On Monday evening, January 14th, about 90 trade unionists from Halesowen and across the West Midlands filled the lounge bar of the Old Hill Cricket Club in Park Road, Haden Hill, Halesowen. Why had they come together on a cold wet January evening? To give support to the now four UCU members of the Maths department at Halesowen College who have been sacked. Darrall Cozens from the West Midlands UCU reports on the latest developments.
On Monday evening, January 14th, about 90 trade unionists from Halesowen and across the West Midlands filled the lounge bar of the Old Hill Cricket Club in Park Road, Haden Hill, Halesowen. They had come from Dudley, Shrewsbury, Coventry, Warwickshire, Sandwell and the NEC of UCU. Members of UCU, NUT, ATL, NUS and Unison were present. Why had they come together on a cold wet January evening? To give support to the now four UCU members of the Maths department at Halesowen College who have been sacked.
Earlier this week we reported that the UCU Branch Secretary, Dave Muritu, had been sacked on the penultimate day of the Christmas Term, December 20th. On Friday, January 11th, three other UCU members – Rachael Griew, Jason White and Sarabjit Ahluwalia – joined Dave in being dismissed. The charge against them was poor results, yet for the past three years the results in all courses bar one had been above the national average. In a week when students were sitting GCSE, AS and A2 exams in Maths, four key members of the department had been sacked.
The hearings against the four concentrated on one set of results and ignored all of the other issues. And there are serious issues in Maths – students often had one lecturer shared between two classes at the same time; student groups were pushed together even though they were studying different levels or syllabuses; classes were often not staffed or having lecturers cover absences at a moment’s notice so non-Maths teachers were having to try and teach Maths; cover for illnesses having to be provided from within the department so that teachers like Dave ended up last year doing 120 hours of cover, equivalent to one extra day per week. None of these issues had been addressed by management despite the college having £3m surplus last year. Low morale, stress, sickness – all of these did not matter to Principal Bate!
What did concern Bate, however, was the fact that over the past three years UCU members had been regularly challenging Senior Management about their failures to support staff and students, and UCU members had also been fighting against changes to contracts where two weeks holiday entitlement has been lost and there is no limit to weekly teaching hours. Staff can be expected to teach for up to 35 hours in a week. Add to that preparation time, admin duties and marking – the only outcome can be exhausted lecturers and a drop in standards despite the heroic efforts of staff to defend students’ interests.
Nick Varney, the regional fulltime UCU official, remarked that in 41 years of trade union activity he had never seen such levels of unfairness. The letters of dismissal stated that there was no bad conduct, but the four were being penalised in management’s view for not achieving a national benchmark that had been imported into the college and which took no account of the nature of student groups from one year to the next.
The reality is that anyone can be dismissed with no evidence being provided. During Dave’s hearing, Nick asked where the evidence was. Management adjourned the meeting for 30 minutes and came back with an email which stated that Dave had been seen by a member of management some time ago in a corridor when he should have been teaching. Dave was in fact getting some calculators from his room!
Trumped up charges
Four UCU members have been sacked on trumped up charges as they had been active in opposing management over a period of time and what FE Principals like to enjoy is the untrammelled right to rule their domains as they see fit, and Principal Keith Bate is no exception.
So after another cold and wet early Monday morning outside the college giving out leaflets the day was rounded off with this packed meeting. Trade unionists came to support fellow trade unionists. NEC member and Vice-President of UCU, John McCormack, came to pledge full support as this was now a national dispute that had to be won. UCU would make money available for leaflets, posters and transport and will challenge the abuse of power in FE. The most telling testimonies, however, came from three students. They confirmed the lengths that the sacked members would go to in order to provide support to students whenever and wherever it was needed.
Some serious questions were also asked at the meeting as all of those there pledging support could only help if UCU members at Halesowen held a meeting and decided on a course of action that may include a strike. Any trade unionist from outside the college could only help. They could not conduct the dispute on behalf of UCU members. So if UCU members decided to strike in support of the sacked 4, would all UCU members in the college support the call? If only a minority strikes, that is a recipe for defeat. What of ATL members? Five members of staff were being disciplined but 4 UCU members were sacked. The ATL member wasn’t. Do ATL members believe that if they keep their heads down, they are safe? ATL has a history of not striking. They have always let UCU members carry out industrial action to defend jobs and wages, or to seek wage increases, and then when gains had been made, ATL had been first in line to benefit. Yet during the pensions’ dispute ATL also voted to strike, so if ATL members believe that the cause is just, they can be persuaded to take action. Their support is vital for this dispute to be won.
And what of the other trade unions – Unison, Unite and GMB? What do their members think? A Unison member at the meeting reported on the level of fear on the faces of members. They had asked to have a meeting in the college to discuss the issues and had been told by management that no room was available. Morale is low and so is confidence. Staff are leaving and the community that looks to the college to give its youth a start in life is losing dedicated teachers. Action has to be taken to rebuild confidence amongst the workforce as they know that if these sackings stay, no-one is safe.
A danger to one is a danger to all
What is happening at Halesowen College is of concern to the whole trade union movement. Employers up and down the country, especially in the public sector and in colleges, will be watching this dispute with interest. They know that even more serious cuts are on the way and therefore the only way to implement the cuts and carry on working is to cut costs – and that includes wages and staff. They know, however, that the unions are there to defend services and members. So they will want to neuter any potential opposition by ridding themselves of fighting union members and cowering those who remain.
Let us be clear here. If ordinary UCU members see their elected reps being sacked and not defended by UCU and other trade unionists, they will begin to ask what the point is in belonging to a union. The future of UCU at Halesowen and at other colleges is at stake, so this battle must be won and the four must be reinstated.
How can the battle be won? The UCU branch must decide on a firm course of action including at some stage a strike. The ATL must be convinced that a defeat for UCU is also a defeat for them that will result in staff reductions and further attacks on wages and conditions. Weakness invited aggression. Other non-teaching trade unions must also be brought on board and the support of the students and NUS is vital. The trade union movement as a whole, locally, regionally and nationally, must be involved. The presence at the meeting of delegates from Dudley, Birmingham and Coventry Trade Union Councils was heartening. UCU must also reach out to the local community that the college serves. The college must be reclaimed for the community and taken out of the hands of an unelected corporation.
After winning this dispute there are other issues that must be addressed. How can a public institution funded with public money be under the control of a virtual dictatorship of senior management without any form of redress or challenge? FE colleges must be taken back into local authority control with an elected board of governors from staff trade unions, students and the local community, including elected political representatives.
A political question
Ultimately, however, it is a political question. The cuts agenda of the coalition demand that all public services, including education, be slashed, cheapened and/or privatised. All of the reforms that we have gained from decades of struggle are now to be abolished. The crisis of this system of capitalism is demanding austerity from those who rely on public services so that the state debt can be cut to satisfy the bond markets and finance capital. The only guarantee of stopping this agenda is by fighting for a socialist programme to put an end to the misery for the many that a crisis-ridden capitalism demands.
The TUC has called for the public ownership of the banking and finance sector under democratic control. This too is the congress agreed policy of UCU. This call must be voiced at all levels of the labour and trade union movement as a stepping stone to taking the commanding heights of the economy into public ownership under workers control and management. Then we can use the wealth produced in society for the benefit of all and finally put an end to attacks on working class people, their trade unions and their elected representatives.
Defend the Halesowen Four! An injury to one is an injury to all. Sign the online petition that now has more than 10,000 signatures! Get involved in the nationwide Day of Action on Friday January 18th! Come to the mass rally and demonstration during the Halesowen College Open Day on Saturday, January 26th. Donate to the campaign fund! £260 was collected at the meeting. This must only be the start! This dispute must be won!