Why I broke ranks with Tower Hamlets strikers

25th September 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Prisca Schmarsow

These are difficult times for those of us working in education, with government cuts affecting adult courses in particular. I work part-time at Tower Hamlets College (THC), teaching adults in creative arts. THC is a great college, and has been a wonderful place to work. However, it has been torn by a conflict between the union and senior management, and it is our students who have suffered most.

I'm a member of the University and College Union, and believe in the principle of "power to the people". I don't consider myself a very political person, and had always thought I could trust the union and its aims. However, my thinking is now being challenged. THC, like many other colleges, has been affected by government cuts, and had to reduce the number of evening classes it offered a while back. Then, before the summer, further changes were announced, including a number of redundancies.

The union called a strike to protest against these decisions. In principle, I agreed. Then, it became clear that the strike action would be indefinite. Indeed, it is continuing as I write this, despite a lot of progress made: compulsory redundancies were reduced from 40 to 13 people, and other important compromises were reached. Worst of all, a new term has started, and our students are now the ones who will have to bear the consequences.

Though I was initially torn, and stayed at home for the first two strike days as I felt I could not cross the picket line, poor communication from the union on negotiations with the senior management and the increasingly personal nature of attacks against the principal worried me. I could not be part of such a movement, and felt I needed to return to work, to be there for our students.

It has been difficult facing my colleagues on the picket line while still doing what I feel is right. At a time where cuts are hitting education, we should all work together rather than against each other. This dispute seems too local and petty. We are already at risk of losing teaching hours and adult courses, and I cannot see what this strike can achieve in the long run. Whether senior management's decisions are right or not, I don't see what they can do when it is government funding cuts that should be challenged.

To keep the most important and most affected people - our students - informed about my own position, I decided to write a blog post. Though I have been challenged by union members for my views, I have also received a lot of supportive feedback via comments and emails, which made me realise that I am not alone in my thinking.

It is our students who are suffering, where surely they should be our main concern and motivation for change. Previous students have benefited hugely from our digital arts adult courses and succeeded in getting good jobs. It is not fair that new students could face obstacles to the same opportunities because of the lack of government spending.

It seems to me that a lot of us simply hope for an end to this strike - we want our colleagues back and want to get back to what we are here for: to teach our students. Surely this is our common goal?


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