War, according to Wikipedia, is “an interaction in which two or more opposing forces have a struggle of wills”. It is an apt description of what is happening between workers in the public sector and the government.
Gordon Brown admitted last week that he thinks cuts in the public sector are necessary. This comes in a year where billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been used to bail out failing banks and MPs have claimed for trivial and ridiculous items on expenses.
A microcosm of the fight over public services is being played out on the streets outside Tower Hamlets College.
Michael Farley, the man at the centre of all the opprobrium, was appointed the college’s new principal in April of this year and almost immediately launched a manifesto, Securing the Future, outlining his vision for the college.
This included scores of redundancies and almost obliterating the college’s much needed Esol (English for Speakers of Other Languages) department.
After a pensive summer break not even knowing if I had a job to return to, I returned to work on 26 August to find out from my line manager that my contract had been extended for a year—to finish in July 2010. After discussing our summer breaks, myself and my colleagues began to talk about enrolment of new students for the new academic year.
However, a lunchtime UCU union meeting decided that from the next day—having voted in favour of strike action before the summer break—we would launch indefinite strike action.
Unsurprisingly, I’d never been on strike before and didn’t quite know what to make of it, although it did seem surreal seeing all my colleagues and myself not being allowed on the premises.
In the early days of the strike, as students were dribbling in to enrol, it seemed funny to see a heavy presence of security—even police—and the rest of the estates department stopping us from even asking the students whether they had a good summer.
I walked past the entrance and was asked if I was enrolling! I was tempted to say, “Yes, I’d like to do Esol!” but replied, “No, I work here!”
Turning up to the picket line has been an eye-opening experience. I think both sides—strikers and senior management—thought a solution would have been found by the time that teaching was due to commence. Not so.
Having been told on our return from the summer vacation that four of us learning mentors would have our contracts renewed for a year, a bolt from the blue struck us on day eight of the strike, when we were told that it would now only be extended for a month.
This was due to our jobs being offered to the teachers at risk as part of the redeployment process. If they accepted these posts then they would keep their teachers’ salary for two years while only being offered a one-year contract. Why take jobs away from people that want them and try and give them to people who don’t?
The most interesting thing to strike me was the letter sent—couriered, in fact—to our houses on day 12 advising us to return to work as soon as possible.
I found this quite perplexing—on one hand senior management want me to return to work, yet on the other hand they are quite happy to get rid of me.
The picket line has been quite tiring at times, but it has been a great place to get to know people and share the rollercoaster of emotions that people have experienced.
It has also played host to a series of incidents that have left us utterly bamboozled.
One funny story involves the “sweeteners” given by college bosses to the students who have had their classes cancelled. A free lunch was offered, albeit in bags clearly marketed at primary school children, which initially sounds like a fair deal.
However, Tower Hamlets College has a high proportion of Muslim students, who were fasting for Ramadan at the time. On top of that, what do you think was on offer to them? Only bacon sandwiches! Somebody didn’t think that one through!
On day 12 a major setback came from within the college as the other union, Unison, had balloted their members to strike and lost the vote 13-12. One vote! It would have been a big boost for us if they had won the ballot, but as it stands only a small number of classes are going ahead.
As I write this, we have been on strike for 16 days and, unsurprisingly this being Britain, we have experienced all four seasons during the strike—from the scorching summer sun to the treacherous tempest experienced on day 13. It ended up like a stereotypical day at Wimbledon.
I half expected someone to come along and say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, strike suspended.”
The strike has affected everybody in different ways, but the innocent victims in all of this are the students.
As Magdalena, a maths lecturer remarked, “We’re going to be so busy when we get back. We’re going to have to re-write the scheme of work. I just want to be back with my students.”