Striking workers at Calverton primary school in Newham, east London, have won their dispute. Their National Education Union (NEU) district secretary, Socialist Party member Louise Cuffaro, spoke to the Socialist about the struggle.
What caused the strike and what have workers won?
The big issue was that the new head came in, after a major restructure and voluntary redundancies last academic year, and wanted to impose a new dress code, and also to cut paid dependants’ leave.
This is something low-paid workers especially rely on, to take care of family in emergencies and sick dependants. Management cut it, from up to ten days a year, down to five.
The NEU reps tried all summer term, and then again at the beginning of the autumn term, but the head would not budge — until the strike won. The school will also pay it backdated to anyone who suffered during the period of reduction.
The new management also wanted to get rid of the extended day — ‘wraparound care’ for parents who need extended childcare due to work. That was really important for parents in the area, but also for low-paid staff, because it meant both more hours and overtime rates.
We have got them to honour the existing contracts. Hours will be made up by breakfast club and after-school clubs, and anyone receiving overtime pay will be honoured till March 2023.
Staff felt the new management displayed an unacceptable bullying and disrespectful attitude towards longstanding staff.
But agreement has now been reached. Workers who had been victimised or unduly punished before the strike have had all proposed changes reversed. And management has promised to treat all staff with respect and open regular opportunities for dialogue.
They also conceded that any changes to school policies must be negotiated with the NEU and other appropriate unions. That’s really important. It comes from something that happened while we were in dispute.
A week or so into the strike action, management unilaterally announced a review of support staff contracts! We viewed that as a punishment for going on strike. But now they’ve completely withdrawn that, with immediate effect.
What lessons are there to learn from this?
We took eleven days’ strike action. We won everything. Striking works!
Support staff at Calverton have learnt, the hard way, that there’s strength in unity. It was difficult for them. They are predominantly from the local community, and they care about the pupils and their education.
They reached out to parents with leaflets and meetings, to explain that staff working conditions are ultimately the children’s learning conditions, and that both parents and staff need to be consulted before any changes are made.
We held a meeting to explain the real issues and get them on board. They came on the vibrant picket lines.
We published more strike action dates for after half term, to show how determined the strikers were. The parents were vital in supporting the strike. They helped push the school to settle, and at the end we had a well-attended celebratory get-together.
This all helped to ensure the local authority and school leadership were keen to discuss and negotiate an agreement based on the NEU demands.
The union group at the school feels very strong and together. But we do have to remain vigilant. Especially as all schools are going to be under even worse pressure than before to cut jobs and increase workload. The cost-of-living crisis comes on top of a system in crisis and already cut to the bone.
At Calverton we still have a legal strike mandate, so if they try to back out while that’s still live, watch this space. But the main thing is that in the long term it’ll be very important for Calverton, and all other schools, to get, and remain, organised.
We need a national strike, alongside other workers. Education is in crisis. It’s not just about pay, it’s about funding, and a voice for all workers in schools, to have a say on what kind of education we provide and how pupils and staff are treated.
And we can’t rely on the Labour Party to fight for us. The Labour local authority mostly stayed out of our dispute — until we announced further strike dates.
The unions want to resolve all matters by talking, but when faced with intransigence, action speaks louder than words!
Newham’s Labour council could and should have intervened immediately, on the side of the union. You can see their real attitude in their attempt to break the strike of their own bin workers over pay. The working class needs a new party of our own.
NEU members have begun a national ballot for strike action over pay and funding. See ‘Teachers and Support staff ballot for action’