Strikes in schools have usually been good-natured enough – with management recognising the right of staff to strike as part of their dispute. That will certainly be the case in thousands of schools on November 30. However, on Thursday November 24, a solid picket line of NUT members was disgusted to find that around two dozen supply staff had been recruited to break their strike. Alarmingly, the Labour-run Local Authority may have had a role in their recruitment.
Previously, the NUT and other unions have always advised that the recruitment of agency staff to carry out the work of striking staff was illegal under the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations 2003. However, in the run-up to the November 30 joint national action, the Department of Education issued new advice on “Handling Industrial Action in Schools”. This accepted that the advice on agency staff was correct but pointed a way around the law – that “an employer can directly employ individuals to cover employees on strike. An employment agency can supply these workers as long as the employer (such as the school or Local Authority) directly employs them”.
The strike-breaking activities at the Langdon School yesterday appear to have been the first trialling of the new advice. Either the agencies have acted illegally or, as seems likely, contracts were issued for the employment of the strike-breaking staff. As Langdon is a Local Authority community school, this would suggest that these would have had to be Newham Council contracts.
The strike had taken place after ongoing talks at ACAS had broken down. These were to seek to resolve a dispute over what staff feel is excessive workload, as well as claims of management bullying. As I had written in a message of support to the NUT group, staff in too many London schools are working under intolerable pressure. School managements are encouraged to act in an oppressive manner by a government that wishes to instil a 'climate of fear' in schools, to the detriment of teachers and education as a whole.
It now appears that the school may have been busy recruiting strike-breakers while the talks were going on. One London NUT member reports getting a call from an agency based in the West Midlands to work at the school.
The agency staff may have had no idea that they were being recruited to break strike action. With the opportunities for supply work becoming harder to find, they were probably just glad of some much-needed income. But this is, of course, how ruthless employers have always used poverty to undermine the united union organisation that has the power to stand up to that poverty and oppression.
The DfE advice also means that the NUT and other school staff unions now face a threat to our ability to organise effective action. I believe that we must also respond in the way that unions have always had to respond to strike-breaking – by firm and determined action.
Newham NUT have organised an emergency union meeting next week where the way forward will be debated. Clearly an urgent publicity campaign needs to be mounted. Trade unions in London and nationally need to be notified to give support. The campaign will be taken to parents to persuade them to oppose the school’s strike-breaking activities. It is reported that many parents kept their children away from school yesterday. Newham Council also needs to make clear where they stand as well.
Strike action at Langdon School will be continuing with a three-day strike next week starting on Tuesday 29 November. But the school’s tactics have significantly raised the stakes. If the Local Authority is found to have been involved in recruiting strike-breaking staff, then this must raise the prospect of a dispute – and action – across the Local Authority.
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Martin Powell-Davies, member of the NUT National Executive (personal capacity)