On Thursday 14th February, around 80 UCU members and other trade unionists turned out to support a one-day strike called by UCU members at Halesowen College in support of four teachers who have been sacked by the Principal. Darrall Cozens reports on the latest developments in the case of the Halesowen Four, which is likely to be pivotal in the question of the victimisation of trade unionists.
Nature cast a benevolent sunny smile over the picket lines on Thursday 14th February, as from early on in the morning until 10am some 70 to 80 UCU members and other trade unionists turned out to support a one-day strike called by UCU members at Halesowen College in support of 4 Maths teachers – Jason White, Rachael Griew, Sarabjit Ahluwalia and Branch Secretary Dave Muritu – who have been sacked by the Principal. There was also some humour as UCU members tried to deliver a giant Valentine’s Day card with 12,000 signatures, but Principal bate was playing hard to get!
The strike today is part of an escalating programme of industrial action to achieve the reinstatement of the Halesowen 4. The mood at the three picketed entrances was very upbeat, and many students took leaflets and stopped to chat as they, like many others, cannot believe that management would sack good teachers for no reason.
Yet the dismissal letters sent out to the Halesowen Four show precisely that this is what has happened. One paragraph in the letters reads,
“As a result, I have no alternative but to terminate your employment. The reason is not gross misconduct, because you have not committed one individual act of misconduct, nor is it individual under-performance because your lesson observations have shown you to be a “Good” lecturer in the classroom. The reason is some other substantial reason arising from the consistent failure to carry out the fundamental part of your job as a lecturer which is to ensure that students fulfil their potential and achieve their expected levels of attainment.”
“Some other substantial reason”
Under the Employment Rights Act 1996 “some other substantial reason” (SOSR) is one of the five potentially “fair” reasons for dismissal, the others being conduct, capability, redundancy or breach of a statutory restriction. SOSR is known as a “catch-all” provision as an employer can include in it any reason that does not fit into the other four reasons. So SOSR can include conflict of interest, pressure from third parties, personality clashes, a breakdown in trust and confidence, business reorganisation and a refusal to accept changes to terms and conditions. In short it is an Act that was passed in the last year of a Tory government and is basically a bosses’ charter to hire and fire at will. It is one of many anti-trade union acts passed by the Tories that trade union leaders failed to force Labour to repeal.
As the dismissal letters clearly show, teachers classified as good, who had not committed any misconduct nor underperformed, were dismissed under SOSR. This reason has a relatively limited use and as it is hard to define in law. Case law is relied upon, and when the Four go to Tribunal their case could become part of case law. The UCU nationally is taking the cases to Tribunal.
In the meantime the UCU branch at the College will pursue escalating industrial action to win reinstatement. The branch has already voted for a two-day strike in the near future and other forms of industrial action short of a strike are being considered. Dave Muritu said at the meeting after the picketing, “UCU members were brave to deliver a vote for action” as management had put on pressure using bogus petitions and other actions to try and undermine the members.
Build confidence to win this dispute
However, there are some very important elements that need to be taken into account. The fact that four UCU activists, including the Branch Secretary, can be dismissed at the whim of the Principal has had a demoralising effect on a few of the UCU members who are now reluctant to take action. It is therefore essential that these few UCU members in the College are approached in a friendly and fraternal manner by members who are committed to winning, in order to convince them that these dismissals can be reversed and that victory in this case will lift the climate of fear that pervades the place. If the overwhelming majority of UCU members cannot be won over to taking action to defend the Four, it will make victory that much harder to achieve.
In the same vein, members of the other teaching union, ATL, must also be convinced to come on board with the campaign. A small gain has been made because during this latest strike, ATL members were instructed by their own union not to cover classes that would have been taken by those UCU members on strike. So ATL members are now slightly involved. This must be built upon. For example, if UCU members at Halesowen decide to take action short of a strike, such as refusing to cover classes of absent colleagues, they may be penalised financially by the Principal with some money being docked from wages.
If that were to happen, it would become obvious that discrimination is taking place, as ATL members today also refused to cover for striking colleagues under instructions from their union. Will ATL members also be penalised? We do not want to see any union members suffering from taking action in defence of dismissed colleagues, but the whole episode demonstrates the power the Principal has for the arbitrary and selective use of punitive actions against anyone who challenges his right to manage as he sees fit. No-one is safe at the College and burying heads in the sand, hoping that the punishments will pass by, will not make the problem go away.
Extended trade union support vital
Winning over ATL members is also vital for success, as is ensuring support from unions who organise support staff – Unison and GMB, for example. The students too are extremely important. At this latest strike, the students stopped, took leaflets, held placards and showed support. On the coming days of action it will be important to try and get the students to also strike in support of their teachers. We must never forget that a strike is a weapon of last resort and its purpose must be to severely disrupt the working of the College or even better to close it. This can be done with the support of all union members including NUS members. This will also be a wonderful opportunity to build the density of the UCU within the college. Victory will mean recruitment to the union. Defeat will mean a loss of members through demoralisation.
National support from UCU was evident today on the picket lines. UCU President Kathy Taylor and Vice-President John McCormack were there. Kathy said that she could not believe that what has happened has happened and that if management gets away with it, then anyone can go. She also said that Halesowen is not alone and that all UCU members are with the Four. These words are correct and can instil confidence. There is nothing worse in any dispute than if you feel that you are alone. Such feelings breed a sense of helplessness. But words must be translated into action.
The Four did not choose this dispute to be a “cause celebre” but it has become one. That means it must become the top priority of UCU nationally and regionally. UCU leaders should be stomping the country speaking at branches and regional committees. The implications of winning, and possibly losing, this dispute must be spelled out. Finance has to be raised to sustain the action and support the Four. The three months pay given when dismissed will soon run out and our four colleagues have families to keep. Even worse, what chances will they have of finding new work if the dispute is lost, as any new employer will ask why they had left the previous job? Regular collections must be held in every UCU institution in Adult Education, FE and HE. The campaign fund has almost £4,000 but the Principal has £3m in reserves that could have been used to employ qualified Maths teachers when colleagues were off sick. Principal Bate must be made aware that the 130,000 members of UCU, and members of other unions, will be mobilised to defend the Four.
Money has been raised in the labour movement in the West Midlands. Coventry TUC, like many others, has donated £100. General trade union support was evident on the picket line today with UCU members from across the Midlands including Coventry. NUT, NASUWT, Unite and Unison members were also present as were a number of local TUCs. The support is there, as all trade unionists realise how unfair the dismissals are and also how this whole dispute will impact on security of employment if we are not successful. It will give employers up and down the country the right to use this “catch-all” reason to get rid of anyone who challenges their authority. And such challenges will be inevitable given the scale of cuts to college finding that are in the pipeline.
Cuts to bail out capitalism
That is why too this dispute cannot be seen in isolation. At the meeting the newly elected UCU Branch Secretary at Halesowen spoke of “massive savings in staff costs over the next few years”. Adverts are going out for trainee teachers as they are cheaper to employ. Money can also be saved on redundancy pay if teachers can be sacked at will. Some 89 sessional staff are to be sacked. This assault on course provision, jobs, terms and conditions will continue as part of the austerity – that is, cuts in public spending to bail out capitalism.
There is no choice. This dispute must be won. At this moment in time it is all forces to the point of attack to defend the Four. However, the dispute cannot be seen in isolation. The issue of who owns and controls the College must be raised. Publicly funded institutions providing a public service must owned and controlled by the public and for Halesowen that means the college placed under local authority control and run by the Council, the college trade unions, the community the college serves and the students.
Socialist policies to fight inequality
It also means fighting politically against austerity and putting forward socialist policies to put an end to the chaos of capitalism, chaos that means even more cuts for the majority while the minority that owns and controls the system continue with amassing wealth. On Wednesday, February 13th, a report called Squeezed Britain 2013 appeared from the Resolution Foundation think-tank. It showed that between 1994/5 and 2009/10, a period of 15 years of relative boom in capitalism, the top 1% of earners accounted for 15% of the growth in income from employment and investments, while the bottom 50% accounted for another 15%.
In other words the richest 1% accumulated 50 times more wealth that the poorest 50%! Under capitalism, the future for those in the bottom 50% will be even bleaker as the same report shows that even if earnings rose by 1.1% over the rate of inflation, it would take until 2023 to reach an average household income of £22,000, which was the average in 2008. The report also shows that if the 2008 crash had not happened, average earnings could have reached £27,500 today. For that to happen over the next decade would mean an annual real earnings growth of 3.3%. Under capitalism that is impossible.
So while this capitalist system continues to exist, jobs, services, reforms gained from the past, a decent standard of living – all of these are under threat, while the rich get even richer. That is why society must be changed. That is why we have to fight for socialism.
Defend the Halesowen Four. Mobilise the trade union movement to ensure success. Demand the public ownership and control of education. Fight the cuts by fighting capitalism. Fight for Socialism.