Struggle as a second language - interview with Tower Hamlets College strikers

An interview with two workers involved in the open-ended strike against cuts at Tower Hamlets College last year. They describe their criticisms of the union, the ongoing problems since the partial victory at the college, and the state of the sector in the face of government austerity cuts.

Submitted by Django on April 2, 2010

Mute: Can you summarise the events surrounding the strike last year? What caused it and how was it resolved?

B&R: Briefly, a new principal came to Tower Hamlets College and 4 months later, on 5 June, issued us with a document giving us notice that we were facing massive cuts in provision and the loss of 40-60 teaching and support jobs in 30 days (the minimum days required under law for this many job losses). There had been some warning that something was up, so our union branch (UCU) had already opened an official dispute that meant we could apply for a strike ballot right away. Our local union branch had a long tradition of very practical, decentralised organising and this meant people were involved in large numbers right away. A massive campaign swung into action resulting in a unanimous vote for indefinite strike action from the first working day after the summer, when students were enrolling for the new academic year. We were on strike for 4 weeks, with very solid picket lines, brilliant support locally and beyond, daily strike committee meetings open to everyone, and weekly mass assemblies where we made the big decisions.

We had been in official dispute over compulsory redundancies, and the officially negotiated settlement was that 7 people had ‘volunteered' to accept their compulsory redundancy notices. These people were under tremendous pressure - 4 weeks of negotiations had got us nowhere. We feel now that we did not do enough to convince these people that the strike was not about the other strikers making sacrifices to help them - it was about them going through hell in order to support everyone else.

Mute: It's been a few months since the end of the strike and that partial victory which concluded it. Has the situation stabilised?

B&R: Now that we're back, what we suspected has been confirmed: that the attack was not motivated by financial consideration, rather Management wanted to attack the strength of the union and our working culture. Part of that is to do with pay and conditions but it's also to do with the type of education teaching and learning that Tower Hamlets is known for.1

Workload has increased, union room to manoeuvre is under attack, crèche provision under threat, pressure from managers to kick people off courses if they are pregnant, ill, or otherwise ‘at risk of not succeeding' (i.e. achieving an external qualification), and we are waiting to see what the government's massive cuts in adult education will mean. Already the Union has been asked by Senior Management to promote voluntary redundancies as a means to reduce compulsories but this won't happen.

Adult education is generally facing potentially catastrophic cuts this and next year.

Mute: Has the atmosphere among teachers and students changed since the strike ended?

B&R: We teach adult English for Speakers of Other Languages, so we don't know much about the 6th form or other adult provisions, but our students are still interested in talking about the cuts and the strike, and know how important it was. By and large students were very supportive of the strike and there was a lot of involvement, but little autonomous organising by students. Now students know they are lucky to have classes, and will fight with us again when the time comes. Watch out for actions around the loss of crèches (and therefore the possibility of studying for many women) coming up.

Among teachers, people are demoralised by working under a Senior Management that has nothing but contempt for us. We also know that much of it is coming from the government and that we have already lost a lot of ground, for example, ESOL teachers are now highly implicated in systems of immigration control due to the language requirements for citizenship and settlement. But, because of the incredible solidarity generated during the strike, both outside and inside the college, we also feel strong. There's nothing like standing on a picket line with people for four weeks to make you feel connected to the people you work with. We all know each other now, and I think have good relations with the support staff who did not strike but helped us out when they could.

Mute: Are the cuts part of a larger pattern of restructuring further education? Do they connect to an intensification of administrative work and management and a loss of educational values?

B&R: Certainly. During the strike we were so focussed on the job losses and therefore maybe did not focus on the broader issues around education. Talk of ‘making links' and of the ‘public sector fight back' can sometimes obscure what is distinctive about the education sector.

Our funding is now linked to targets, and the struggle right now is not to internalise the model of target driven education. Management needs us to accept the logic of doing everything we can to secure ongoing funding by teaching to the test and getting the results, even though almost all teachers will say that this means teaching and learning is largely replaced by exam training.

It is probably easier to fight on the terrain of job losses than over the multitude of large and small issues to do with the content of our jobs. The fact that we got through the strike as strong as we did means we are now better placed to fight for these things, but we also know we have to try to keep educational values central to what we do - the Unions have largely given up this fight, but teachers haven't.

Mute: The proverbial axe fell hard on Tower Hamlets' ESOL courses, but ESOL seems threatened at Manchester College, Hackney Community College, Solihall College in West Midlands and generally nation-wide. What do you make of this impression that ESOL is, if not expendable, reducible? Why do level 1 courses seem most at risk?

B&R: ESOL is incredibly political, situated as it is at the intersection of various government agendas. ESOL teachers are expected to not only teach language, but to deliver social cohesion, employability and citizenship. The burden of what it's thought ESOL must do keeps growing, but with less funding and in an increasingly restrictive audit culture.

The general plan is to move Entry Level ESOL away from FE colleges and have them provided by Councils, training agencies, charities, and voluntary organisations. Some of these other providers are excellent, but many are shoddy. Pay and conditions are usually worse, but more teachers will be isolated, working without support of other teachers. Students lose out not only on the expertise of highly skilled teachers working in a collaborative atmosphere, but also on the resources, support services and clear routes of progression they can get in a college.

At a recent talk about the history and politics of ESOL, Alice Robson pointed out that the government tries to avoid looking like it's spending money on immigrants. It would like much of it to be taken over by the private agencies and the Third Sector. While the professional qualifications ESOL teachers need are now quite high, it actually looks like we're heading back to the days when ESOL was taught by volunteers.

The plan to make employers contribute to the costs of ESOL (Train to Gain) has been a complete failure. The recession and the fact that there are no jobs seem not to have caused a rethink on pushing ‘employability' at ever-lower levels.

The Government's New Approach to ESOL claims to aim funding at the most vulnerable and also under-represented (ethnic) groups but there is no increase in money so this means withdrawing provision from some. For example, in Tower Hamlets there is apparently not enough take up by young Somali men, so the plan is to target them - and reduce the number of Bengali women receiving ESOL.

This all sounds grim but, completely against the tide, there are a few exciting things around, for example the Freire-ian ‘Reflect for Esol' project which now has some funding to train teachers in this tradition of radical pedagogy.

Mute: Given that during the strike, there seemed to be dissension between the Arbour/Bethnal Green campus and the Poplar campus, is that still an issue?

B&R: The splits don't seem so significant right now, I'm glad to say. At any rate, whatever happens next has to be on a national level. I would expect the same issues that caused dissension to arise as they always do: how to work and make decisions collectively, how to organise anti-hierarchically, how to relate to workers in other unions/non-unionised workers, when to operate by the book and when to oppose Union legality, and so on. I guess these issues arise during any workplace struggle and can't be addressed except in practice.

Mute: Were there limits with organising in and around UCU and what were they? Is there hope for a meaningful nation-wide organisation to preserve ESOL, given the problems you faced? How necessary would national organisation be?

B&R: Yes, there were limits - it was difficult at first as we were catapulted into a situation that few of us really understood. Now it is clear that once we decided to enter into negotiations with management and UCU we were accepting a compromise deal/outcome - by the very nature of negotiating in that way. The alternative would be to refuse to negotiate - that may have given us more power. However, were we ready to take that step? Would we have had any more than a minority of the branch behind this and if not how limiting would that have been?

For UCU, the most important things were maintaining the branches - being able to walk back to work with heads held high, as we were often told. UCU national wanted us as a showcase, taking on a maverick new Senior Management and winning. For this they were willing to pay us a wage of £50 per day. Strike pay is a pretty awesome thing and without it we couldn't have kept going for 4 weeks, but it may also have limited certain possibilities. All the creative chaos of self-organisation that made the strike so exciting - the open meetings, vibrant picket lines, direct actions and social events seemed in real contrast to the negotiations during which nothing was achieved for almost 4 weeks.

UCU were not the slightest bit interested in what the strikers really wanted - the jobs back, and with it, the same sense that it was not for nothing that our colleagues had been dragged through months of hell and humiliation before losing their jobs.

UCU officials had already decided before the final strike meeting that the strike was over - their role was in great contrast to the initial rallying call of the first assembly. They made bald statements of fact such as ‘your trade dispute is over' before the vote on the deal. The strike which had been fought in the spirit of participation and debate was shut down in a predictably authoritarian way.

In the event only a minority voted to stay on strike but a lot of people couldn't equate the sense of strength that we had had with the deal that had been struck. In fact few understood the deal. There was no real sense that we'd won or what we'd done in our branch, despite what has been portrayed.

What we do have is the collective memory of the strike and how we did things. Definitely whatever happens next in adult education should involve national organisation, and we can only hope it's going to be possible to push pass the limits of UCU.

Becky and Rebecca are adult ESOL teachers at Tower Hamlets College.

Originally published at

  • 1 An account of a mass refusal of management discipline around teaching culture can be found here: