At the time of writing, UCU members at Tower Hamlets College in East London have been on all-out strike for three weeks.
Our campaign started in June when we received notice of £2 million cost efficiency savings and cuts to over 40 posts and 1,000 English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) places. Our branch began the ballot, fearing cuts. But then the news of what was proposed hit us late on a Friday afternoon and we all went home in shock.
I met with reps on the Sunday and we launched a campaign - Defend Jobs, Defend Education: Save Esol. We moved quickly and held mass meetings the next day. We voted to walk out there and then and marched round the local markets and held a rally. Negotiations were due to take place the next day. We called an all-site mobilisation and took over the main canteen. Members filled the corridors demanding, "No ifs, no buts - no education cuts."
We asked management to support Esol provision with £6 million of reserves and challenge government policy by putting their money where their mouth was. They refused and took a hard line. It became clear that the cuts were part of a new culture of top-down heavy-handed management.
From then on it's been a rollercoaster with community demonstrations of up to 800 people, strikes and mass meetings of over 150 people - sometimes twice a day. In the middle of the dispute the unions took over the A-level curriculum for ten days with a radical alternative curriculum called East End Futures. We set out an alternative vision for the college and presented it to staff governors. The governors rejected our proposals and backed the cuts. Our campaign was about saving community education while the employer talked about overproduction, cuts and sustainability.
We only had one day back at work before we began the strike. There are many questions and problems. We had to make the difficult choice to strike during enrolment to sustain momentum after the summer. The returning adult students stuck by their teachers and chose to defer enrolment. Our daily coordination meeting decided it was best to change tactics and go for a clear position to tell students to enrol. The union then discussed plans to rescue enrolment figures and retention after the strike.
The mass members' meeting has always retained sovereign control over the strike and the reps. Daily strike committee meetings have ensured we coordinate across sites.
The best part of the strike for me is the picket meetings held every morning. We share our ideas and report back from visits to other workplaces like fire stations and other colleges. We divide up the day's delegation work and jobs that need doing. The picket huddle was key to raising the £10,000 solidarity target for the first week. We have had to learn new skills and do things we never thought we could, like public speaking.
The college is split across a number of sites divided into two branches, broadly one for adult learning and one for the 14 to 19 age group. It's good to be able to discuss things honestly together and trust the mass meeting to get it right and maintain unity.
So far we have stopped cuts to A-level hours, nearly doubled union membership, saved the mentorship scheme, saved four Esol jobs and about 300 places, stopped compulsory redundancies in admin and support and stopped cuts to remission time.
The success of the strike can also be measured in the new sense of confidence among our diverse membership to resist bullying and to fight for a positive vision of education.
We have started a campaign that can begin to seriously reverse attacks on education. One member summed this up by saying what we are doing is rebuilding a community.
The method of an all-out strike and winning solidarity is a model of how to fight. We have raised around £20,000 in solidarity. We are reawakening the tradition of practical solidarity for continuous disputes where one union supports another. Every picket has returned from delegation work reporting an increase in the confidence of others to fight job cuts and attacks on the public sector. People have given us money, saying our fight is their fight.
Hopefully we can inspire other workers to make a stand and create the networks to support them when they do.
After Socialist Review went to press, the Tower Hamlets College strikers won their fight and returned to work. Read about their victory in Socialist Worker.
Richard McEwan is a member of Tower Hamlets College UCU, and Poplar site joint branch secretary (pc)