Workers at Tower Hamlets College, east London, are taking all-out, indefinite strike action to defend jobs and education.
Tower Hamlets is the poorest borough in the whole of Britain. It is home to a diverse range of ethnic groups, including over 60,000 Bangladeshi people.
Many rely on English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) classes to be able to work, study and play a part in the community.
College management want cuts that would axe up to 1,000 Esol places.
“This dispute is part of a much wider agenda,” one IT lecturer told Socialist Worker. “In this area a lot of people are trapped in poverty and see learning English as a way out. But now that could be taken away from them.
“The government wants to rationalise education. This is a serious political struggle.”
Suleiman, a learning mentor, agrees. “The college is acting like a private business,” he told Socialist Worker. “It is more profit-centred than people-centred.”
Thania and Sadia are ex-students at the college and came to support the pickets. “We know how good this college is and the culture doesn’t need changing,” said Sadia.
“This is a poor area but people still get good grades at this college – we’re both going to university,” added Thania.
“My mum is studying Esol but now she might not be able to carry on.”
Nozma Khan is a parent with family among the strikers. “This will definitely be a big campaign,” she said.
“There has already been an upheaval in my house after my sister-in-law got us all to go on the demonstrations. That kind of thing will be happening in lots of houses.”
Management sent letters to 13 lecturers over the summer holidays to inform them that they no longer had a job.
“We want everyone who is facing compulsory redundancy to be reinstated,” said Magdalena, a maths lecturer. “But it’s not just about jobs – we don’t want to see courses closed.
“We tried to avoid strike action but management was intransigent. Now we have to take the hardest position we can.”
Action started on Thursday with more than 100 picketing across three sites.
The workers wasted no time in building support. Groups of strikers have visited at least 14 workplaces and three mosques, and have leafleted the local estate and market to build solidarity.
Trina, a basic literacy teacher at the college, joined the union the day before the strike began. She was part of a delegation that visited Poplar fire station to talk to firefighters about the dispute.
“This is my first strike and I think its good how many people are willing to go around and speak to other workers,” she told Socialist Worker.
Steve Butler is a lecturer in the art department. “The strike is very solid and more people are joining the union,” he told Socialist Worker.
“I went to leaflet and raise money at the town hall and most people are supporting us.”
Workers at local shops have agreed to do collections for the strike fund, as have firefighters, workers at a Poplar housing association, the council, the Docklands Light Railway and Royal Mail.
Firefighters visited the picket lines twice in the first two days to show their support, as did lecturers from other colleges in London and teachers.
The UCU has imposed a levy on all London members to raise money for the strike fund. And a walkabout collection at City and Islington College raised £510.
The East London Teachers Association is arranging for information about the dispute to go to all schools in the borough.
Ben was part of a delegation from the climate camp that came to support the strikers.
He said, “The fundamental cause of climate change is profit – and that’s exactly the problem here too.”
The campaign has already won some concessions from management – including saving the mentoring scheme and protecting A-level core hours.
On Friday the UCU met with college principal Michael Farley for “talks”. But the only “offer” on the table was voluntary redundancies instead of compulsory. The union rejected this weeks ago.
It seems the bosses’ strategy is to hope the strikers’ resolve starts to wobble. We have to deliver mountains of solidarity and help make sure that it doesn’t.
A victory at Tower Hamlets would not only be a victory for the students and lecturers in east London. It would show every worker that we can fight back and win.
What you can do
- Visit the picket lines:
- Poplar High Street, E14
- Arbour Square, E1
- Bethnal Green Road, E2
- Send messages of support:
- Email the college principal – email@example.com
- Take a collection at work. Send it to: Strike fund, c/o Keith Priddle, Tower Hamlets College, Arbour Square, London E1 0PT
- Come to the public meeting
Thursday 3 September, 5pm, St Mathias Church, off Poplar High Street. Poplar DLR