Joint strikes of support staff and teachers, involving Unison and National Union of Teachers (NUT) members, at Central Foundation Girls School in East London, have forced school management to back down on plans for pay cuts and job losses, and have won victories on teachers’ workload, observations and sickness policy. Below, a trade union activist in the school explains how the battle was won.
From the moment that both Unison and NUT began their ballots, all meetings, bulletins and decisions were joint. No single action took place unless both unions were in it together.
This ensured that, despite several attempts, management could not drive a wedge between the two unions and divide the staff.
Unison had a high return and a very high “yes” vote in an indicative ballot which is organised in the workplace and is accompanied by discussions in meetings. But the official ballot from regional office had a very poor return.
If both unions had not been involved, Unison region would probably not have sanctioned the action. This would have been wrong. Despite the low ballot return, the strike was solid on both days.
This affirmed for the activists in the school that official postal ballots are not necessarily an indication of willingness to fight and can be used by union leaders to undermine action.
The joint unions meeting agreed that strikers did not intend to disrupt the GCSE examinations. They would, therefore, try to hold strike days when no exams were on. But one or two faculties also said that some of their revision classes badly needed to go ahead.
It was agreed that those faculties should approach the strike committee rather than school management for sanction to go in on a strike day. They would sign in on the picket line instead of in school, receive no pay, and rejoin the picket line once their session was over.
Because the strike committee had shown this flexibility, both Science and English faculties decided on the day that their revision classes did not need to run after all.
From the first whole-staff meeting, when management attempted to stamp their control on the process, the strike committee produced a joint unions strike bulletin.
It came out in particular before whole-staff meetings so that members were armed with the union arguments before management got to speak. This was important, as management had attempted to silence the unions.
A strike committee was set up at the first mass meeting on the first strike day. It included people who had never organised or even been on strike before. It ensured that more people than just the elected reps were involved in decision making, and also ensured that messages spread around the school more quickly. It gave the membership ownership of the dispute.
It was also agreed at the end of the dispute that it should continue to exist as a joint unions committee, which would meet once every half term. This will strengthen union organisation in the school and make sure that no-one is isolated.
The cleaners and caretakers, though Unison members, were not allowed to take part in the dispute as they worked for private company G4S.
They were not happy with this and sent someone to all the union meetings. They gave out tea to the pickets to show their support. They also persuaded those cleaners not in the union to join.
One cleaner said: “My Dad hates unions. That’s why I never joined one. But I need to know that, if I get called on not to cross the picket line, I will get the backing of the union.”
Humour was invaluable in this dispute, as a weapon against management’s stiff-lipped determination to get their way but also to boost morale.
From early on in the dispute the head teacher received the nickname “The Vogon”, the name of characters in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy whose catchphrase was ”resistance is futile”.
Some members of staff began to hum the Specials’ song “Too Much Too Young” when they looked back on all the changes that had been going on in the run-up to the restructure. They reckoned that if the head had done it more slowly she might have got away with it.
The lessons of Thatcher’s salami slice tactics were not learned by a head who wanted to show who’s boss in a very short space of time.