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(en) Britain, Anarchist Solidarity Federation* Newspaper Catalyst #22 Winter 2009 - Page 4 - Take the public sector and squeeze + Why did we risk it all? + Uniting across all job roles: The EWN + Ways to fight back +

Date Thu, 22 Apr 2010 13:48:46 +0300


Take the public sector and squeeze + May 2010 will see a general election where the main parties will compete with each other in promising cuts in public expenditure and attacks on public sector workers pay and conditions.-- This offensive is egged on by the media and parts of it are fast becoming accepted wisdom - even if the supposed facts underpinning this version of events are wrong. ---- While the media like to talk about public sector bureaucracy, the vast majority of public sector workers do things that are useful – nurses, doctors, street cleaners, library assistants, meals-on-wheels drivers, carers, teachers – are just a few examples. Whoever gets in after the next election, these groups of workers are a prime target for cuts to balance the State’s books after the multi- billion pound bank bail-outs. The bureaucrats will for the most part not be the victims of these cuts, but those doing the cutting.

The attacks will be three-pronged – straight
cuts in numbers of workers doing a job, cuts to
pensions and speeding up privatisation. Pensions
have been demonised in the press. A decade
ago many workers in all sectors had final salary
pensions. Most private sector bosses have now
closed these, whether for new starters or all
workers, and if replaced, it has been by inferior
‘money purchase’ pensions, where the individual
worker takes more of the risk and the company
pays less.

All the media talk of ‘gold-plated’ public sector
pensions is part of the agenda to drive down
workers’ wages across the board through divide
and rule. It turns out the average public sector
pension is about £7,000, but many have pensions
of less than £5,000 per year. This is hardly
‘golden’, and is low enough that many pensioners
will qualify for additional benefits because their
income is so low.

All main parties are also committed to selling
off more public services on the pretext that the
private sector is more efficient and cheaper
at providing services. This is just free market
dogma. Privatisation is about cutting both pay
and conditions of workers, and the level of service
received. Sometimes, under accounting scams
like the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the cost
is actually higher and the service poorer, with
examples such as a £75 fee to change a light bulb
at a PFI hospital.

But the political consensus of pay cuts, attacks
on pensions and privatisation need not go
unopposed. Workers in other sectors have already
shown the way with a wave of direct action from
strikes to occupations putting a stop to bosses
plans for cuts. Public sector workers can do it too
– but there are obstacles to overcome.

One of these is that even within one place of
work in the public sector workers are often
divided up into two, three or more different trade
unions. For example a typical university campus
will have academic staff in UCU, administrative
staff in Unison and perhaps cleaners and manual
workers in Unite. When we consider the whole
public sector, this problem is magnified. Each
union organises independently of the others, and
none of them organise with those workers who
are not union members – but who also have a
class interest in opposing cuts.

A first step to overcoming this is to open up
workplace meetings to all workers. Getting
members of other unions as well as non-union
staff to discuss the cuts and how to resist them
shifts the discussion from sectional trade interests
to united class interests; united we stand, divided
we fall. Against the cuts agenda, we should be
pushing for coordinated strike action by all
public sector workers. We cannot rely on the
trade unions to do this on our behalf – workers
need to network, agitate and organise to make the
solidarity we need to resist the cuts a reality.
---------------------------------------------

Why did we risk it all? Because we will not go down without a fight.

Catalyst talks to the Tower Hamlets strikers
While the recent media spin is suggesting
that we’re ‘on our way out of recession’,
the reality on the ground is that workers
are still facing attacks across sectors in the
forms of job cuts and community provisions.
Education has been one of the sectors worst
hit in this period, with £65m slashed from
higher-education (HE) budgets, schools
closing left, right and centre, and jobs to go at
approximately 100 of the 150 HE institutions
in the UK . The situation is as bleak as ever.
In August, around 250 members of teaching
staff at Tower Hamlets College (THC), East
London went on indefinite strike over threats
of compulsory redundancies, and cuts in
provision of ESOL (English for Speakers of
Other Languages) courses. Catalyst spoke to
Rachel, a member of the striking staff, about
the background of the dispute, the issues at
hand, and the feelings after the strike came
to an end in late September.
We began by discussing the background
to the strike, going back to June of this
year, – “There was new management, a
new principal, new senior managers … and
in June they issued a document ‘Securing
the Future’.” The nature of this document
turned out to be a plan for “very brutal cuts
in provision and jobs, and on June 5 there
was a 30 day notice for consultation”, with
the projection in June being that “40-60 jobs
in THC would be cut, while approximately
50% of ESOL course places would also be
lost, and some in A-level teaching.”
Prior to the attack on jobs and provision,
Rachel said that she had experienced “good
working conditions with a strong union …
we were comfortable”. But that all changed,
and with a suddenness typical of many
disputes, the plans to cut jobs and ESOL
provision were an aggressive assault on the
workers and students. Management were
strategic in their timing – “proposing to do
it all at once, and at the end of term so it was
hard to do anything about it… coming up
to exams, most of teaching finished for the
summer” – indeed the choice of timing had
put the workers in a more difficult position
to fight back, but they had no choice.

Campaign against cuts

“A campaign started against the cuts, they
were talking about 60 people being made
redundant but they offered voluntary
redundancy and a lot of people took that
– which was unfortunate but meant fewer
compulsory redundancies”. The campaign
began right away, and on 27th June in
Bethnal Green, a demonstration of workers,
students, and supporters marched to Altab
Ali Park in Whitechapel. In addition, staff
and students were writing letters in anger
at the proposed job and course cuts, but it
was clear that direct action would be the only
way of fighting back if the workers were to
have any hope of defending themselves.
In early July, the attempts to formalise the
redundancies had become more concrete.
Rachel told us of a “letter sent by courier
at night” which targeted 19 people at that
stage for compulsory redundancy, which
had made a ballot for indefinite strike action
all the more vital. In the meantime, over
the summer weeks, some people accepted
voluntary redundancies, and some appeals
had continued between July and August.

Strike ballot

The teaching staff, who were members of
the University and Colleges Union (UCU),
decided to step-up the fight-back. “We balloted
for strike action in late-June and we had a
back: London
series of one-day strikes toward the end of
term”. While feeling that in and of themselves
they were ineffective in combating the cuts,
Rachel says this was a useful process; “it was
a way for people from the different sites to
meet and discuss things… we then had an
unofficial union action – we refused to take
part in a staff development event that we
had been required to do- this brought people
together”. The same day, staff voted for
indefinite strike in September.
The strike was due to start on 27th, August,
before students began to enrol for the new
academic year – “were we going to be able to
carry it out from first day of term?...we had
a union meeting first day of term” and they
affirmed the strike from then on. Rachel
described some of the debates and internal
dynamics involved – “some people thought
we shouldn’t do it during enrolment because
of students, since the college has competition
from other 6th forms, but we decided to do
it anyway”.

Student support

From the beginning of the campaign
students were on-board with the staff action
– “students did show support…at Poplar
[another THC site] students respected the
picket line and on the adult sites they mostly
didn’t cross the picket line. We took great
pains to make sure they could understand.
The students knew us and they knew what
it was about.”
The initial demands of the strike at
that point were solely around the issue of
compulsory redundancies. “We were down
to 13 compulsory redundancies because
others had won appeals or taken voluntary
redundancy under pressure. Other things
were dropped… saving some of the jobs did
save some course provision.”

The strike

During the strike Rachel says feelings of
solidarity were high - “morale was fantastic…
there were so many on picket-lines and
doing other things and people feeling
good… busking, collecting, daily meetings,
not much problem with scabs”. The busking
and collecting helped the strikers to support
themselves financially during the month
they were out.

“We got strike pay from national union
(UCU), but we don’t quite know how much
for full-time staff. There were 250 people
on strike; we were able to collect a lot of
money, about £20-25k, through colleges
and workplaces, especially FE colleges, and
places like local fire station. There was a
hardship fund and any striker can say ‘I need
this much money’ on the basis of trust and
solidarity.”

Mixed results

“In the end officially there were no compulsory
redundancies, but in a few cases I saw them
as compulsory because certain people were
selected through a scoring process, put
through a meat-grinder, going over summer,
in the end offered redeployment/demotion
or voluntary redundancy.” Basically some
had been forced into taking ‘voluntary’
redundancies.
“Six teachers got their jobs back… seven
people I believe took voluntary redundancy.
Nothing else was included in negotiations
about what happens next.” Rachel was very
honest about the shortcomings, but she
does feel that the gains that had been made,
which were mostly in confidence terms, are
worth building on. Despite the feeling that
they could have achieved more, she says, “we
are strong going back, heading to more of a
shop-steward model. If we keep that going
where we can meet and continue the feeling
of strength.
“I think people thought we couldn’t stay
out too much longer. If we carried on we’d
be divided. I think people want to feel good
about it and we did accomplish a lot. It could
have been much worse without our action.”

So was it a ‘victory’?

In the immediate aftermath of the vote,
Rachel had written on the class struggle
website libcom.org that “this deal was
sold through with the most outrageous
manipulation of the mass meeting where
discussion was suppressed before and during
the meeting as far as possible, with members
being shouted down by union officials.
“In the short time there was for debate,
many people spoke against accepting the
deal but in the end there were 24 votes
against, many abstentions and the clear
majority voting to accept and go back to
work. (though the meeting was of course
smaller than our usual weekly meetings).”
Having had a few days to reflect on the
outcome by the time we spoke, Rachel was
acknowledging that there were positive
elements in the outcome. While compulsory
redundancies were defeated, and this would
also mean some ESOL provision would be
saved (though not nearly as much as the
1,000 places under threat), Rachel and many
of her fellow strikers are not getting carried
away in the euphoria expressed by some on
the left and higher up in the UCU.
“It was quite a bittersweet thing. A lot of
people don’t wanna talk about it as a victory
– we could have done more heading back to
work , but we feel great about what we did…
I think at Poplar you’ve got an SWP branch,
they were the ones that kind of ended it when
it ended. They wanted that result and got it
in the mass vote – ‘This is a great victory
lets go down to the Brighton Labour party
conference.’ But cracks have started to appear
very quickly in those celebrations.
“People feel it’s a mixed bag. It’s not just
me – 24 of us voted against going back. I
didn’t think we could stay much longer, but
the vote wasn’t done in the spirit that other
meetings had been done.”
The action by teaching staff has had a
ripple-effect in terms of other staff – “the
Unison people were promised no compulsory
redundancies because we were on strike.”
So despite the mixed feeling concerning
the outcome, the are definite positives that
should not be under-emphasised.
Rachel made clear that while she felt the
THC workers could have held out for more, it
was only through taking their action against
the bosses that they were able to make the
gains they did. A feeling among many of
the THC staff that were on strike is that
they learned the value of fighting back and
standing side-by-side in solidarity with each
other – had they allowed these attacks to go
unchallenged, they’d certainly have been in a
considerably worse position. While there are
many lesson to be learned from the strike,
Rachel felt that many of her colleagues
gained a sense of confidence in what they
could achieve when they took collective
action, and in times when indefinite strikes
are almost unheard of, the THC workers have
set an example for workers everywhere.
The fight-back in education is on, and there
have been glimmers of hope. From THC
to the victorious parent-led occupation at
Lewisham Bridge Primary School (see page
3) winning an education for their children,
examples are being set for workplaces and
communities under attack: the only way we
can defend our interests is to fight for them.
One of the lessons learned has been that it
was not the union that ‘won’ this ‘victory’
for the Tower Hamlets strikers; it was the
collective action and solidarity of the workers
themselves.
In a support leaflet for the strike, the
London Education Workers’ Group said, “The
Tower Hamlets strikers have set a fantastic
example for the rest of us in education to
follow. Through their direct action and
solidarity they have shown [principal]
Michael Farley and all those seeking to make
cuts in education that we will not go down
without a fight.”
Rachel has been very honest about the
shortcomings after the strike, but the most
important thing coming out was the sense
of confidence and solidarity they felt going
back to work, and no-one can take that away
from the Tower Hamlets College workers.
Catalyst thanks Rachel for taking the time
out to chat about her experiences.

--------------------------------------

Uniting across all job roles: The EWN

The Education Workers’ Network (EWN)
is an industrial network for revolutionary
workers in education, uniting workers
across all job roles, whether they be
porters, lecturers, cleaners, teachers,
clerical staff, technicians, or anything
else in the education sector. The
Network seeks to organise through the
entire education system, from schools,
to colleges, to universities.
The EWN works to support education
workers’ struggles through self-
education, agitation and activism, both
to win immediate demands, and also
with the long term aim of building a
revolutionary labour movement in the
anarcho-syndicalist model (see page 7).
The EWN publishes a regular
newsletter ‘Education Worker’. Contact
details for EWN can be found in the
contacts section on page 6.

-------------------------------

Ways to fight back: London Education Workers Group

Education WorThe London Education Workers Group
(LEWG) was established so that education
workers throughout London can come
together to oppose the coming assault on
education.
LEWG reject the division of workers
into separate unions and recognise that
politicians, political parties, and union
bureaucrats have nothing to offer workers.
Instead, LEWG believe that direct action
must be our weapon. Power comes from
the grassroots and that education workersmust
democratically and collectively
control their own organizations.
Besides supporting fellow education
workers, LEWG extend solidarity to
student and community struggles
believing that in the long term, it is only
through opposition to both capitalism
and the state that the problems that face
education workers can be solved. LEWG
can be contacted at londonewg@gmail.com
_________________________________________
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