Despite a 100% vote for strike action with a very high turnout of NUT members at St Pauls Way (STPW) school last term, the union failed to pull the teachers out in a bid to fight against compulsory redundancies.
Instead, the union negotiators persuaded the school management and the Local Education Authority (LEA) to agree to push back the date by which compulsory redundancies would have to happen until after January next year. Teachers at the school felt that this was just delaying the inevitable and saw the threat of the redundancies as an attack on the union rather than just a restructure.
They have a point. The unions, both NUT and Unison, in STPW have been very strong and have a history of taking action, including unofficial. They have fought to defend the service they provide to students in one of the most deprived areas of London. The school was put on the government’s list of failing schools last year and was given notice to improve. The board of governors was sacked and an Interim Board imposed. The head was replaced by an interim head.
As soon as they were installed the board began attacks on the unions; sacking teacher Adrian Swain for wearing trainers and Pat Abboh (Unison member) for failing to carry out a duty during her unpaid lunch break.
A brand new school is being built next door with Building Schools for the Future (BSF) money and it is clear that, when it is up and the old school knocked down, the intention is to take St Paul’s Way out of the hands of the community — probably as a National Challenge Trust school. It is also clear that management do not want the strong unions in there.
The new headteacher immediately declared a restructure of both teaching and support staff. We were told right from the start it would lead to redundancies unless enough employees left of their own volition. The restructure was to happen in two parts, teachers first. Unison members were supposed to sit and watch the carnage and wait for their turn.
The teachers’ high ballot result was therefore a very important part of the battle for STPW school and for the union organisation inside. The failure by the NUT to act on it left school staff demoralised and angry. Under the negotiated deal for the teachers, the head had got what he wanted, though it was going to take him quite a lot longer to achieve it. But the principle of no compulsory redundancies was lost.
In our (Solidarity’s) view, it was very important that the NUT hold on to what little they had managed to get and continue to organise in the school. There will certainly be more battles to fight for the teachers in a trust school, and now that the teachers’ restructure is over, the head intends to turn his attention on the support staff.
The two unions in STPW have a strong history of sticking together. When Adrian Swain was disciplined for wearing trainers, 20 Unison members wore trainers to school the next day, receiving threatening letters from management.
Unfortunately, after the NUT pulled th plug on action, the teachers who were most prominent in the fight against redundancies have handed in their notices or taken voluntary redundancy, leaving the Union even further weakened than the restructure would have done, and exposing the Unison members to attack.
With such a high ballot result, the NUT should not have failed to act, leaving the teachers in STPW demoralised. Once NUT nationally had done that, the school’s NUT branch should not have given up the ghost and left the school. Between them, the union and the members have handed the head an under-organised new school on a plate.
Unison will be preparing to take action should their part of the restructure threaten redundancies in the next academic year. To do so, they will have to fight against the demoralisation of the teachers’ débacle and also their own union leadership which has proved over recent years very unwilling to put up a fight.
However, their battle against redundancies will be part of a much wider fight inside Tower Hamlets for education and jobs. The unions in Metropolitan University are fighting job cuts and slashing of courses. And Tower Hamlets college unions are fighting against the cuts in ESOL provision and against redundancies.
We will be arguing to link up the battles into a campaign to defend education and jobs and to spread the action, wherever redundancies and cuts threaten education workers and students in one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse boroughs in the country.