A good while back, I wrote a blog post about contract issues at the English language school I work at and the attempts of us teachers to organise ourselves. Now that everything has died down and I've had time to think about it, I thought I’d try and write up what happened.
Basically it was a big fucking disaster. On our part as teachers, we completely failed to organise ourselves effectively. However, I'm a big fan of the idea that 'no experiment is a failure' and even when things go badly, there is something to be learnt for the next time round. So here goes; I hope this will be useful to other TEFL teachers looking to fight back against a dastardly DoS or a scheming centre director, if not as a guide of 'what to do' then at least as one for 'what not to do'!
And they're off... but we're not
My last post went into detail about our previous pay and conditions. Briefly, we weren't proper employees but 'freelance' teachers, paid for every hour of teaching but no more (no sick pay, no holiday pay, no pension contributions etc). A new law was passed forcing our school to hire us, meaning they'd have to pay for these 'extras'1 .
Now this law was billed as being there to protect precarious workers like ourselves but in reality it did the opposite. Rather than our multi-million dollar making school, it would be us teachers paying for these 'extras' through a change in the payment system. We would later find out through a pay cut of more or less 20%.
Rumours of this started way back, around six months in advance. Some of us started meeting outside of school, but it was always in small groups. One 'Old Timer' at my school was up for it at first but backed out later, saying we should wait til we at least knew what the offer was before we started kicking off.
So we waited. And waited. And waited. Until one day we had one week to decide if we were accepting the offer or not. The meetings with individual teachers started that week and we had til the start of the following week to reply2 . The new contracts would only come into effect in a couple of months, but the decision for whether we wanted one had to be given that week.
As an aside, the meeting itself was a joke. My manager's manager came in with a laptop and an Excel file where she clicked about and showed me how my salary would be pretty much unchanged if you added x, y and z together and averaged it out over the year. Bollocks, basically.
Out of the blocks and back again
But anyway, that day there was tension in the school. The Old Timer was up for it again and others I hadn't yet spoken to over the months for fear they might tell the manager were coming up to me saying we needed to do something.
So the meetings outside of school started again, but this time with more momentum. At my school we were all pretty close so we were all keen. We also got in touch with teachers we knew from the school’s other centres.
The first meeting was attended by about a third of the teachers from all the schools in the city. The deal was explained again at length and the more we explained and bashed out numbers on calculators the more pissed off people got. One teacher, Big Mouth, was particularly furious as she'd worked at the school for over 20 years and felt this a slap in the face. And so a common course of action was to be agreed upon.
The course of action? In hindsight it was kind of embarrassingly soft but it was like a collective dipping your toe into the water for a workforce with little experience in industrial disputes.
Anyway, we all agreed to write to our respective managers, saying we would like to continue working at the school but under better conditions then the ones offered. We would send them individually but the text would be the same, so it was obvious that we were acting as a collective.
And if that didn't work? There was a bit of mumbling at this point, a shared acceptance that it wouldn't be enough, but it was getting late. A few suggestions were thrown out but we agreed to have another meeting once management had responded.
Saying that, at mine and one other school (where we knew some teachers socially, outside of work) the 'what next?' discussion had got quite far. At my school, amongst each other we were openly talking about strike action (even if sometimes the actual word 'strike' was avoided like a blashpemy). As contractually we were technically ‘freelance’, we weren’t entitled to sick pay but, equally, we weren’t required to provide proof of illness or even give a reason as to why we weren’t available for work on a given day.
I had the idea then that we could all phone in one morning and say we weren’t available for work that day. People seemed to like that idea, and The Old Timer even added that we should pick one of the days where we had a lot of company courses (as that was where our school’s big money came from). Others chimed in with stuff like we should pick the same day week after week to make sure we always hit the same companies, with the hope that maybe they’d ask for some money back or even threaten to cancel the contract. Another suggestion was to strike one day one week, then two days the next, then three days etc etc.
To be honest, it was a nice feeling that short time between the first and second meetings. After management received our message, there was a sense of togetherness amongst not just the teachers but also the reception staff. I’ll never forget one evening when, after the last of the bosses had gone home, the receptionist shouted: “Self-management!” as soon as the door closed behind them. Meanwhile, our DoS hardly left his office and felt awkward when he had to work next to us or ask us for favours.
The inevitable ‘no’ from management came and the second meeting was called. From my school, there was an agreement that if it looked like we could pull in a good chunk more than half of the teachers, then we should push for the strike. A couple of my workmates couldn’t make it, but asked me to throw their vote in behind it. “No worries”, I responded.
Work over, me and some colleagues started heading over to the meeting when The Old Timer got a call from Big Mouth: she wasn’t coming to the meeting. Management had met up with her and due to her lengthy service they’d agreed to give her €1/hour more than the rest of us. “I know”, she said, “it’s a bloody outrage, after all these years... but I’m accepting it anyway.”
The problem with Big Mouth was that she was fairly important at her school, so without her, others were difficult to get to. In the end, only one guy, The One-Man Union, came from that school, all the more important coz it was the biggest in the city.
The second meeting was smaller and more demoralised than the first. The angry but unsure backed out, the more militant became isolated. The final decision of the meeting was to back away from strike action and to find ourselves a union.
Now some of you might be thinking: “Yes, a union, why didn’t you think of that earlier?!” Funnily enough, we had and had spoken about going to ‘the unions’ from beginning. One problem was that there were just so many to choose from! All the main ones were unthinkable as they were the bastards who’d signed away our rights in the first place (even the ‘red’ union). And then there was the alphabet soup of ‘rank and file’ unions, most of which my workmates had never heard.
Emails were sent, responses were often slow or sometimes never came. Other times they weren’t available to meet us at our mad anti-social hours. In the end, after I went down myself to one of the union offices we managed to organise a meeting with one of them. I was given a bunch of union leaflets and even some diary planners with the union logo printed on them to give to my workmates.
Excitement again filled our school, with teachers and reception staff all making our way down to the union offices on the day of the meeting.
At the meeting, again, there was almost 100% turnout from my school, with a few from other from two others (plus apologies from those who couldn't make it). We phoned, texted and emailed The One-Man Union in the run-up to the meeting, always without response, until about an hour before he texted saying he wasn’t coming to the meeting as he’d arranged to meet up with ‘his’ union (which, incidentally, was one of the unions who’d signed away our rights on the new contract). This led to a lot of anger as well as piss-taking as to whether one person could technically actually be ‘a union’.
The meeting itself would be yet another disaster, the death knell of our skirmish with the company. The meeting was attended by two guys from the union: one organiser and one lawyer. It was the lawyer who spoke for the majority of the time, mostly about what our rights weren’t and what we couldn’t do.
In the end, his recomendation was that we accept the contracts and become regular employees. Then the union would put a legal challenge to ensure we all got permanent contracts3 . Once we were all made permanent, he said, we could start organising ourselves to struggle for better conditions.
“How long would that be?”, someone asked him.
“Probably about six months, maybe up to a year.”
And with that went the final bit of enthusiasm for our fight with the company.
As time went on, we would find out that in many ways, the contract was even shitter then we initially thought. Stuff like sick pay being so little that the same feeling of losing a day’s pay remained if you actually tried to use it. Eventually, teachers just started leaving, being replaced by new ones who only knew the new even shitter conditions, with the only evidence of our piss poor attempts at rebellion being the little union planners we’d been given lying around in reception.
That said, even if it did all go really badly, there were still a few things that I took from it as part of the learning experience.
1) Prepare in advance. Even before anything comes up (because believe me, if you work anywhere for a decent length of time, something will come up), start building relationships and networks of relationships across your workplace and different sites. Make an effort to get to know people across the company.
Basically, all the preperation we did for this struggle was last minute. In a sense this was unavoidable due to many co-workers (even those who became some of the more militant in the end) hoping for the best and waiting too long.
That said, some schools were more up for it than others. My school was undoubtedly the best organised and this was due to the fact we all knew each other, made time to chat to each other about work problems (whether with students or the centre director), helped each other out with lessons or getting resources etc. So even when there's no struggle going on, it's always important to build a culture where workers try to lighten each other's loads.
One of the main things which doomed us to failure, however, was that no one really knew anyone from the biggest centre. If we’d had some sort of 'in' with them then maybe it would’ve been easier to get them to meetings and bring them round to our way of thinking. As it was, Big Mouth was their social leader and, for all her initial militant bluster, had a negative effect on how things turned out.
Also, try get a good idea of what the local unions and/or radical workers’ groups in the area are like. That way you know who to go to as soon as something does come up.
2) Have a clear idea of what you want from your meetings before you go in. We were a bit all over the shop really. With the first meeting, we all knew we wanted to have a moan and do something. But, even if we all knew the first ‘something’ wouldn’t be enough, few of us had the foresight to plan for that eventuality. As such, once we’d decided on the initial course of action, half the meeting started getting their coats.
If I could do it over, I would prep as many people as possible before and then make an announcement at the beginning that the meeting intends to: a) lay out the problem, b) organise a response, and c) plan a course of action in the likely event that (b) isn’t enough to resolve the issue. Only then could the meeting be viewed as finished.
3) Pack out your meetings. Make sure the most militant attend. Waverers will be more reassured by five people arguing in favour of action, then one person promising that there are four others who couldn't make it.
At our second meeting, the people who favoured striking were in the minority, which then led to even some of them back down. But if the others who supported it had come, we probably would have been the majority and this would have changed the atmosphere at the meeting completely.
Well, whatever. We’ll chalk up another victory for the bosses on that one. But hopefully it wasn’t all in vain. No such things as failed experiments, after all.
- 1I know, what a beautiful world it is when sick pay is seen as an 'extra'.
- 2My school was actually fairly 'lucky' in that we had our meetings earlier. Some schools had meetings as late as Friday, with teachers having to reply on Monday!
- 3Although some of us had been offered permanent places, some had been given 12-month contracts. According to the lawyer, legally we were all entitled to be taken on permanently.