ESOL teachers on indefinite strike in Tower Hamlets

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Over 250 UCU members at Tower Hamlets College are in day 10 of an indefinite strike against cuts.

The package of cuts includes:
1 - Cuts in courses, particularly English for Speakers of Other Languages courses (1000 places going).

2 - Over 30 teachers’ jobs lost, including 13 compulsory redundancies.

3 - Attempts to turn a community college into a business for selling diplomas.

A mass meeting of 160 strikers today reaffirmed our decision for all out strike. The strike seems to becoming more rather than less solid. Many people have joined the union and the strike at the Poplar (6th form) site and a few members who were working at another site came out this week. Some team leaders and middle managers who were expected to go back to work after a few days are still out. A Hair and Beauty teacher who decided that it would be in the interest of students for her to go back to work was so shocked at the treatment she received (ordered to perform duties outside her role and threatened with breach of contract if she didn’t) that she came back out.

An amazing feature of the strike has been the large numbers actively involved. Loads of people are heading out to speak at other colleges and workplaces, where they are given heroes’ welcomes because people know that their own bosses are watching this struggle. Strikers come back from these visits incredibly energised and determined that we carry on. Others are involved in different forms of fundraising, publicity, welfare and hardship advice and all the other small and big things that need doing to keep the operation going. A debate is going on about whether to offer free ‘Solidarity’ classes to ESOL students while the strike is on. We have a meeting space and HQ at London Action Resource Centre where we’ve had great support and generosity from local anarchists and others. A negotiation meeting today (first one offered by management in over a week) seems to have made some progress but I don’t yet know any details.

How you can support the strike:

Come to the Community Demonstration:
Saturday 12 September 2pm Altab Ali Park , Whitechapel High St, London E1
Come to daily pickets:
Arbour Square E1 0PT
Bethnal Green Centre E2 6AB
Poplar E14 0AF

Donate Money:
* Make a direct bank transfer to:
The Cooperative Bank
Sort Code: 08 92 99
Account Number: 65252262

* Send cheques payable to "UCU Arbour Square" to
UCU Tower Hamlets College
c/o LARC 62 Fieldgate Street London E1 1ES

For background and updates:
http://defendjobsandeducation.posterous.com/

Facebook: Tower Hamlets Stop the Cuts

Posted By

Red Marriott
Sep 9 2009 22:06

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Alf
Sep 10 2009 23:03

On another thread Miles talked about the discussions he and I had with a delegation of three strikers from THC (http://libcom.org/forums/announcements/demo-27th-june-meeting-1st-july-proposed-esol-cuts-bethnal-green-21062009) We had talked about them coming to address a meeting at our college. A couple of days later the NUT rep at our college announced (via email and at a staff meeting) an NUT meeting for next Tuesday lunchtime where NUT business would be discussed but where someone from THC would also speak about the strike. Another email from the ATL rep was sent out about the same time, announcing a separate meeting at the same time.

Miles and myself discussed this with several people in our own department, which covers ESOL and learning support, ie the sector at the heart of the current THC strike. These colleagues are in various unions (NUT, UNISON) or none. But the ones we spoke to agreed that it was ridiculous that there should be two separate meetings at the same time and that the visitors from the THC strike should only speak to NUT members. They supported my intention to send out an email to all staff proposing that the meeting with the THC delegation should be open to everyone and that there should be just one meeting. The reasons I put forward for this in the email were:
- the strikers themselves are not members of the NUT but of the UCU and are likely to be joined soon by non-teaching staff in UNISON;
- the meetings to discuss the strike at THC have been open to all employees, which is an example we should follow
- a number of colleagues at our college who work in Learning Support/ESOL and other areas, and who have a particular interest in this dispute, are members of UNISON or are not in a union.
Following this it now seems that the NUT rep will not prevent non-members from taking part in the section of Tuesday's meeting that discusses the THC strike. But what I found most encouraging was the fact that a number of colleagues
- instantly agreed that this strike is highly relevant to them and that the attacks faced by the THC workers will be faced by many others soon
- agreed on the need for everyone to meet together and not in separate union groups to discuss an issue as important as this.
This is still several steps away from such common meetings actually making decisions (which would automatically challenge the monopoly of the unions), but it is still a step towards it.

Steven.
Sep 11 2009 16:23

I was speaking to a woman at my work today about this, whose husband is striking.

We're going to do a collection at our office next week, I'm going to try and get to the picket line next week, and possibly the demonstration on Saturday.

Choccy
Sep 11 2009 19:16

A colleague in work's niece is striking so there's going to be a collection in our work too and there should be some from work at tomorrow's rally.

Alf
Sep 11 2009 22:36

Miles has collected a fair amount from colleagues at our college today and will bring it to the rally tomorrow. Just read the Education Workers Group leaflet and I thought it was good: I would be willing to give out copies at our college, so maybe someone could bring some extra copies and give them to Miles. We will keep you informed about the meeting next week at the college but there has already been a lot of interest in the strike.

Steven.
Sep 12 2009 10:20
Choccy
Sep 12 2009 15:45

Was at the rally earlier, must have been around 500 (though I'm terrible at estimates).
There was a ton of speeches from various education workplaces in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere in London, a few from unions, Respect, Green Party and a bunch of others.

Met a few faces from other struggles including Lewisham Bridge occupations and Thomas Cook occupation in Dublin.

According to the Unison speaker they are expecting their strike ballot to result in them joining the UCU strikers soon.

miles
Sep 13 2009 10:14

It was quite an interesting rally. There were a couple of stalls from the SWP, one each from the SPGB and Militant, as well as comrades from the Commune selling their press. I met choccy and helped him distribute the leaflet on the London Education Workers group.

The whole struggle has been quite clearly managed by the unions involved, of which there were several present, but nonetheless it's clear that the anger (and fear) of the workers not just in THC but in other FE colleges is real.

Regarding the present situation in the college: it seems that there was some movement on the part of management late Friday night – apparently the question of re-deployment of the 13 sacked staff was raised, although no one I spoke to was sure what this actually meant. Unsurprisingly, the staff I spoke to weren't taking this too seriously until something is put forward in writing.

It seems that a milestone will be reached tomorrow as the LSC begins to fine THC for every day they don't provide teaching. Regarding the UNISON members at THC – the ballot closes tomorrow, with action allowed to begin about a week after that, another example of how following the rules seriously undermines solidarity (or, as one of the staff put it to me 'it's a bit ridiculous').

On the speeches: there were many pledges of support and money from various unions and collections from Colleges (including my own). The speeches (mostly union officials, but also Green party and Left List candidates – I didn't stay for Galloway) focussed on 2 main aspects – first, support for the strikers and that 'if they could win this' it would provide an 'inspiration' for other education workers. Secondly most speakers also referred to the forthcoming cuts in the public sector.

The speeches were basically along 2 themes - how evil and nasty the new Principal of the college is, and that the money to fund education exists, just that it's spent on necessary things like wars and handouts to bankers. None of this gets to the roots of the question about the seriousness of the present economic crisis, or why the bourgeoisie acts in the way it does, it mostly serves as an outlet for bombast.

As I commented to choccy, everyone knows that cuts are coming, and if the unions are going to be effective in helping to manage their implementation they will have to 'radicalise'. The fact that it's looking increasingly like that the Tories will come back also plays well, as it allows the unions to 'once again' play their role of defenders...

Overall, the atmospehere was very positive and the strength of the movement flows from the (general) solidity of the actions and the ability of the workers to organise - propagandise, send delegates to other workplaces etc, even if it is all within a very tightly controlled framework. The unions will always be there, there's no getting away from that fact.

Finally I was hoping to meet some other Libcomers - did anyone else make it? It strikes me that, given these events, the postal strike (which seems to be even bigger than in 2007) and the possibility of lay offs at Vauxhall - that there is the basis for another issue of Teabreak...

Steven.
Sep 13 2009 11:06

Does anyone know if there has been any examples of people in the unions, or not in the union, refusing to cross the picket lines? For example the UNISON members?

I suppose it's disappointing that despite being pretty sure that there will be a yes vote to strike action that UNISON members are actually waiting for their official ballot before walking out.

Rachel
Sep 13 2009 15:40

Steven,
Several months before the current crisis at THC was announced there was an unofficial walkout at one of the sites by teachers, support staff and admin staff, some in the unions, some not, over the sudden dismissal of a contract caretaker (probably because he had taken 'too much' sick leave due to a serious medical condition). This happened spontaneously after someone sent an email alerting everyone to the fact that this long serving worker was going to be leaving at the end of the day. People were angry and could easily see the contrast between the treatment of this man and the then principal and other members of senior management who were being sent off with parties and expensive gifts. There was a meeting in the canteen and about 100 people decided to walkout (I think for ½ hour or so). After this the caretaker was given a somewhat better deal and while there were threats made, no one was actually disciplined for the walkout. It was certainly part of the prequel to what happened in June - part of what led the Senior Management Team to call for a culture change in THC and why Farley told his board of governors that they had to back him or sack him over his plans to break the union.

The people who took the initiative in this case were teachers and UCU members. Unison was very weak. After the walkout there was a meeting of Unison and many people joined. There was a rep elected for the first time in a long time and the activists from UCU were giving a lot of support. There were joint meetings and pledge to support each other. It is a fact that UCU is strong - has been for years and once the cuts were announced in June, teaching became virtually a closed shop (the few people not in the union began joining on the UCU website the night we got the email announcing the cuts). Without the strength of UCU the walkout would not likely have happened and the repercussions afterwards would have been serious. Unison at this site is still weak. The working staff have been put under massive pressure and have had weeks of management telling them that the teachers are hurting students and wrecking the college. There is little contact between those on strike and those working - a major problem. There are brilliant examples of those working (I can't call them Unison members because a lot of them are not) helping out the strikers in all sorts of ways, but there are also a lot of cases in which attitudes have become hardened and some have turned against the strikers.

This is all to say that I don't think it was never on the cards for there to be an unofficial strike of support and admin staff. In contrast to the teachers, they are on all sorts of different contracts and there are loads of temps. It is dubious how much Unison would have supported their own members in a wildcat, let alone all these other people. Yes of course if they did it all together it would have worked (at one point the idea was raised to use the strikers hardship fund to offer them 'strike pay' to do so) but that's true of just about anything else you can think of too.

It seems to me that workers take serious action when they are desperate (Visteon) or when they are strong (it is well known that the highly-unionised THC teachers had probably the best terms and conditions in London). But the admin/support workers at the college may not realise how strong they are now. I hope I’m wrong!

Rachel
Sep 13 2009 17:41

In paragraph 3 that should read I don't think it was EVER, not never...

Also rereading what I wrote it probably appears that I am equating workers power with the power of the trade union - I don't - and like most of the strikers I see the serious consequences of this instance of trade unions making it all but impossible to unite workers in a given workplace. A stronger Unison would not of course necessarily led to more militant action - might have been the opposite.

my intention was to give some background as to the relations between the teachers and the support/admin staff and say why a wildcat was unlikely.

posi
Sep 14 2009 06:26

Thanks for all that Rachel. Am I right in saying there was another unofficial walk out during a 'professional development' day a while ago? (After UCU discouraged workers from holding their own alternative day.)

The first day of the strike at least a couple of non-teaching staff refused to go in at Arbour Sq, but I think they might have been temps, and I don't know if they stayed our for subsequent days. Plenty of students have refused to cross as well, which was really important during enrollment.

Rachel
Sep 14 2009 18:53

Well yes posi there was another unofficial action in July. Since you asked I will try to finish my half written article about the CPD (continuing professional development) walkout. Working title is 'Workers revolt against Vygotski". Definitely one for the really interested only - let me know if you want me to email it to you.

Sad to say it looks like a no vote from Unison.

miles
Sep 14 2009 20:24

Rachel: Have you actually had the UNISON result, or is it only looking that way?

Rachel
Sep 15 2009 06:20

Strike ballot lost 13-12.

Some Unison people came out of Arbour last night very angry and calling for a re-vote, because, if I understood correctly, in last weeks meeting they voted 60 for strike with 3 abstentions. One problem was many people didn't get their ballot papers. Ho hum.

Steven.
Sep 15 2009 08:52

That's a good illustrator of the anti-working class nature of individualised, private ballots (the only ones which are legal).

It's easy to feel demoralised and isolated voting at home in private - as opposed to a mass meeting where you can gain collective confidence and a sense of power.

(Not to mention that people also feel social pressure to stand up for each other, and not be scabs letting everyone else down.)

That's very unfortunate though. It's a shame also that the ballot was so delayed, and so not in time with the teachers.

Getting industrial action ballots with UNISON is very difficult - I'm aware of groups of workers that have waited over a year an official ballot. In my work we tried to get an official ballot for reinstatement of a sacked worker, where we had already voted in an indicative ballot 94% in favour of strike action, but we were denied an official ballot. (Not that I'm saying any other unions would be better necessarily, I believe unions always act to dampen struggles, but are forced into being more militant when workers threaten to surpass them with their action)

Alf
Sep 16 2009 12:21

Agree with Steven on destructive role of ballots. This was illustrated at the meeting at our college addressed by three speakers from THC: if I heard right UNISON had another meeting after the ballot result and there was again a majority in favour of joining the strike. I asked whether they would keep to the decisiion of the meeting instead of the decision of the ballot but the speakers all agreed they had to stick to the ballot result. This is a serious blow against the strike.

On the (NUT) meeting at our college: the positive thing was that the part dealing with THC was open to all (Miles and I did play a role in this happening), and there were some non-teachers and non-union members present as well as the ATL people who had originally arranged to have a separate meeting at the same time in the room opposite. Unfortunately the meeting was very short and there was no time to develop any discussion - about half way through the lunch hour (actually 55 minutes) the ATL went off to have their separate meeting and the NUT meeting then became one for members only to discuss NUT business.

There was quite a big turnout for the meeting and very strong feelings of support and solidarity. But the latter was understood largely as a question of giving money rather than common action. Part of the problem is the focus on Michael Farley who is no doubt a nasty principal. The question however is whether the attacks on jobs at THC comes mainly from his style of management or is part of a wider strategy - a testing of the water for further attacks under the global umbrella of cuts in public spending. If the latter, it's a clever strategy because it doesn't involve an all-out attack on teachers' jobs which could provoke direct solidarity action and a common strike front, which does not seem very likely in this dispute.

I gave out some copies of the Education Workers Group leaflet and await any responses.

Alf
Sep 16 2009 21:28

On reflection, perhaps we should have challenged the way the meeting broke up into separate clubs, without any conclusions about what we should do to support the strikers. One of the things that was mooted was to make a collection at the staff meeting the next day and there were many mutters of agreement with this. In fact this was entirely forgotten about - a point made to me by one of my workmates at a leaving do that immediately followed the staff meeting (she was one of the non-NUT who had attended - a learning support assistant in UNISON).

I'm thinking about ways of making these points to my colleagues.....

Choccy
Sep 17 2009 13:44

cheers for handing out the fundraiser leaflet Alf
I'll distribute some at the Hackney NUT social later and try and drum up support

Rachel
Sep 17 2009 16:27

Any suggestions on
1. creative suggestions for admin and support staff in THC to support the strike and escalate things?
2. what other people/groups who want to support can help other than give money?
Needs to be escalated now.
Thanks

Alf
Sep 17 2009 22:00

I would say keep trying to convince the non-teaching staff at THC to walk out in support whatever the result of the ballot, since the decisions taken in the meetings should take precedence. But that also has implications for the striking teachers: the obvious issue is to form a general assembly to run the strike, open to all the workers. That means challenging the official framework imposed by the unions.

I agree that escalation is the only way forward but it seems that like other disputes recently THC is in danger of becoming a union 'cause celebre', which actually tends to reinforce its isolation.

Alf
Sep 17 2009 22:03

Choccy - happy to help.The London EWG looks like an interesting development and would like to be kept informed about what it's doing.

Choccy
Sep 17 2009 22:30

yeah I think LEWG has potential to do some very important solidarity work, both in terms of producing propaganda around specififc issues and in supporting workers in struggles as they arise

Chilli Sauce
Sep 18 2009 12:07

I'm not proud of the fact I was on this site, but in doing some research on the strike I came across this quote from: http://www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/2823

Quote:
The highlight of my visit to the picket line was when a postie drove up to deliver mail to the college. He got out of the van, opened the side door and then did a double take looking at the crowd of people standing outside the college. I was too far away to hear him but I could lip read him say “Is this a picket line?”. One of the strikers talked to him for about five minutes and then he jumped back in the van and drove off to loud cheers from the picketers – mail undelivered.

The comments on the article go on to say no mail is being delivered to the college. Can anyone confirm this?

Chilli Sauce
Sep 18 2009 12:08
Quote:
yeah I think LEWG has potential to do some very important solidarity work, both in terms of producing propaganda around specififc issues and in supporting workers in struggles as they arise

Holla!

Rachel
Sep 18 2009 12:17

No royal mail post is being delivered to any of the sites.

posi
Sep 18 2009 14:32
Rachel wrote:
Any suggestions on
1. creative suggestions for admin and support staff in THC to support the strike and escalate things?
2. what other people/groups who want to support can help other than give money?
Needs to be escalated now.
Thanks

On the first one, I think that there should be a specific leaflet for the admin staff (apologies if I've missed this) encouraging them to get working on organising another strike ballot, with correct addresses this time (and the importance of following up ASAP if you don't get a ballot through the post!). (I'd love it if they'd just walk out, but that doesn't seem to me to be the mood at the moment.) I'd argue that encouraging them to join the union as well would be a good thing, though I understand people on here may not agree.) Apparently they have been given a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies in their area since they started to talk about striking; emphasise what they have won already and that they can win more for themselves.

Maybe there needs to be a discussion amongst UCU strikers about not going back if any admin staff are victimised for joining the strike? Unless that's a condition of the strike and is clearly expressed I can see why admin staff might be worried about being left hanging.

I was looking at a list of college governors at the BGC picket this morning. Farley claim the governors all support him, and I gather they have been refusing to interact directly with strikers. I saw governors from the local council, Citigroup, Prudential, and I'm sure there are some other big business figures on there.

How about a big, noisy demo outside the Citigroup or Prudential offices (etc), with some leaflets with the governors names and faces on to be handed out to staff and passers by (contrasting their wealth with the students/teachers)? Might put some pressure on behind Farley for things to be wrapped up quickly, especially if it looked like it was going to keep happening...

EDIT: AFAIK posties have a clause in their contracts to the effect that they don't have to cross picket lines. I think it might be 'for health & safety reasons'. Or maybe it's negotiated between RM and CWU... but it's definitely officially established.

Alf
Sep 19 2009 21:51

Admins: i think this discussion is important but perhaps a lot of people are not aware of it? Could it be moved to the news forum?

I would be very interested in Rachel's reponse to the two answers to her questions - mine and Posi's, seeing that they offer a very different way forward. i am trying to argue that even in a defensive struggle like the one at THC, the union framework is a real straitjacket and that we need to challenge it at every opportunity, and find ways through it and eventually out of it. I don't think this is a dogma, but is being shown in practice by the evolution of this struggle, particularly regarding the role of ballots and thus of union legality.

Rachel
Sep 20 2009 18:47

Thanks for the ideas.

Quote:
Alf wrote:
I would say keep trying to convince the non-teaching staff at THC to walk out in support whatever the result of the ballot, since the decisions taken in the meetings should take precedence.

I do this and maybe a few others do. So far this hasn't been effective.

Quote:
Alf wrote:
But that also has implications for the striking teachers: the obvious issue is to form a general assembly to run the strike, open to all the workers. That means challenging the official framework imposed by the unions.

Our daily strike committee meetings are already open to workers who aren't in UCU. We meet in the daytime however, because that works best for the strikers, many of whom have kids. Obviously this means people still working don't come.

Posi, thanks for your practical suggestions. On Friday at my site we organised for the support and admin people inside to come out at lunchtime for a get-together. We affirmed our mutual support and more informally discussed what more could be done. We should have done this earlier. We know individually who supports the strike and how much they have done for us but we have not seen them (and they may not have seen each other) as a group before.

Quote:
Posi wrote:
Maybe there needs to be a discussion amongst UCU strikers about not going back if any admin staff are victimised for joining the strike? Unless that's a condition of the strike and is clearly expressed I can see why admin staff might be worried about being left hanging.

Yes, this discussion should have happened earlier but still needs to happen. I heard last night from someone from Lambeth that the lecturers (UCU) don't cross picket lines when Unison strike and have never been disciplined. There hasn't been a Unison strike since I've been at THC so I've never heard of this but knowing that this is the norm would have been useful.

Re targetting the Governors - this has started to happen on a small scale at Canary Wharf where things get instantly suppressed. Big noisy demo in the City is a good idea - too many decent demos/stunts have taken place at Poplar where they don't get seen. Personally I have a distaste for the kind of targetting of fatcats but I'm not sure why and its probably a very worthwhile thing to do.

Any more ideas welcome.

Alf
Sep 20 2009 19:54

On Friday at my site we organised for the support and admin people inside to come out at lunchtime for a get-together. We affirmed our mutual support and more informally discussed what more could be done. We should have done this earlier. We know individually who supports the strike and how much they have done for us but we have not seen them (and they may not have seen each other) as a group before.

This is a good development. The reason why I was felt Posi's post was going in the wrong direction (though not on all points - I agree with the need to put forward the no victimisation demand, for example) was the idea of calling for a second ballot for UNISON workers when the direction to go surely has to be common meetings that take decisions. The meeting Rachel describes is surely the embryo of this, and even if she and one or two others are in a minority in calling for direct strike action it's still necessary to argue for it.

Steven.
Sep 21 2009 08:29

Rachel, thanks for all the updates on this.

I work at a London Council, and similarly when we (UNISON) have gone on strike, members of other unions, or non-union members have not been disciplined for not crossing picket lines.

However, these have been for one or two-day strikes. An indefinite strike may well be a different matter - but as suggested, a commitment by the UCU members to stay out if any other workers were victimised would be a level of protection. It is clear though, that this is a difficult situation, and without an official ballot the workers wouldn't get strike pay, or have any legal protection from sacking.