Union free school no more

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The strike at STEM6 Academy in north London against zero hours contracts and for union recognition shows that if you get organised and fight hard you can win.

Early in October 2013 a message arrived at the Islington NUT office from a teacher at the newly opened STEM6 Academy telling us that she had never been a union rep before and asking for our support in negotiating teachers' terms and conditions.

The three months which followed saw her lead an often bitter fight which, although taking place in a small workplace, has won a big victory with major implications for other free schools, as well as important lessons for workers facing nasty anti-union employers.

After an initial get-together with Sarah (not her real name), we arranged a meeting away from STEM6 for any teacher who wanted to come along. All but one turned up.

Darren (London NUT Regional Officer), Tony (Islington treasurer) and I were gobsmacked to hear about the terms the STEM6 principal and governors were trying to impose on teachers; what amounted to a zero hours contract, 15 days maximum paid sick leave and statutory minimum maternity leave.

The teachers voted unanimously to seek recognition of the NUT by STEM6 and to request that they be balloted by the union for strike action if it was not forthcoming - despite us having to tell them that success could not be guaranteed and that victimisation might be the outcome of standing up for their rights.

The only response from the STEM6 principal to our letter asking for a meeting with him was to tell staff that he would only talk to them individually and not collectively - and that there would be "legal consequences" for any teacher who refused to sign his shameful contract. An indicative ballot of NUT members was quickly followed by a formal one, which resulted in a near unanimous vote to strike.

On receiving notice from the NUT of escalating strike action beginning on 30 January, the principal replied on 23 January, "We confirm we are not prepared to recognise you...and this will remain our decision whether or not industrial action is taken... We trust this confirms our position, that we consider any industrial action to be misconceived and futile... We do not wish to enter in to any further correspondence with you."

On the same day as the principal's dismissive email, teachers were all told that they were to have individual "one to one" meetings with three school governors, including the chair, Tony Sewell, who is London Mayor Boris Johnson's favourite educationalist.

Refusing to be intimidated the teachers each went in accompanied by a workmate and told the governors they wanted their trade union to speak for them.

Then, on 29 January, with the BBC news promising to visit the picket line the next morning, STEM6 sued for peace. The principal emailed us:

"Just to confirm that we are willing to recognise the NUT and make a commitment to enter into meaningful negotiations about the terms and conditions about the contract and to install a local and national representative within the Academy. We would be willing to sign a formal recognition agreement. Please let me know some dates/times when you are free so we could meet next week."

It looked as if we had won. But hours before we were due to meet the principal, he "postponed" the meeting and when we effectively gate-crashed him, he shoved the TUC model recognition agreement back across the table to us and told us he wasn't signing.

The two days of strike action on the Wednesday and Thursday were solid. Over 200 messages of support had flooded in, including one from one of our two local MPs. The second day of picketing was well supported by local trade unionists, as well as NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney and NUT Executive members Alex Kenny and Martin Powell Davies.

After the picket one of the STEM6 teachers came to a UCU and Unison strike protest demonstration outside London Met University, where she received a rousing reception.

"Today is the first time I have been on a picket line and the first time I have spoken to a crowd through a megaphone," she said afterwards. Later that night there was a report on the strike on the BBC news.

Strikes work, especially when employers know they are going to be followed up by escalating and even more hard-hitting ones.

On Friday we were invited to another meeting at STEM6. The principal was side-lined and two conciliatory governors assured us that they were willing to recognise the NUT and presented us with a time-limited programme of negotiations.

Negotiations made good progress towards agreeing the final wording of the agreement and towards our longer-term objective of winning national pay and conditions for the teachers.

The victory is an inspiration to teachers at other free schools. The NUT wants to see all Free Schools and Academies brought under local democratic control. But meanwhile, STEM6 teachers have given a warning to Michael Gove - and those of his profit-grabbing chums seeking to establish a foothold in the education "market" - that they might have a fight on their hands from the workers in the schools they succeed in setting up.

And just as important, STEM6 teachers have shown that if you fight - and fight hard - you can win.