Independent Workers Union.  After our request was denied, we took further action, issued strike notice and planned a lunchtime protest.

A: All of the teachers were sent an email to invite us to meetings with our bosses.  We were called in one by one to be told our pay was going to be cut by 10% or 15% depending on our current rate.  We were told that this was because of a fall in business from Venezuela.  We all decided not to accept the pay cut and then the process of resisting it began.

IAR: What was your knowledge of trade unions in Ireland and/or Irish labour law before the dispute began?

B: I didn't have much knowledge before the dispute so it was very much a learning experience for me.  Thankfully, some of the other teachers had better knowledge and we also got a lot of useful help and information from our union.

A: I didn't have much knowledge of trade unions in Ireland.  Most of what I knew about Irish labour law was from friends advising me when I'd had a previous dispute with this company over bank holiday pay.

IAR: Were you ever involved in anything similar to this before? Were you involved in any political campaign either here in Ireland or in any other country?

B: No, I've never been involved in anything like this before.

A: I've been involved in a number of political campaigns. Last year I was active in the 'Justice for Cleaners' campaign in University of London where I was a student.

IAR: How did the struggle develop in practice? How did the workers make decisions as to how to proceed? What role did union officials or supporters have in relation to your decision making?

B: All the teachers kept in constant contact during the dispute.  We had a text group, emails and we also had daily meetings at lunch and break times.  We made decisions as a group and made sure that everyone was happy with whatever decisions we made before proceeding with them.  Our union representative helped a lot too and attended one of the group meetings (after management agreed to meet us as a group) in an advisory capacity.  As the school refused to recognise our union he was not allowed to take an active role in the meeting.

A: Every action was done collectively.  Every communication from us to management was in the form of a letter signed by all of us.  Our first act was to refuse to do any more meetings alone and to call for a meeting between management and all of the teachers.  Management continued to respond to our (numerous) letters with individual emails and asked us to communicate by sending an email from one person.  We responded with a jointly signed letter to say that would not be possible.  The union officials made it very clear from the beginning and throughout the process that decision making was in our hands and that they were there to help us to carry out our own decisions.  They emphasised the importance of all of us being on the same page.

IAR: What impact do you think being involved in this struggle has had on your views of trade unions/political campaigning?

B: I would definitely have more knowledge about trade unions and how to go about organising people and meetings now than before.  I would also be more inclined to support people who are in trade disputes and pay more attention to them in the news as I understand more about them now.  As for my political views, they haven't changed much.  A group was set up to help with people in similar situation, like the students whose schools closed down but I am not sure that a whole lot was done to help them.

A: This struggle made me believe more in the power of trade unions and realise how essential it is to be a member of a union.

IAR: Would you be more inclined to get involved in future campaigns or lend your support to workers in similar circumstances?

B:  Yes, I would.

A: Yes.

IAR:  What impact did support from outside your own workforce have on your ability to keep the struggle going?

B: We could see that lots of people were supporting us, through our Facebook group and by organising the protest.  Although the protest was cancelled, many people had planned to support us.  It was good to know we had support.

A: I don't know about for other staff, but for me the support from outside helped keep me going and believe in us when it was getting tough.  It was also important to us to feel like we could mobilise a big enough crowd to protest if we needed to.

IAR: Anything else you'd like to say?

B: Hope that's ok!

A: I had hoped that we would build on our success and unionise more teachers and maybe even start a campaign against zero hours contracts - which would be a campaign very grounded in the experiences of workers.  At the time of our struggle my colleagues were all saying they were well up for that.  Since then I've tried a number of times to get people to meet and talk about it, and eventually just set a time for a meeting but no one came.  This has been bothering me for a while because I really felt a responsibility to build on the momentum we had and thought it was a perfect situation to build a workers’ struggle, so I really think I've failed there.

Also during the struggle I really tried to make the organising horizontal and make it a team effort that was democratic and transparent and empowering people through involvement.  But that wasn't really what transpired.   

When I lived in London last year most of my activism was in the Justice for Cleaners / 3 cosas campaigns at my university.  That was my only experience organising in a workers’ struggle.  I think that one of the things that made that successful was that all of the cleaners were from Latin American countries that had had left wing leadership that they all felt they benefited from, and most of them were activists outside of this campaign, and before they'd arrived in the UK.

So basically I don't feel that what I learned was that, if capital pushes labour to a critical point then the workers have the capacity to self organise and respond and win, and will be politicised and want to build on that (which had been my previous view).  But I did learn about the real power of collective organising and that's a message I'd like to spread.

Posted By

Angry Language ...
Dec 1 2014 18:48

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  • Every action was done collectively.  Every communication from us to management was in the form of a letter signed by all of us.  

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Ed
Dec 1 2014 21:59

Not read this fully yet but that image is fucking priceless..