Precarity and the workplace: an account of organising at an FE College

Published online in February 2012. Written by Siobhan as part of Shift's Precarity series, the introduction to which can be read here.

Submitted by shifteditor1 on May 14, 2013

This is a personal account of an anti casualisation struggle where I work. Frustratingly, we are right in the middle of our struggle and bogged down in the bureaucratic mud at the moment, so I won’t be able to tell you if we won or not!

I work in an FE college in London. Approximately 70 of us are hourly paid lecturers (HPLs), which means we are on zero hour contracts. This means we get 65% of the pay that we would get if we were permanent and we don’t have any guaranteed minimum number of hours. It also means we don’t need to be formally made redundant, which is what we are fighting about now.

Last year my department fought a battle against redundancies to the permanent staff, which included direct action and strike threats. When they announced that we had won no compulsory redundancies (a few days before our planned strike) we asked the union about the hourly paid staff, and were told that management said they didn’t foresee any redundancies of HPLs and that there was an agreement not to reduce our hours by more than 50%. Just a few days after this conversation we got told that actually there probably would be job losses, we would find out our position when term started, but not to expect much work. The union brought up the 50% agreement and management said that no such agreement existed. It turned out nothing was in writing. We were now in a much weaker position as we had no live ballot for strike action, and everyone was going away for the summer holiday.

When we started back in September, after a summer of total uncertainty, some teachers were not offered anything. Some, including me, had cuts in hours up to ninety per cent, and some were only given work to the end of October. We called an emergency union meeting of the whole teaching staff, which was very well attended, and got, amazingly, a hundred per cent vote for action up to and including strike action in defence of the HPLs. However the branch secretary, who hadn’t attended the meeting, delayed putting this motion to management as he didn’t agree with it, because it was “too confrontational”. We had another emergency meeting, voted again one hundred per cent to declare a dispute if our concerns were not answered, and started asking the UCU regional for a ballot. This went on and on, until the end of October came, the people concerned lost their jobs, and we were unable to do anything at all as we were still waiting for our ballot.

The HPL campaign is very different from the struggle against redundancies last year in my department. For a start, in our department we are a compact group of people, who work in three adjacent staff rooms and who all know each other well. As HLPs however we are scattered all over the college. People who don’t have enough hours (the majority) do other jobs and rush in, teach and rush out. Some people don’t plan on staying long or are working freelance in another career. However a lot of people stay working on the HPL contract for years, hoping to get made permanent. Black and female teachers are more likely to end up in this position. So although we are a distinct group of staff with a specific common problem, we are very dispersed and it has always been very difficult to bring the hourly paid workforce together to discuss our situation.

We have an elected hourly paid rep now and recently one of the other union reps began pushing the issue of the HPL contract at negotiation meetings. When the issue of redundancies came up this rep had already gathered a lot of evidence that the contract as it stood was illegal and that management were abusing the contract. This was very useful and put them on the defensive. However, the struggle relies heavily on the work of this shop steward who is not an HPL. She is very committed to trying to improve the conditions of the HPLs, but this does mean that we don’t always know what is happening or what is being negotiated. We have tried various ways of communicating as HPLs, but the basic problem is that everything is difficult and time consuming due to people being so dispersed and not knowing each other. For example, I only work on main site two days a week, and I never see my rep as we don’t have compatible timetables.

Subjectively, sometimes I don’t want to work on the campaign, even though it is actually fighting to improve my own conditions, as I’m tired and annoyed and don’t want to go to the college on my day off. Sometimes I also feel angry with the permanent staff or the other HPLs. With the permanent staff because they make comments to me like “but that’s what the hourly paids are for” (when people who had worked in the college for twelve years lost their jobs) or “but you knew it wasn’t a permanent contract” (when I lost ninety per cent of my hours overnight). With the hourly paid teachers because so many of them cross the picket line when we’re on strike. I do find a little bit of emotional energy left over to get angry with the management as well.

Last term many things helped our struggle succeed. Being in a tight knit team, knowing and trusting my workmates, having that emotional connection and seeing each other all the time. We made decisions collectively, at one point having weekly meetings. With the scattered HPLs we just don’t have that. We have also run up against familiar problems with trying to call official action. We had to battle to get our vote for a strike last term, and we only got it as we already had a live ballot. Later, people lost their jobs while we were helplessly waiting for a ballot. The problem is not only the anti union laws. Some people in the union have viewed the casualised teachers as a buffer, who can be put on short time or laid off easily, which protects the jobs of the “core membership”: the permanent teachers. It is only very recently that the issue of redundancies and bad treatment of the HPLs has been considered a union issue at all. We have managed to get two unanimous votes for strike action, from the union branch which is mainly permanent staff, to support the casualised staff who are mainly non unionised, which is an excellent result. However, many weaknesses of our position are apparent. We haven’t actually been on strike, because we are not fully in control of the strike process. Too much control resides in the regional, because they can give or withhold the ballot, and they think defending HPLs is more trouble than it’s worth. Beyond that, the college management may make some concessions if they see we are serious, but they see this as a threat to their right to manage, and are being very hardline at the moment. The dispersal and high turnover of HPLs means we don’t have an easy way to talk to each other or to plan action. The lack of involvement historically by HPLs in the union means that we are starting from a very unorganised position and are having to build up from scratch.

At the moment we are still waiting for our ballot, so that hopefully we can be ready to strike if they announce new redundancies. We are going to fight for our contract to be changed. We are going to meet with other colleges who have fought successful battles for better contracts. And me, well, seeing as I lost ninety per cent of my hours this year, tomorrow I’m going to sign on.

Siobhan is from north London and has worked in many jobs from cleaning printing presses to making balloon animals. She is now an FE teacher after going to university through an Access course and is a member of UCU and Solfed.