Workers at sixth form colleges across England braved cold, rain, hail and even blizzards on Wednesday to strike for more pay and funding for education.
It was the fourth walkout in the campaign for NEU union members in their campaign, and they plan further strikes on 27 February and 10 March.
“It’s going really well,” said Rob Behan, an NEU rep at Newham Sixth Form College in east London. “All classes are cancelled because of the strike.”
Duncan Blackie, an NEU rep at Longley Park Sixth Form in Sheffield, said the overwhelming feature of the strike was “a blizzard”.
But he added, “The picket line was effective, and it was a solid strike again.”
In Stockport, pickets faced rain and hail. “Members here could hardly be called militant, but the turnout was good,” said Neil Griffiths, an NEU rep at Cheadle & Marple Sixth Form College.
Attacks on funding have seen cuts to pay, jobs, courses and support services for students – while workloads and stress levels rise.
Neil said these savage attacks is driving more people to fight back. “Two years ago I wouldn’t have really expected us to pass the turnout threshold in a strike ballot,” he said.
“But over time we’ve seen a complete degradation of the job. What we’ve seen nationally is students doing GCSE resits having their hours cut.
“Courses that should be done in four hours a week are being done in as little as two. So I think because people have seen what’s gone on, I’ve seen people on the picket line who I would never have expected to see.”
Passing drivers tooted their horns in support as strikers gathered on the picket line in Newham. “I’m out here in the cold for the sake of my students,” striker Elaine told Socialist Worker. “Students with extra needs used to get support in class. Now they don’t have it.
“As a teacher you feel bad so you ask them to see you at lunchtime or after school to try and help. It means you are working longer.”
Striker and chemistry teacher Francisco added that pay is a big issue. “It’s not like we want loads of money, we just want an end to the pay cuts,” he said. “People might leave or not even go into teaching in the first place because of the pay.”
And Caroline, who works with students with special educational needs, added, “The government has got billions to spend on HS2, but no money for education.”
Strikers complained of students being “under-hours”—not getting the teaching hours they should receive. “They have told students to come in during the Easter break to do workshops to get around it,” said one picket. “But that won’t happen because students have other things to do.
“Also they are trying to shorten the lesson times and get teachers to teach more lessons. So students get less but teachers work more. It’s just a squish.”
Wednesday’s strike involved 34 sixth form colleges—over a third of the total. And action later this year could be even bigger.
The NEU plans to reballot its members in all 68 sixth form colleges after half term for strikes. Some 84 percent of members backed strikes in a ballot last year. So far indicative ballots have delivered strong votes.
“Our indicative ballot had a very short turnaround but we had a 90 percent vote for strikes on a turnout of around 60 percent,” said Rob. “It’s a good indication. There’s a feeling that people want to continue the action.”
Elaine said, “There’s no alternative to striking—we can’t give up now. And now that Boris Johnson has won a big majority, things could get worse.”
Neil said a rally and lobby of parliament on 27 February, the next strike day, matters because “it’s important to realise that you’re not alone”.
The action can also help pile pressure on the government, and is a chance to demand solidarity from the wider union movement. “I absolutely think we can win,” said Francisco. “We need to get more attention and let people know there is an issue.
“And it isn’t only sixth form teachers suffering – there are lots of people who have problems. If they see us striking, they might take some action too.”