A Strike In Tower Hamlets

Posted on February 3, 2011



For those of us who work in Further Education, cuts are nothing new. In September, 2009 I took part in indefinite strike action by lecturers at Tower Hamlet’s College. That sunny strike seems a long, long time ago now in this dark winter, but we need to keep re-remembering and re-learning what we discovered during those exceptional weeks.

The strike was unusual because we tried to operate with a minimum amount of hierarchy – resulting in a high level of engagement among individual strikers who did things off their own backs rather than leave it up to union reps or officials. This also allowed us at times to break free from the restraints of union legality and participate in unofficial walk-outs and mass insubordination. These moments let us feel our strength and gave us courage. Daily strike committees were open to everyone (although they would have been more effective had they not been boycotted by the other branch of the union, whose Socialist Workers Party leadership wanted their members to focus on fundraising and publicity rather than discussing and planning). We also held Strike Assemblies – weekly meetings of all strikers and supporters, with up to 200 present. In this frequently electric atmosphere, a high level of political discussion developed and big decisions were made.

Our strength lay in the involvement of so many not just as activists but as theorists: we took time to discuss things, try out ideas, make sure everyone was on board. There are so many times when as workers you will be told there’s no time – the situation is so urgent that there’s no time for the luxury of discussion. This weakens struggles.

The result of the strike was ambiguous. Officially there were no compulsory redundancies, though some people were pressured into accepting greatly enhanced ‘voluntary’ redundancy. I think of it as a successful strike in that we were still strong when we went back, able to continue fighting off a lot with tremendous solidarity within the workforce, whereas elsewhere things had really descended into individualistic competition and backstabbing.

With new cuts coming we will now be invited to focus on imminent job losses. But the strongest thing we had was our willingness to fight on many fronts, many of these around issues of the purpose of education. We’ve fought on fees for learners, loss of provision, as well as against the imposition of regimes of curriculum and planning in a sector that has a real history of radical pedagogy. Right now we are constrained by and under attack from the fact that funding is based on exam results. But if we were to put aside our knowledge of what really makes for a ‘good’ education, and devote ourselves solely to training students just to pass exams, this wouldn’t work. A system that judges success upon very limited exam criteria discriminates inherently against our working-class and migrant students. On this terrain it is impossible to compete for funding. Right now, many of my ESOL students are under threat of being expelled if they do not pass the exam in Term 3. So we have to be clear about the extent to which the funding-achievement link is defeating us. We may as well keep fighting for real teaching and learning, which is probably incompatible with good exam results.

Our managers have changed our timetables so it’s harder for teachers to meet, and our workload is impossible. Now the struggle is for time: time to speak to colleagues and comrades; time to relate to our students as human beings; time to think, and time to remember what it is that’s worth fighting for.

Posted in: 1. Ed Minus One