Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Friday, February 07, 2014

Which Side Are You On?

While the strike on the London Underground is attracting a lot of attention, there is a strike much closer to home which is affecting the Saunders household. The teaching staff at Edinburgh College have come out on strike over the college's pay offer, specifically its linkage to a number of changes to their terms and conditions. Hilary is classed as a management grade and is therefore not only not expected to strike but liable to disciplinary action if she did. I on the other hand am in a teaching position, and as a member of the EIS (the Scottish teachers' union) am expected to strike.

I find myself in an odd position. Today was a one-day strike, and I came out in solidarity. The terms and conditions changes don't actually affect me as I am part-time and on a temporary contract. I voted against strike action when we were balloted, but the vote went the other way and I am happy enough to turn out to support my striking colleagues, even though I was somewhat horrified at the eagerness with which the union went for strike action. (My previous - lengthy and intimate - involvement with trade union activism has involved a lot more negotiation and a lot less withdrawal of labour, though this is not my first strike.)

But.

The EIS's plan is that after today's strikes, next week there will be a two-day strike on Tuesday and Wednesday, after which there will be three-day Tuesday-Thursday strikes until the end of term. If I thought the first strike was precipitately launched, I consider this degree of escalation insane. It will cause massive disruption to students (and let us remember that if they fail their courses as a result that may be the end of the line for their chosen careers). As the EIS has helpfully published all the dates when it intends to strike, the disruption to management has been minimised. I would much rather have seen a continuation of one-day strikes, but with the days randomly varied at short notice: far better tactics. I assume the theory is that the panicked students will get their parents to apply pressure to the college to accede to the EIS's demands. What I suspect will happen is that those parents will instead apply pressure to their MP and MSP to change the legal availability of strike action. I gather from the radio news that Cameron's government are considering the introduction of a bill to reduce still further the right of workers to strike - this as a result of the Tube strike. It could be that the outcome of the present EIS action will not be a change of heart by the college management but a declaration that strikes in essential services such as teaching are illegal.

Anyway, I emailed the EIS President (who teaches at our college) and asked whether I would receive strike pay if I continued to strike but only for the one day a week I could square with my conscience: I'm damned if I'm going to have my students failing if I can help it. I have to date received no reply so will have to assume that I will not, which means that from here on I will not be striking. Of course, as my reason for not striking is the effect on the students - the loss of earnings if I received strike pay would be small - if the college decides to cancel classes on the strike days I may as well strike. Classes were cancelled today, supposedly because of the short notice, and it will be interesting to see what happens next week. Certainly some of my students were assuming that their classes would not be running. I am not relishing the crossing of picket lines for the first time in my life, though if there are classes next Tuesday for me to teach I shall be turning up to teach them. I find myself with a conflict of principles here: trade union solidarity (even when it is not in my personal interest) versus dedication to providing my students with an education. I don't want to come over as some kind of goody-goody if I say that my decision is to put the students first. If I did, you might point out that if all my students on a course fail it reduces my chance of being re-employed: there is a degree of self-interest there. But in honesty, I have in some cases put a lot of effort into ensuring that my students have the best chance of passing: why would I waste all that effort and stress?

So should I hope that classes next Tuesday are cancelled so that I can pusillanimously avoid crossing the picket line? Or hope that they go ahead so that I can take my classes? Given the very short gap between the strike today and the one next week, hope for a negotiated outcome that would avoid further strike action seems unrealistic. Watch this space for further developments, but I expect to be back at work next week.

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