On the week of 23rd May, UCU members at Richmond upon Thames College, a Further Education college in Twickenham, West London, will be on strike against a proposal by the College leadership to fire and rehire the entire teaching staff body onto an inferior contract that deprives teaching staff of 10 days’ holiday.
On the 8th March 2022, the leadership of Richmond upon Thames College (RuTC) began an open consultation on a proposal to reduce teaching staff holiday allowance by 10 days. But the day before open consultation on the changes to teaching staff contracts commenced, RuTC issued a Section 188 notice, essentially invoking the threat of 'fire and rehire' even before consultations had begun. The invitation to the consultation contained the following appeal: "we shall be meeting regularly through the consultation period with your UCU union representatives, but we would also like to invite you all to a series of Contract Change Surgeries giving you the opportunity to speak directly to members of the Senior Leadership Team", it was clear from the outset that the leadership of RuTC were trying to undermine UCU by encouraging negotiation with staff on an individual and unrepresented basis. Thus the leadership of the College had initiated the hostile tone for this dispute.
Over the past few years, staff and students at RuTC had experienced a series of traumatic events, that undermined morale.
Firstly, the College was declared to be in 'inadequate financial health' in 2019, by the Department or Education, based on the assessment of its deputy FE commissioners. This brilliant assessment of the FE commissioners was made in the context of almost a decade of the Conservative-led government's starving of the FE sector's funding, and in the broader context of a regressive austerity programme, which amounted to a political choice to engage in a massive transfer of income and wealth from the poorest to the richest in Britain. But since the government would rather not hold itself to account for starving FE of funding, it sent civil servants to find ways of attributing the blame for FE sector financial difficulties to internal factors, such as "budgetary control" issues within Colleges themselves. This was the process with respect to RuTC. Throughout this period, there was a high turnover of senior staff. In 2019, RuTC went through three principals and three financial directors. This process demoralised staff and students.
Second was the hurried relocation of RuTC to a new, "state-of-the-art" building in March 2020, just prior to the lockdown. This new building is part of a large, ongoing, multi-million pound capital project in the Twickenham area. Some staff feel that the new building is not fit for purpose, compared to the old campus. For starters, the new building is smaller than the old campus and lacks any openable windows, instead being fully air-conditioned, thereby being less optimal for the covid-era. It is plagued by faults and technical problems, in particular with the sewage, heating, and water supply. Its internal design consists of unsafe balconies from which anyone can easily jump or fall. Noise echoes through the central atrium of the building. There is a lack of communal, peaceful, or green space, especially as compared to the old campus. And questions remain about the security of the campus, security is now outsourced to a private company with high staff turnover, whereas prior to the move to the new building, the College boasted an experienced and knowledgeable team of commissionaires. This also demoralised staff and students.
Third, the financial pressures on the College meant it had to retain as many 'heads' as possible in order to maximise available funding. A consequence of this has been the admission of students that many other Colleges would have rejected, resulting in staff having to address more challenging behaviour in recent times. In 2021, Afghan refugee and student Hazrat Wali was murdered. This devastated the already low morale of staff and students.
The decision to threaten to 'fire and rehire' teaching staff onto inferior contracts was thus the cherry on top of the sundae of bullshit served-up to RuTC staff. Enough was enough. Teaching staff at RuTC made it clear that they were not willing to accept any reduction in their holiday entitlement. UCU members decided to hold a strike ballot. An overwhelming 97% of members voted for strike action, on an 88% turnout - demonstrating the remarkable strength of feeling on this issue, and strike action is now proceeding for the week of 23rd May for five consecutive days, up to and including 27th May.
RuTC claim their aim is to reduce teaching staff holiday time to "a level in line with other FE colleges", although the pay of the teaching staff at RuTC is below the London FE-sector average. The College claim that without "the changes that we are proposing, the College will be unable to deliver the level of service that our students deserve", however their inability to deliver the level of service required could simply be resolved by employing more teaching staff, and freeing-up some teaching hours for CPD. Instead, hundreds of thousands of pounds are allegedly spent on employment agency fees and consultants whilst the College demands teaching staff work more hours to "deliver the level of service"!
A key figure in the proposed changes to teaching staff contracts and the consultation/fire and rehire is the "HR consultant" Martin Rosner. Martin Rosner is apparently 'Churchfields Ward Focus Team & Vice-Chair' for the Redbridge Liberal Democrats and an unsuccessful former LibDem local election candidate, which leaves one wondering how it is he can be a key member of the Liberal Democrats whilst the official policy of the party is nominally to oppose fire and rehire? In Parliament, Munira Wilson, MP for Twickenham, called for fire and rehire to be banned, but has so far remained silent on UCU's fight against fire and rehire within her own constituency. All this is written simply to evidence the hypocrisy of bourgeois politics.
It is our position, as socialists, that all workers should unconditionally oppose any attempt by employers at increasing their working-hours, as part of a broader struggle against capital, for wellbeing, and to ensure that increases in productivity and technology actually lead to improved conditions for workers.
Firstly, health. The risk of stroke and heart disease is correlated with the length of working-time. In Japan, the bleeding-edge of stagnant, neoliberal capitalism, increased job insecurity and lengthy working-hours in the post-bubble economy have led to declining interpersonal relationships, birth-rates, and suicide and ‘karoshi’ (death by overwork). Increasing working-hours are quite simply bad for workers' physical and mental health.
Secondly, economics. If we consider RuTC’s proposal with respect to teaching staff: 127 staff x 72 hours (i.e. 10 days’ working-hours) = 9144 working-hours, which is equivalent to the annual labour-hours of 7 new teaching-staff, or a 5.5% increase in annual working-hours for a full-time lecturer. Within present constraints, these 7 new teaching-staff could be costed for by removing some consultants, for example. Increased working-hours serve to depress wage-growth and employment levels: when existing workers are forced to perform additional labour this entails fewer job opportunities for other workers, which means decreased overall labour-demand and suppression of wage-growth. Since the Thatcher/neoliberal period, wage-growth in the UK has been decoupled from productivity growth, and whilst productivity has almost doubled since 1981, median wages have only increased by 2/3rds. “The average house price is 65 times higher than in 1970 but average wages are only 36 times higher”. In 1975, the labour share of national income was 72%, in 2021 it stood at 60%, meaning labour’s share of the national pie has decreased as the economy has grown. With annualised UK inflation running at almost 10%, the cost of living in the UK increasingly exceeds the ability of workers to cover their living-costs from their pay, and leads to increased reliance on social welfare (the welfare state, housing benefit, food banks). The wealthy (landlords, capitalists) have grown wealthier while everyone else is worse-off in real terms. By increasing the working-hours of existing staff, RuTC’s proposals will contribute to the suppression of labour-demand and wage-growth. Now more than ever workers ought to organise and wage not just defensive struggles against employer attacks on working conditions and pay, but also offensive struggles for improved working conditions and increased pay.
Part of this is also about resisting the marketisation of education. In the UK, FE colleges are run like businesses. Contribution analysis is performed on each department, as though each cost centre is expected to be a profit centre, and these narrow, misleading metrics are then used to plan the deployment of resources. A more sensible approach to education would be to recognise it as a public service; a sector whose purpose is not to generate a profit or be financially self-sufficient, but instead one that plays an essential social role in establishing conditions for the economy to function, and which must therefore depend on adequate taxpayer funding. Even this is a very limited, capitalist conception of education, but it makes more sense than the ‘everything must be profitable’ approach. Education is part of the socially-necessary infrastructure that enables complex, modern capitalist societies to function, akin to roads or power grids. It cannot be forced to operate in the profit-generating manner of actual businesses without causing fundamental detriment to its ability to carry-out its objectives as a place of education. Unfortunately the Board of Governors of RuTC are all neoliberal, City-types who see the College first as a business and only second as a social space for education; these people, much like the FE commissioners, maintain the narrow, capitalistic view that the College must achieve “financial sustainability” without critically interrogating the role of the Government in starving the sector of funding.
If we compare the situation of the British FE sector with the much more successful, Finnish VET system, we see that the features of the better, Finnish system of further education are: later teaching start times (less tired students), a shorter teaching day, decentralisation, increased pay for teaching staff, shorter working-hours, better state-support/funding, and the absence of a narrow focus on profitability, grading, and outcomes (more focus on the actual needs of the student).
Within the context of the UK FE sector, teaching staff are employed to work fewer hours per year than support staff. This might be a source of resentment for support staff: "why shouldn't teaching staff work longer hours like me?" They might wonder, to which we would respond: "fight to decrease your own hours! Increasing the teaching staff hours won't benefit you!". Employers eroding the conditions of one group of workers doesn't benefit the other group. It benefits the profit margin of the employer, and decreases overall labour market security. The demand for secure and organised groups of workers to submit to labour-market ‘flexibilisation’ is often a prelude to a general increase in precariousness of labour-market conditions for all workers. In the postwar period, the miners were the most militant and well-organised workers in Britain; Thatcher understood that she had to break the NUM in order to defeat the rest of the British labour movement - the 1985 defeat of the miners was thereby a defeat for the whole working-class. The same is true of the situation in education. The teaching staff, organised in UCU, represent the most organised section of workers in the FE sector. The defeat of the organised teaching staff would open the way for a general attack on the conditions of all other workers
As socialists following in the tradition of Marx, we maintain that the world is divided between:
1. The numerical majority of humanity, whose income is directly/indirectly, primarily derived through selling their labour-power (their ability to work) in exchange for money-wages. This group encompasses workers, their dependents, and the unemployed. In other words, labour/the proletariat/the working-class.
2. The numerical minority of humanity whose income is directly/indirectly, primarily derived through their capital holdings, whether in the form of capital gains, dividends, or business profits. Also known as capital/bourgeoisie/capitalists.
The interests of these two classes are diametrically opposed and antagonistic. Where the former would benefit from increasing wages, reducing working-hours, improving working conditions, the latter would benefit from keeping wages depressed, maximal labour flexibility, and minimal working conditions for the sake of reducing labour-costs and maximising profit margins. As socialists, we believe in supporting the struggle of labour in its class struggle for an ever-larger slice of the pie, with the ultimate goal of transcending capitalism in the course of a mass-strike process (as articulated in Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘The Mass Strike’, 1906), a system based on the inexorable logic of value-production and the cancer of an ever-growing market economy; instead creating sustainable, humane relations of production/consumption based on a global, non-monetary system of global, decentralised co-ordination/planning based on physical units (variously called socialism, anarchy, or communism in the original, undistorted meanings of those terms).
The struggle for the reduction in working-hours has been a central pillar of the workers' movement since at least the days of Marx. Prior to 1848, workers in Britain worked up to 102-hour work-weeks, in order to meet the productive demands of capital in the period of industrialisation to not leave machinery idle. The Factories Act 1847 introduced the 10-hour day for women and children in textile mills, and this was extended to all industries in the 1860s, reducing the length of the working-week to 60/70 hours per week. The Factories Act 1937 further reduced the length of the working-week of women and children to 48-hours. Since then, the length of the average working-week in the UK has only marginally decreased to a figure between 30 and 40, and the pace of change has stagnated throughout the postwar period, despite the fantastic increases in productivity and remarkable technological developments. In the hundred years from the 1840s to the 1940s, the labour movement successfully halved the length of the working-week; in the 80 years since then, we have made little progress. All this works to the benefit of the purchaser or labour-power (employers), and against the interests of the sellers of labour-power (workers). Despite experiencing decades of fantastic technological innovation, we have failed to battle for productivity gains to benefit us in terms of offsetting our working-hours.
All workers should be fighting for reduced working hours: it is in the interests of both their wellbeing and their wallets!
The most important resource we have as members of the working-class is not organisational, but moral: solidarity. This means lending moral and material support to each other’s struggles. The individual worker has no power, it is only in acting collectively, as a class, in transcending the limits and comforts of the various boundaries that separate one group of workers from the others – our occupation, workplace, identities, locale, sector, region, nation, etc. – that workers’ struggles can decisively shift the balance of forces in society in favour of labour and against the bosses, capital, and the repressive machinery of the state.
History has demonstrated that if the various struggles of workers remain isolated from one another, trapped within the limits of a given workplace, sector or region, and disjointed, then they are susceptible to defeat by a piecemeal strategy at the hands of the centres of wealth and power. Ultimately, our strength derives from your capacity, as workers, to stick together, to overcome divisions, and to extend class struggle beyond all boundaries (including those inscribed in the membership criteria of unions).
We also insist on the necessity of building solidarity between education workers and students – we must also reach-out to students, and encourage them to fight for their interests. In every round of education struggles, it’s a common tactic of the employers and the state to accuse education workers of “letting-down” students. Let us transform passive sympathy into active solidarity and struggle!