I can honestly say that the Lambeth College dispute to protect the hours, sick pay and holiday of workers at the college has already been one of the most inspiring I have been involved in. There really is a great sense of solidarity and togetherness and a determination to win, as is shown by both UCU and UNISON members unanimously asking for all out strike action at mass meetings. The fact that workers are determined not just to fight for their own rights, but also not to give away the rights of future workers has been extremely moving. The speeches given from union members at the college has had me welling up on a few occasions.
Silverman, the Principal of the Lambeth College has recently said this isn’t about bosses and workers and is just about making the college fit for purpose. However the fact that this is a man who wants to take away pay from seriously sick staff, who some cases would sadly be fighting for their lives, and leave them and their families without a penny in wages. He also wants to do this despite admitting that the amount of money that would be saved would be less than what was spent doing up his luxurious office and a fraction of his annual salary. Senior managers also told us in negotiations that they were actually doing staff a favour by cutting their leave and increasing their working week as they’d be able to get more done and be less stressed out! This is the logic of a Victorian mill owner, and couldn’t be more about bosses vs staff.
They have even tried to dictate to the unions who they would allow to be their negotiators. The latest from Silverman is that not content with trying to cut sick pay, leave and increase working hours, he now wants to take away the human rights of college workers and their fundamental democratic right to strike. He went to court, at huge expense, to get an injunction. These are cowardly and weaselly methods and someone who has such disdain for the workers’ well-being at the college and for fundamental human rights should not be running an educational institution. Whether he still will be at the end of this dispute, well I have my doubts.
However this dispute is about far more than just one college, it is about management trying open the flood gates for colleges around the country to decimate terms and conditions, and as such UCU has it as a “local dispute of national significance”. The injunction will only delay the strike action, and given the anger it has provoked among staff, will lead to even more determination among members. UNISON, because of the rules that mean you have to have an “indicative ballot” to ask members if they want a ballot (a ridiculous tool by the UNISON bureaucracy to try and hold up and prevent strike action), could only go out on strike from 15 May. The injunction does have the one benefit of everyone going out together.
There is a more fundamental lesson here that UCU and UNISON should be prepared to break the anti-union laws and call for strike action regardless of the whims of anti-democratic court decisions. Also the unions should be preparing to spread the action beyond Lambeth College, given they recognise themselves that this dispute is of national importance. From that point of view members at the college have to keep a firm eye on the UNISON and UCU unelected regional officials to make sure they carry out what the members want. The message that came from Sally Hunt, general secretary of UCU, in response to the injunction was:
Dear colleague. Following yesterday’s message I am writing to re-confirm that all members will be required to return and work normally tomorrow. Failure to do so would mean that you are liable to be dismissed and you would have no claim for being unfairly dismissed.
This is a message that might have well come from Human Resources. This dispute has every chance of winning, and I am more confident of that than nearly any other dispute I have been involved in. I am proud to be part of the Lambeth UNISON branch, and proud of the UNISON stewards in the college who have done such fantastic work over the last few months. Members have again and again said they want indefinite strike action and have said to management that they don’t want any negotiations without both unions being present. The picket lines have been brilliant, the rally yesterday (I had flu unfortunately!) was, according to the International Officer in my branch, “really militant, I’m very moved and inspired”.
The strike has also linked in with the community based initiative to save Brixton College, which the Principal and Department for Education want to sell off to two free schools. The Lambeth College strike is also starting to make links with the Ritzy Cinema strike, which has been another brilliant dispute to make sure that workers get the London Living Wage. All in all, despite my concerns about the union bureaucracies, I have no doubt that this dispute will win. But we need solidarity.