A strike by sixth form college workers last week showed the potential to build bigger resistance to the Tories.
Walkouts over cuts to pay and funding took place in 23 colleges across England.
And activists say the strike has recruited more workers to the union. Nick Luft, a union rep at Sir George Monoux College in east London, said people signed up “literally in the last few days” before the strike.
At St John Rigby Sixth Form College in Wigan, the NEU has increased its membership by 19.
Around 40 joined an upbeat picket line at Solihull’s Sixth Form College in Birmingham, and up to 30 joined at Islington Sixth Form College in north London.
Duncan Blackie, a rep at Longley Park Sixth Form College in Sheffield, said, “We had the biggest picket line we’ve ever had.”
And Rob Behan, a rep at east London’s Newham Sixth Form College, said a lot of strikers “came out for the first time”.
Workers were largely motivated by the impact of cuts on working class students.
Roschelle was picketing at St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College in Wandsworth, south London.
She said that since moving there from a school sixth form, the size of her A-Level class “has gone from ten to 24”.
“They want the same outcomes for students, but they aren’t given the same starting blocks,” she said. “And people who are disadvantaged get the worst start.”
Striker Luisa added, “Everyone’s angry about the gender pay gap in big firms. But there’s a class pay gap where people who work in poorer areas get less pay and less resources.”
Others said that cuts put vulnerable students at risk.
St Francis Xavier union rep Rachel said, “Because of austerity, more students have mental health issues such as anxiety.
“But there have been cuts to support services. I recently referred someone who urgently needs help but who isn’t going to be seen until January.
“People will fall through the net.”
Luisa said that education isn’t always accessible to some poorer students, because a lot of learning programmes are online.
Yet there have been cuts to the library service, and some students can’t access the internet at home.
She added, “We’ve had quite a lot of classes shut down.”
South London striker Louisa said, “We’re asked to promote enrichment—such as after-school clubs—but there’s no time.
“I teach Maths GCSE and all my classes are above the size limit we are supposed to have.”
Pickets described big turnovers of staff because people know they can earn more elsewhere—causing disruption for students.
Jean Evanson is the post-16 rep on the NEU’s national executive committee and a union rep at Shrewsbury College Group.
She told a packed central London rally, “We can’t legally strike for students. But we are standing up for our students too.”
‘I teach more lessons now, but time to deliver each course has shrunk’
Cuts to sixth form colleges are trashing workers’ lives. The Tories have slashed some £1.1 billion from 16-19 education funding since 2010.
Workers’ pay is down by 16 percent—and they have been offered a lower pay rise than school teachers.
“It’s just unfair,” St Francis Xavier striker Selena told Socialist Worker. “We’re doing the same work.”
Like many, she felt unappreciated. “We all stay behind after school doing marking, admin and contacting parents if students aren’t attending,” she said.
“I want to settle here but it’s hard. I can’t afford to buy a place.
“I worked abroad before and had two holidays a year. Now I’ve had no holidays and I don’t go out as much.”
Tracey from Shrewsbury Sixth Form College said the impact of cuts has been “massive”.
“We have no work-life balance,” she told Socialist Worker. “The stress is affecting us all.”
Jo from Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College said, “I’m on an 80 percent part time contract but still work 60 hours a week.
“It’s a hard decision to strike but ultimately I’m doing it for my students.”
Fleur from Brighton’s Varndean College added, “The majority of staff are part time but do full time hours.
“When staff retire, their work is divided up among the others.”
She said she has watched conditions get worse since starting work in the sector 20 years ago.
“Class sizes have grown,” she said. “The number of lessons I have to do every week has grown. And the amount of time I have to deliver each course has shrunk.”
The union has named two further strike dates—5 and 20 November. Pickets said this made workers confident that the union is serious.
City and Islington Sixth Form union rep Pippa Dowswell told Socialist Worker, “No one went into work. Everyone was optimistic and determined.”
Strikers packed into a rally in central London on the strike day, before marching on the Department for Education.
Ahead of the action, workers were offered an increase on their previous 1 percent pay offer—to 1.5 percent.
Joint general secretary of the NEU Kevin Courtney told strikers, “We have done nothing like enough, but we have started to move them. We believe there’s more money.”
As striker Rachel said, “Boris Johnson has recently promised all sorts of bribes. They find money when they want to.”
More colleges could join future walkouts as the NEU reballots
16 others that just missed the 50 percent turnout threshold for legal strikes.
Courtney told the rally that the fight would “not go away” if a general election is called.
Andy, district secretary of Wandsworth NEU, told Socialist Worker, “When you go into battle if you don’t get anywhere, you need to escalate.”