Yesterday, around 100 teachers and students attended a demonstration at Hackney Community College, organised by UCU members to mark the opening day of their ballot for strike action at FE colleges across the whole of London. Staff and students are fighting back against Tory attacks on education and jobs.
Over the past few weeks Marxist Student Federation members have visited Hackney Community College and gained the ear of further education (FE) students bearing the brunt of huge cuts to education and welfare. Yesterday, 13th May, we joined a protest of around 100 teachers and students organised by UCU members, on the opening day of their ballot for strike action at FE colleges across the whole of London.
Cuts; job losses; money for the bosses
In Hackney, local authorities are planning to do away with the equivalent of 45 full-time jobs (in reality many more posts, as some teachers work part-time on zero-hour contracts). Courses such as Art and Design, ICT, Media and Health will be struck off completely, and the ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) department is under serious threat as at least four teaching posts are being removed. We interviewed Wendy, an active UCU member at the college, who explained, “The process is that everybody has to apply for the jobs – the fewer jobs – so at the end of that process some people will be without jobs. It’s just horrible; it’s awful.”
FE colleges have been the only hope for the futures of large sections of young people who have either been priced out of university by the trebling of tuition fees in 2011, or been failed by a state education system which has faced brutal cutbacks in recent years. Now they too are under attack from a Tory government hell-bent on destroying every public service not already in the hands of their big business friends. As one teacher asks in a leaflet being handed out by teachers at the protest, “Where are the students who don’t get five good GCSEs going to go if they keep cutting courses?”
Others express fear at their own situations: “My wages aren’t enough, as it is and I’ve got into debt with a pay-day loan. It is a vicious cycle, but would be much worse if I’m made redundant.” One member of staff is a single parent, and describes how the job loss would come as a “devastating” blow: “I have worked in the college for 20 years and have put my heart and soul into my job.”
The logic of capitalism
Another who we talked to yesterday complained bitterly about the real number of zero-hour contract jobs, as opposed to the false claims made by the Tories who have helped them spread across the public sector. He had held another teaching post full-time for 11 years before receiving redundancy in a previous wave of Tory education cuts. He’d worked at Hackney Community College part-time for a few months before receiving his notice in the post on Friday, the same morning as the election results.
But this teacher was under no illusions that had there been a Labour victory the decision to sack him would have been overturned. He pointed out that Labour had committed to carrying out the cuts in full for another year at least: Miliband in Number 10 would have given no respite to him and his colleagues. Although the Tories try to justify them ideologically, these cuts stem from the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism, and if workers’ leaders aren’t prepared to fight against the system, then logic dictates that they have to carry out vicious attacks on their own class.
Regardless of the plight affecting these teachers, there was a genuinely upbeat mood at the protest. The UCU members who were present all agreed that the militancy of the trade unions needs to step up now that a majority Tory government is on the offensive. There is widespread anger over the de-escalation of struggles in HE and FE sectors last year, and a sense that rank-and-file members won’t wait around for their leaders before they start to agitate and move for strike action themselves.
Tories on the attack against union rights
Michaela, co-chair of the UCU branch in Hackney Community College, explained that this was the last time the UCU members would be able to call for a strike before new industrial action rules set in, as announced by the Tories this week in the immediate aftermath of their election win. The rules will stipulate that 40% of the entire balloted membership (including non-voters) will have to return a ballot positively for strike action to go ahead. This rule smacks of irony given the ‘majority’ claimed by the Conservative Party, having received 37% of general election votes from a 66% turnout.
But Michaela correctly stated that the deeper the Tories cut, the more necessary it will be to fight back. More weight will be thrown behind strikes at the ballot box and more people will be ready to turn out for the cause, rendering futile attempts by Tories to sabotage this hard-won right. Union leaders shouldn’t be afraid of strike action; they should have faith in the militancy of their members at a time when it is most needed. This will, in turn, give the membership confidence to vote ‘yes’ to strike action, safe in the knowledge that their colleagues in the same boat will be out too, and that they have a strong leadership who won’t capitulate to management at the first sign of trouble.
Wendy told me, “What we want now is a positive ballot for strike action – and a big turnout for the ballot. What we’re going to do now is that those people who are active in the union are going to go round and talk to people in the staff rooms and encourage them to vote. And also, UNISON members are under threat as well – it’s not just teachers it’s support staff – so it’ll be interesting to see what they’re doing.”
Workers and students: unite and fight!
As for the considerable student turnout to the protest, she surmised, “I think it’s because there’s some students who know that their courses are going to be closed.” Students and workers in the whole of society face the same predicament: spiralling living costs and worsening job prospects. One of the main slogans at the protest was “Workers and students unite and fight!” All of the workers and students we have come into contact with at Hackney Community college are in agreement on the need to fight to change society. The situation is dire, but there is a way out through organising and fighting back against capitalism.
When I asked Wendy why the teachers had called the protest and were advocating a strike, she replied: “We want to send a message to management that we’re against these cuts and to show solidarity with the people that are under threat. Because we don’t want people who are not under threat this time just to sigh with relief and think, ‘Oh, I’m not under threat.’ We want everyone to fight the cuts.”
For a one-day general strike against austerity!
No public sector worker is safe in these times; no student’s future is secure. Yesterday there was mention of the People’s Assembly demonstration against austerity on 20th June, and the UCU turning out in force as part of an education contingent. There will undoubtedly be many movements taking place over the coming months, which will involve many thousands being hit by the same attacks on their jobs and living conditions.
To galvanise the labour movement into action against the Tories and their austerity programme, it’s time for trade union leaders to join together all of the different struggles set to take place by calling for a one-day general strike. This would then set the stage for militant action and struggles across the labour movement.
We urge UCU members in London who have been balloted to support the campaign for strike action at FE colleges, and other trade unionists to take this campaign to their local branches and pass solidarity resolutions. Let the fightback commence!