Tough lessons to learn

The struggle against worsening conditions and cuts in education continues. Andrew Stone, 6th form college teacher and District Secretary of Wandsworth NEU, writes in a personal capacity about an upcoming strike and a ballot in Tower Hamlets.

NEU members taking part in the 6th form colleges strike on 20th November 2019
NEU members taking part in the 6th form colleges strike on 20th November 2019

Two important battles in education face turning points this week. The first, a ballot of National Education Union (NEU) members in Tower Hamlets, East London, against attacks on their terms and conditions, is facing a legal injunction from the Labour council. The second is the beginning of the second round of strikes by 34 6th Form Colleges over funding and pay, which starts tomorrow (Wednesday 12th February). Both pose important questions about developing a winning industrial strategy in the wake of Labour’s general election defeat.

The Tower Hamlets ballot, which began on Wednesday 22nd January and closes on Tuesday 18th February, is in response to a council plan to worsen pay and conditions of support staff, and to reduce the value of a redundancy scheme (which also affects teachers) by more than 50%. The consultation, which the NEU was excluded from, came to an end without agreement, and the council is now threatening to impose it by dismissing staff then re-employing them on the new contracts.

It is bad enough that a Labour council is taking a union to the High Court to prevent it defending its members’ terms and conditions (and by extension the educational provision in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country). But the grounds it is doing it on – that the council is not the employer of Local Authority community schools, that they do not need to consult with the NEU, and that there is no council redundancy policy – are completely spurious. It is, it does and there is. Its claims are so demonstrably false that the council risks appearing like the child caught red-handed that denies everything despite all evidence to the contrary. The NEU is rightly vigorously resisting this case, which if upheld would be a travesty of natural justice. It’s vital that the injunction is not allowed to suppress the ballot turnout, but rather that members and reps use this as a spur to smash the thresholds (50% turnout and 40% of the total membership voting yes). 

Following examples such as Royal Mail’s successful injunction in November against an overwhelming CWU strike ballot, the action by Tower Hamlets council suggests a worrying trend that the law is increasingly being used to frustrate democratic union votes. With draconian Tory plans, outlined in the Queen’s speech in December, to restrict the right of transport workers to strike, it’s vital that the trade union movement gets behind any action called by the RMT, ASLEF, Unite, or other affected unions. Yesterday’s overwhelming vote by London bus drivers needs to be backed to the hilt by trade unionists and workers generally. It is easy to imagine that if the government is able to impose new strike restrictions without a fight they will be extended throughout the public sector and beyond. We cannot allow this to happen.

Sixth form workers successfully challenged a not dissimilar legal injunction four years ago. This time our main barrier is government intransigence and disinformation. Our three days of strikes in October and November were part of a long-running campaign that has successfully wrested some extra money for the post-16 sector, and a small increase to our pay offer from 1% to 1.5%. As with schools, the government has generally excluded from this picture the cuts imposed since 2010, which far outweigh the pre-election increase. Perhaps we are to be grateful that colleges are at least missing from the governments’ misleading propaganda website set up to counter the NEU’s www.schoolcuts.org.uk by withholding important information such as inflation and rising costs.  

There was some hesitation in the union in backing further 6th form strikes. Initially, perhaps, in the hope that a Labour government would come riding to the rescue. After that, perhaps, out of fear that the Tory victory would prove too demoralising. It was important then that the vast majority of NEU 6th form reps, after consulting with members, signed a statement calling for the action to continue, and a strategy of three further strikes – Wednesday 12th February, Thursday 27th February and Tuesday 10th March (the day before the budget) was arranged. Simultaneously we have been undertaking indicative ballots on renewing our mandate after the current one expires in late March. 

The Tory election victory has rightly prompted some serious soul-searching on strategy. The NEU poured a lot of time and resources into a #VoteEducation campaign, as it did with considerable success in 2017. Though the union is not affiliated to any political party, advertising the impact of school cuts, and the many ways in which the Conservative manifesto conflicted with NEU policies, was clearly designed to benefit Labour. And rightly so. As the great historian Howard Zinn once commented, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train”. 

Over the last few years, the left in the NEU has taken great inspiration from groups such as the Chicago Teachers Union and spoken of cultivating ‘social movement trade unionism’. In a nutshell, this is about making the links between the working conditions of education workers and wider – but connected – issues of social justice such as child poverty, oppression, climate change and international solidarity. NEU executive member Alex Kenny has been a leading advocate of this approach but has raised justifiable concerns that our ability to organise at the base is still well below our ambitions. This is evidenced by recent national ballots on funding and testing which, while won, failed to meet the government’s 50% threshold. His ‘turn to schools’ document is designed to prompt action to recruit more reps and raise member involvement. Kenny is not a pessimist – he is the Tower Hamlets district secretary at the heart of the current battle there – and he is not advocating ‘bread and butter’ syndicalism. But it is rumoured that some in the executive are tempted by this prospect, despite the fact that the NASUWT have long since occupied this barren ground. The challenge for NEU members – and for the trade union movement generally – is to develop grassroots organisation that embraces a wider progressive project to motivate and involve new layers of activists. And perhaps also, to provide a focus for those otherwise at risk of demoralisation in the wake of Corbyn’s defeat.

 

Send messages of support for the Tower Hamlets dispute to alex.kenny@neu.org.uk and sign the petition against the anti-strike injunction here.

For the 6th form strikes send messages to jean.evanson@neu.org.uk A list of 6th form colleges on strike can be found here. Picket lines visits are always very welcome.

London rs21 are discussing the Tory plans to suppress the right to strike in the transport sector on Thursday, 13 February. Find out more about the event here.

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