Workers at two London colleges are holding three-day strikes this week in a battle over pay and conditions. UCU union members at two campuses of the New City College group in east London – which were formerly Tower Hamlets College – began their walkout on Tuesday.
Those at Lambeth College in south London started their strike on Monday. The walkouts are part of a national campaign over pay and conditions that has seen waves of strikes across a number of colleges.
Workers are demanding a 5 percent pay rise or £1,500 a year, whichever is greater. But strikers told Socialist Worker that they also want changes on workload, contracts, lesson observations and union rights.
Theseus was on the picket line in Poplar. “I’m here because of the erosion of conditions in education,” he said.
“I’ve been in education since the early 1980s. I’ve seen it go from a fairly decent job to something that’s difficult to get people into. There are so many additional things we’re expected to do. At some point you think, I have to stand up and fight.”
Striker Suzanne, not her real name, agreed. “I’m out because of workload,” she said. “In my department we haven’t had a permanent manager all year – I assume because of the poor pay and high workload.
“We have lots of interims, which is very expensive. And we also have to cover the work.”
Suzanne painted a picture of a college in crisis. “We have less staff due to cuts and now they aren’t recruiting,” she said. “People are leaving and lots are off with stress. Students aren’t getting the support they need.
“They’re pushing disciplinaries. And we see more and more management posts being created.”
This is one reason why strikers rejected the idea that the college can’t afford to give them a pay rise. Tower Hamlets College recently merged with three other colleges to become New City College, and others are set to join the group.
Striker Steve said, “I assumed the merger would mean whole layers of managers would disappear, but there seem to be more. A lot of high-level positions are appearing.”
UCU branch secretary at the college, Richard, agreed. “We now have 18 group curriculum directors on between £60,000 and £70,000,” he said. “Management say they have no money because of lack of government funding.
“But there is money and management have more power than they say they have.”
Workers can squeeze more pay – and better conditions – out of the bosses. A recent deal at Capital City College Group gave workers a 5 percent rise and improvements to contracts.
Steve said, “As soon as you see it happen somewhere, you realise it is possible.”
UCU members in east London suspended a planned previous strike after noises that bosses were ready to make concessions. Yet they failed to propose any real changes.
Steve said, “People are quite angry now. We suspended to give them a bit more time. They used that time to do absolutely nothing.
“Now the mood is more resolute and people overwhelmingly wanted to go for the three days.”
It’s a similar story at Lambeth College. There, workers thought they had a new offer late last week. Bosses asked them to suspend this week’s strikes on that basis. But workers met on the picket line on Monday and voted unanimously to continue the strike.
Striker Jim told Socialist Worker, “The offer was a 3 percent pay rise for us, 0 percent for managers and improvements on contracts for new starters.
“But there was nothing definite – it was all up in the air. And then the principal told us that they might take back an extra five days holiday they had previously promised.”
UCU branch secretary Mandy added, “We notified management of the strike on 12 April. But they didn’t respond until the 23rd – and said they didn’t read the email before because they were on leave.”
Striker Nadia said, “They’re just playing games.” Steve agreed. “I don’t see why they couldn’t have had a meeting with us last week,” he said. “I think they’ve left it so late to try and get us on the back foot.”
Magdalena said bosses had sent “a message that we can’t trust them”. And Frank added, “I get the feeling they change what they say every day. They give you false hope. And you don’t want false hope – you want something real.”