Tomorrow morning Lambeth College UCU begin an all out strike against changes to their contracts. Mark Winter, chair of Poplar Branch, Tower Hamlets College UCU (pc), discusses the importance of the strike action and what can be learnt from the experiences of the Tower Hamlets College strike.
The planned strike action at Lambeth College is important on a number of fronts. It sends a powerful message to college management, and it expresses the anger and frustration of staff at a raft of changes. It is also a signal of what we need to do to counter the austerity plans of the coalition government.
An attack on working conditions
Staff are striking against increased working hours, an extended working week, a reduction in annual leave by ten days, increased teaching hours, additional duties for no extra pay, a link between pay increments and capability (pay linked to performance), reduced notice of redundancy, and drastically reduced sick pay.
Working conditions at Lambeth have already changed for the worse – staff are currently struggling with massive workloads. The provision of courses to the local community has been reduced- why? Because college management haven’t included this in their business plan. Instead, money has been poured into the flagship Clapham site, which is seen by staff as a vanity project. Meanwhile, the Brixton site is slated to be sold off to become a free school.
Public sector attacks
Staff across the public sector are reporting more and more instances of attacks by management. At times, they confront all staff, but often they target those who are most vulnerable. The tools of what’s sometimes branded “Toxic American Management” are sickness, absence, capability and disciplinary codes. Staff absence is seen as a cost to the organisation. When staff fall ill, rather than focusing on wellbeing, managers focus how best to reduce this “cost” for the future.
So instead of putting in place measures to support employees, senior managers identify the measures that will eliminate the cost – and often the employee. The Tory austerity measures filter down as funding cuts, and for senior management, jobs and working conditions seem the obvious target. But, of course, never theirs – always ours.
What Lambeth College is now facing is all too common across the sector. And it is time to lay down a marker and begin to turn the tide.
Strike for the future of Lambeth College
Senior management at Lambeth plan to introduce new contracts on April 1st.
An all-out strike is never something to take lightly, but it is a powerful response to a clear attempt to bulldozer through change. It is an opportunity to build an even stronger union, and to involve all members irrespective of confidence or experience. And it offers a chance to roll back the measures that make our working lives seem harder – the petty intrusions, the threats that observations bring, and the constant increases in workload.
The timing of the strike couldn’t be better – exams are looming, and coursework deadlines are fast approaching. Now is the time to show who does the real work of the college – not the overpaid senior managers, but those of us at the chalkface. And when we strike, we can win.
Tower Hamlets College
The lessons we learnt from the successful four-week strike at Tower Hamlets College centred on the importance of solidarity, energy and imagination.
We reached out to networks of support in the trade unions and the community. We welcomed fire fighters, teachers, post workers, GPs, students, University lecturers, council workers and many others onto our picket line.
Maintain momentum- reach out!
From day one of the strike, we identified two people responsible for co-ordinating delegation work. We made a list of all the workplaces we should visit, and paired experienced members with inexperienced. We reached out to our colleagues in teaching and beyond. We sent delegations to dozens of workplaces up and down the country. Members who had never spoken before collected donations for the hardship fund – we raised £30,000!
We sent a delegation to Lewisham College and were turned back by managers who said we were not allowed on college property. So we sent back a bigger delegation for a gate meeting where UCU members donated £300. As the strike progressed, we move further afield – to Croydon, Brighton, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool. Every delegation came back more confident and more energised.
When we “down tools”, it provides the space to be creative in action. We co-ordinated with our students, and welcomed them onto our picket lines. Students joined us on our rallies, and made their own placards and banners. We marched through the borough, to the town hall, to the GLA and to the Tory party conference. We built confidence and momentum through rallies and jumble sales. We drew on the support of the community wherever we could.
Every successful strike draws on the rank and file – the “ordinary” members – as it demands that we all make a contribution. Every workroom will need to elect representatives, and the branch will need to broaden its committee. Members will need to plan how best to communicate with students, the press and the public at large.
Staff at Edinburgh College have shown that it is possible to move in massive numbers and win our demands.
Rest assured that there is support in the trade union movement and the community for your action.
>> A copy of the rs21 Lambeth College strike bulletin can be found here
Send solidarity messages to email@example.com