As teachers at Tower Hamlets College enter their fifth week of indefinite strike against cuts, their action remains strong.
A mass meeting on Wednesday 16 September (day 16) saw the biggest turnout of the dispute: 166 members vote to continue the strike action, with 14 abstentions and no members voting against.
Management have been forced to concede some key concessions, but the offer was flatly rejected. Negotiations with the principal continue and ACAS are getting involved.
A fighting spirit remains amongst those on strike, with picket lines lively and well-attended and a whole host of events scheduled for the next couple of weeks. “Farley’s Rusks” catering (two striking teachers and a camping van!) have been delivering food to pickets, and there has been a lot of work done in leafleting and collecting in the community – accompanied by the UCU All-Stars (teachers’ band). The strike fund stands at an impressive £25,000, testament to a well organised strike committee but also a new militant mood in our class.
It was hoped that Unison staff would join colleagues in UCU out on strike, but the ballot for Unison strike action was lost 13 to 12. There were problems with the balloting process: not everyone received their ballot paper.
The union tops have told the local branch that they will be unable to ballot again for another six weeks! Unison claims to be a member-led union, but still strike ballots are controlled by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats. They are no doubt blaming the postal workers for the balloting problems. But if they had released the ballot before the end of last term, then these problems would have been avoided.
Rank-and-file Unison members need to organise so we can hold the leadership to account. The witch-hunts of left activists in the union is a disgrace, but obstructing the attempts of members to take action is equal to siding with the bosses. Unison staff are joining UCU members on picket lines in their lunchtimes — an important show of solidarity after the disappointment of the ballot. This solidarity should spread and we should think up creative ways to get around the oppressive anti-union laws.
Throughout the dispute the principal, Michael Farley, has shown contempt for both staff and students. Without any teaching staff in the building, management have been trying to keep students busy with motivational speechifying. When this tactic seemed to be failing, Farley offered students a free lunch (including BLT sandwiches). This offer went down particularly badly with the 40% of students who are fasting for Ramadan!
Both striking workers and management are clear that this dispute is now much bigger than the 13 job losses. Fundamentally, it is a question of who controls the college – the staff and the community or management. At the end of last term, the college lecturers ran a work-to-rule with daily lunchtime union meetings. This posed a direct challenge to management and set the tone for the rest of the dispute. Staff are now formulating plans to set up structures so they have more control in the running of the college – this would constitute a real victory in the dispute. Hopefully the spirit of this strike will continue into these structures to ensure they are democratic and sensitive to the needs of the community.
When our schools and colleges are increasingly run by the likes of Reg Vardy (evangelical Christian care dealer) and Lord Harris (boss of Carpetright), victory at Tower Hamlets College is crucial for rallying other communities and education workers to take control.
Visitors to picket lines are always warmly welcomed — every day from 7.30am at the Bethnal Green Centre, E2, Arbour Square, E1 and Poplar High St, E14. There are often additional tasks to be done: flyering the community about events etc. Please go along.