Strikes can win. That’s the lesson from Lambeth College, where workers scored a victory last week following a ten-month dispute involving 42 days on strike.
Striker Frank told Socialist Worker, “I didn’t think we could gain so much. It isn’t just gaining in terms of contracts—we’ve now got friends across Britain all involved in struggle.
“We’ve grown as a union branch. And we’ve shown it is possible to fight a campaign that at times felt impossible.”
College principal Mark Silverman wanted all workers to accept a new, worse contract—but the strikes stopped him (see box below).
“I’m amazed that existing staff have lost absolutely nothing,” said Frank. “If we face attacks now, we won’t let it stand. There is confidence among people now.”
Strikers toured Britain to raise solidarity for their struggle. The dispute opened their eyes to other issues—and meant they questioned things more too.
Juliet was on strike at the Brixton site of the college. “I have changed because of it,” she told Socialist Worker. “I was nervous speaking at union meetings at first. By the end I really enjoyed it.
“Now I’m more interested in other disputes. And I’m always thinking, why isn’t the mainstream media covering this?”
Strikers said the action was sometimes hard, but that it was worth fighting. Striker Johnny told Socialist Worker, “I’ve lost friends over this dispute. “You realise that the things that matter to you don’t necessarily matter to other people.
“But you can’t change the things you hold dear in life. I’ve got such a bond with everyone I’ve been out on strike with, and with our supporters too.”
Many strikers plan to be more active in other campaigns. Striker Nadia told Socialist Worker, “I’m going to speak at a Barnsley College rally next week as they start their strike.
“It’s important to go, especially at the start, to give people encouragement that they’re doing the right thing.”
Nadia said the strike has made her look at the world in a different way. “Now I believe it’s not good enough when people think about themselves and not the bigger picture,” she said.
“It’s not good enough when people complain about things being too political. Everything is political.”
'We're ready for the next fight'
"The strike was a real education. All of us were in awe at how people responded nationally to our strike.
People were urging us on to win—not just for ourselves but for them as well.
My favourite donations were the individual £5 or £10 notes with a simple message: “keep going”.
We kept the strike alive by organising activities. This included teach-ins, putting up posters round local shops and social media.
It meant everyone had a role so the strike belonged to all of us. We had visitors to our picket lines and we went to speak at workplaces. And we kept everyone informed with daily emails and strike meetings.
So every time we got an injunction or had to re-ballot, everyone knew the ins and outs.
When you make decisions, they need to be taken together. We did that well. We’ve gone back to work in excellent shape ready to take on the next fight."
Mandy Brown, branch secretary Lambeth College UCU
What have workers won?
Lambeth College principal Mark Silverman wanted to impose new contracts on all staff that slashed sick pay, cut holidays and imposed longer hours.
He failed. The new contract won’t be imposed on those who were employed at the start of the dispute. Some 430 out of 530 workers have had their conditions fully protected.
This applies to permanent, hourly-paid and fixed-term staff even if they change their working hours in the future.
Strikers had wanted to stop the contracts being imposed on new staff too. But the deal won concessions on sick pay and working hours.
Bosses used the law to block strikes and threatened more legal action—forcing several reballots for strikes. Silverman refused to talk to the union and sent letters attacking strikers.
The workers’ UCU union ultimately failed to deliver the support workers needed.
Yet workers kept fighting. They struck for over five weeks last summer and for 42 days in total throughout the ten-month dispute.
Ordinary people backed them—donating tens of thousands of pounds to their strike fund.
Battle over observations
Workers at Lambeth College are boycotting lesson observations. A previous policy gave workers notice of which lesson would be inspected and information about what the observer would look for.
Now inspections can happen at any time during a certain period. This piles even more stress and paperwork onto workers.
Striker Alan told Socialist Worker, “It’s not supportive—it’s just a stick for management to beat people with. And it will make it easier for bosses to victimise workers.”
Lambeth workers are determined to keep fighting to improve conditions for new staff.
Alan said, “Silverman will try and dress up the outcome of the strike to save face. But he won’t convince anybody. People who didn’t feel confident to strike will now see that fighting gets results.”
And if college managers say there is no money for students and staff, one cut that would be acceptable is less pay for those at the top.
Figures released during the dispute revealed that principal Mark Silverman grabbed a 13 percent pay rise in 2012/13—the highest rise of any college principal in London.
Nadia told Socialist Worker, “I’m really proud to have been part of this movement.
“We can go back with our heads held high and go to our staff rooms and shout, ‘We won!’”