Manchester College staff strike back

Staff at Manchester College struck today over the imposition of new contracts, which include cuts to pay and holiday entitlements.

Submitted by Django on June 30, 2010

Members of the University and College Union at The Manchester College (TMC) were on strike today in the latest stage of the row over new contracts. Pickets lines were held at TMC buildings around the city from 7.30am, before moving to a rally at the Mechanics Institute at midday.

The motion for strike action was passed on 11 June. UCU, which represents teaching staff at TMC, says it is fighting against the strict imposition of new contracts, which employees say are “unnecessary and unworkable” and will worsen working conditions and quality of teaching, and against the principal’s de-recognition of UCU.

“UCU members here at Manchester have been left with little option but to take strike action. We are proud that members are taking this action and they have the full backing of the national union,” said UCU president, Alan Whitaker, who spoke at today’s rally.

Staff say they are not even being told by the College what will happen to their pay packets once the controversial contracts come into force on August 1.

Employees are also complaining that the College’s management team has been deploying tactics of bullying and intimidation against those questioning the terms of the new contracts. Before today’s strike for instance MULE was told that an unnamed manager had sent an email round staff telling them there was no need to sign in as senior management would be going around the picket lines to take a note of those involved.

Staff also said that they were dismayed by the lack of voice they have been given by the mainstream press, and since they are fearful of the repercussions of talking about the dispute in the workplace, many are now anonymously sending their stories to MULE and posting comments on the MULE website.

“I was given a new role by the Manchester College and my line manager said to me ‘I don’t like to call this or see it as a demotion, its more of a revision of your role and regrading.’

“20 per cent less pay and three weeks holiday removed which we will not be compensated for seems like a demotion to me.

“We are scared to rock the boat as we have been made to feel lucky we have kept our jobs,” said one anonymous TMC worker.

Many of these comments go beyond the claims made by UCU. One describes the moves by the College as “fairly overt sex discrimination”, especially after crèche workers faced compulsory redundancies, one of the reasons for last year’s set of strikes: ”It is an undisputed fact that most childcare arrangements fall onto the shoulders of mothers in society. By changing working hours, holidays and increasing working hours the College has not taken childcare needs into account.

“When confronted by someone who says it looks like they cannot continue in their job due to the changes, the College just say there is ‘no negotiation’.”

Another member of staff reported to MULE how the management has been responding to employees who asked for time to arrange representation after receiving letters requesting their attendance at a meeting “to discuss any objections you may have to the contract”.

They received emails saying: “You do not have a statutory right to be accompanied at this meeting and you do not have the right to postpone the meeting. Therefore we expect you to attend the meeting for this week, if you continue to refuse to attend the meeting this could result in disciplinary action being considered.”

According to the member of staff: “It is apparent that HR advisors and managers do listen to objections and try to address them during these meetings. However, it is clear that any points, not matter how valid, are disregarded as following the meeting staff are given a further five working days to sign. Failure to sign means that staff are then given three months notice.”

On the same day as strike action was announced principal of TMC Peter Tavernor took the unprecedented step of officially de-recognising UCU after it took an advert out in the Manchester Evening News which he called “a direct and blatant attack on the reputation of The Manchester College” and accused the union of focusing “all attention on attacking the College in an unprofessional way, trying to agitate staff and misrepresent the facts.”

Before today’s strike UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “The current dispute at Manchester College is in nobody’s interests. We have made it quite clear from the very start that we want the whole mess sorted out. We are repeating our calls for the college to talk to us to resolve the issue. We remain confident that a negotiated settlement can be achieved.”

The College has an extremely poor record with its staff and the management’s reputation – and Tavernor’s in particular – in many quarters known as one of belligerence and ruthless anti-unionism. That is not to mention numerous accusations of incompetence and high-profile investigations into claims of “institutional fraud” within TMC, which refused to go away after the College destroyed crucial documents and gagged would-be witnesses.

The management – ten of whom, including Tavernor, have just awarded themselves pay rises – remains in negotiation with UNISON, which represents support staff at the College, but as the UCU strike goes ahead prison educators also employed by TMC are balloting for industrial action. The College employs around one third of all prison educators in the UK having successfully bid to become the largest provider in the country, but earlier this year staff were told they were to be made redundant months into new contracts after the principalship said TMC did not have the money.

Hunt responded at the time: “Even by Manchester College’s low standards this is a truly shocking announcement. Prison education is vital in stopping re-offending and these savage cuts will be a hammer blow to offender learning throughout the country.”

One prison worker for TMC told MULE that if the proposed contract changes go ahead in that sector on 1 August, literally thousands of jobs will be at risk. They say the College’s management “are currently making all full time positions redundant and filling the positions up with part time and sessional/hourly paid staff, replacing Lecturer titles to trainer or tutor titles, increasing teaching contact time and reducing holidays.”

It was rumoured that Labour MPs Tony Lloyd and Graham Stringer visited Tavernor on 18 June to discuss the situation having received complaints from constituents. However MULE was unable to confirm this as neither would reply to emails. The College also refused to comment on the allegations put to it. Manchester City Council – with its own staff problems it emerged today – declined to respond to questions, and so far appears to have put out no statement on the dispute.

Staff on the picket line expressed little surprise, and one said that Lib Dem MP John Leech had also failed to respond to their emails. Many suggested Tavernor’s “very close relationship” with the City Council and local Labour Party partly explains the refusal of local politicians to get involved. Tavernor was former Council Leader Graham Stringer’s parliamentary election agent many years ago, while his wife Rita Tavernor is a sitting Labour councillor in the Town Hall.

According to the councillors’ register of interests there are two sitting members of UCU, Labour’s Joanne Green of Harpurhey and Lib Dem David Sandiford of Didsbury East. It seems though that neither of them have had anything to say on the issue either.

UCU is considering further strikes in September if the College’s management refuses to back down, but many are worried that Tavernor and his team are determined to destroy the unions whatever the financial and reputation cost to TMC. While some staff have already handed in their notice and are considering legal action against TMC, others say they will fight to the end, and expect they will also have to take the principalship to employment tribunals.

Originally published in Manchester Mule