With the NEU about to embark on the largest round of school strikes in recent history, rs21 member George Emerson explains how his school won an important victory against restructuring, and draws out some of the lessons for workplace organising.
In March 2022, the outer London school where I work proposed a restructure of administrative and site staff with serious implications. Several staff faced a severe pay cut, whilst others lost a smaller amount. One pregnant member of staff faced redundancy. Almost every member affected stood to lose out. The reason given for the restructure was that it would better suit the school operationally, and in particular it would make the School Business Manager’s job simpler. The restructure also introduced more hierarchy into the team, with some roles becoming more managerial and others becoming lower-skilled. Despite the fact that the school would not save much, the school’s deficit was also used as a reason for attempting the restructure.
The NEU school group strongly opposed the restructure, focusing on pay cuts and redundancy as the key proposals that we could not accept. We began representing those support staff who were in the NEU but, as there are no other union reps at the school, we became the go-to people for negotiation and represented all the workers affected regardless of their membership of any union or none. We made a counter-proposal backed up by a ballot of the whole NEU group – most of whom were teachers not affected directly by the restructure – resulting in an overwhelming vote for strike action. We weren’t actively recruiting support staff, but as we filled the vacuum of representation, more and more support staff joined the NEU from other unions.
Our success forced the school and local authority to call in ACAS and we spent a day in negotiations. Out of this, we were able to prevent the only redundancy and to re-write job descriptions to specify higher skill levels and responsibilities for staff, allowing the council and school leadership to place roles in higher pay bands than in the original restructure. Throughout this process, the school continued with a parallel process of individual consultation meetings, as if there wasn’t a collective dispute with the entire proposal. These meetings ended up being another area of confrontation, but we found our leverage also gave us the advantage here, and we were able to negotiate favourable terms in the minute detail of job descriptions. As a result of the strike threat, we won significant concessions around redundancy, pay, and working conditions.
We won the dispute
This dispute was a victory for the union in the school. On most issues, we made a significant difference to members’ working lives. We saved a job, and clawed back most, although not all, of the cuts in pay that had been proposed. Job descriptions were altered to better reflect what support staff members were already doing and their skill sets, a twofold victory as it kept pay-grades higher and recognised the importance of staff who had felt undervalued.
We made the argument that the impact of the restructure would be felt as a worsening of conditions for all staff and students in the school: the increase in workload, fatigue and stress, and the decrease in recognition, financial security, time for rest, and pride for office staff, nurses, cleaners and caretakers, would rebound as safety hazards, leading to difficulty retaining staff, rising workloads for teachers, and a depleted service to students. As a result, support for affected staff was not given as charity but as solidarity.
From the beginning of the dispute, we emphasised that the affected staff would lead the process, compiling a counter-proposal to the restructure and speaking directly to the union group on their own behalf. This gave us purpose and momentum, and had a clear impact on the enthusiasm of the whole staff body in getting behind the support staff. The union’s offices were astonished when we asked for a ballot of the entire membership, but we knew from our organising, structure-testing and the convincing arguments put forward by affected staff that we would be successful.
Despite these successes, there were shortcomings and areas where we could have been more effective. We didn’t win all of our pay claims, which was a galling outcome. For several staff we only softened the blow rather than avoiding it entirely. The major restraints here were first of all the national agreements around pay for support staff. Once a job description was settled upon then the pay point was immoveable. We also hit a limit of solidarity as more and more individual aspects of the dispute were resolved. Going on strike to defend ten jobs or salaries is plausible, but for one or two members becomes more difficult. There doesn’t appear to be an easy answer, but one point to make may be that individual negotiations should be avoided or put on hold until a set of guarantees – for example no loss of pay – are established as collective red lines.
The restructure aimed at deskilling some workers and top-loading the new structure with additional managers, and while we staved off the first, we were unable to prevent the second objective. As of now, we haven’t noticed an increase in managerial belligerence, but it is true that the school has now acquired more capacity for this. Constantly reacting to management decisions and ploys, and working on a dispute in your own time, are the inevitable conditions of rank and file led negotiations. However, grasping the bigger picture earlier might have helped us to broaden our demands and act on more than simply pay and conditions to the exclusion of long-term impacts on the ‘frontier of control’.
Another tactic that I had not expected coming from the school was a kind of brinkmanship. This took the form of delaying negotiations until very close to the strike days, meaning we had to keep staff ‘on the boil’ for action, even as we won concessions or met with management and sifted through what we had won. We should have done more, earlier, to prepare for the strike days. This preparation might also have included clearer, collectively agreed counter-positions in response to likely concessions – we were not dealing with the kind of intransigence now seen in Royal Mail, so we couldn’t rely on anger and frustration carrying us through.
Organising the whole workplace
The symbolic power of teachers voting to strike in the interests of support staff will resonate amongst the staff for a while. In the NEU, support staff have taken impressive action on their own behalf, but I am not yet aware of a successful ballot including teachers in an issue of support staff pay and conditions. This matters because it strengthens the case for activists within the NEU taking the initiative in a context of confusion around the union’s ability to represent support staff.
This confusion arises because the old NUT (National Union of Teachers) was a craft union representing only qualified teachers. This left the field open for Unite, GMB and Unison to organise support staff. Now that the NUT and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (which did organise support staff) have merged to form the NEU, there is a large union that organises among these workers.
This has strained relations with the general workers unions that fear the NEU’s potential to ‘poach’ members in education. This fear resulted in an agreement that the NEU would join the TUC only on the condition that it would not actively recruit support staff in schools, but allow them to become members if they chose to join. This means there is a lot of uncertainty about how much the NEU is allowed to advocate for support staff members, and whether doing this is somehow to tread on the toes of other unions.
We bypassed much of this by simply acting conscientiously as reps for our current members, but in such a way as to benefit all staff affected by the restructure. There were no other union reps in the school, and if there had been we would have worked alongside them. Stopping to worry about who we could and couldn’t support would have weakened our collective strength. We didn’t violate the agreement made by the NEU, but our action demonstrates a key weakness – if the other unions want to retain members then they need reps in schools. As it stands, staff of all grades in the school are now joining the NEU because we approached our organising from the standpoint that all workers in the school shared a collective set of interests.
Going through this ballot proved the usefulness of some of Jane McAlevey’s organising strategies. Before the dispute I attended her Organising for Power training, and learned about workplace mapping and structure-testing. Each round of staff meetings and the indicative ballot allowed us to map and structure-test the union’s power by noting which departments or sections of the workforce had the highest turnouts and with which we needed more contact. Out of the dispute we have built a pool of volunteers placed throughout the school. In the national ballot turnout has been driven mostly by this layer, not directly by the reps, and we achieved a 100% turnout from both teachers and support staff because of our visibility and unity coming out of the restructure dispute.
We have more knowledge of our members, a greater collective sense of our own strength, and a group of active union members amongst the rank and file. The union now occupies a central place within the culture of the school. Membership has steadily increased, with staff who are new to the sector or unused to an active union quickly deciding that they want to be on the inside. In negotiations with the headteacher, our bargaining power has increased, and we meet regularly and have a clear influence on the day to day running of the school.
Despite our confidence, we need to retain an awareness that it wasn’t only technical competence that brought us through. The political arguments we as reps made during the dispute solidified the message about why it was necessary to go on strike, alongside the rising cost of living crisis. However, the threat of strike proved to be enough and many questions of tactics and escalation were never raised.
Now that the NEU has hit the threshold for strike action for teachers but not support staff (in England), we will have to make decisions about independent action and communications, and respond with agility to both the government and the union leadership. Everything we did, once the dispute became official, was well within the parameters of the union’s official organisation, and ran up and down pre-existing, vertical chains of communication. There is clearly a vista of further problems we will face once the nature of a strike becomes contested within our union. For example, the union has been slow and cautious in its guidance around support staff, but we immediately made it clear that none of our members are legally required to cross the picket line, and our support staff members are confident that they can assert their rights here.
Throughout the strike, I sought support from comrades in both the NEU and in rs21. Anybody organising their workplace needs to seek help and guidance from a suitable source, because you can’t do this on your own. Experienced mentors can give you the necessary lessons and tools, but also keep you steady under the sometimes overwhelming sense of responsibility that is borne by a central organiser. Start talking to people in your union now to ensure that you have a network in place, and consider joining an organisation with a broader political perspective on trade union organising. Finally, I strongly advise organisers and reps to read Ian Allinson’s new book, Workers Can Win! or attend a training by Jane McAlevey to understand the organising methodology I have described in more detail.
NEU teachers (and support staff in Wales) are striking in February and March – the first day of strike action is on Wednesday 1 February. For more information, including a map of the dozens of protests planned for Wednesday, see the campaign website.