Notes on working at a sixth form college library, London 2005-2007

A London college library

Between 2005-2007 a member of the libcom group worked term-time in the library at a Sixth Form College in London. This article/interview documents his attempts to organise his workplace and touches on some wider issues around working in education in the UK.

So where did you work? What was it like?
Since some of my friends are still working there, and I hope there is still some organising going on, I won't identify the college directly, but some background information would be useful.

The college was set up in 2001-2, and is directly funded by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). It has approximately 1,400 students, doing a wide range of courses, including ESOL, GNVQ, BTEC, 'A' Levels and GCSEs - everything from Public Services to Hair Dressing to Pyschology. Although it's primarily a 16-19 college, it also takes some 14-16 year olds who are unable to find places in secondary schools, and at times has taken adult students as well. The majority of students at the college are from African, Carribbean, Bangladeshi, Turkish and Polish backgrounds. There are around 150 staff, also from a wide range of backgrounds. The majority of support staff lived within 5 miles of the college. Some lecturers and management also lived locally, but most commuted in from other areas of London and the suburbs.

What were some of the main issues at the college?
They were several million in debt due to a couple of unresolved court cases: around unfinished building work before it opened, that sort of thing. Also consistently under targets for student numbers (we'd have 1,300 against targets of 1,600). As a result, there were continual budget cuts in departments which were under-subscribed matched by rapid expansion in others (i.e. dance studios replaced almost overnight by hairdressing salons, maths teachers teaching Leisure and Tourism). Also there were occasional funding claw backs by the LSC, which manifested itself in uneven staffing and poor equipment. Money did get spent on some things though - especially marketing and decoration in my last six months there in an attempt to jump-start new enrolments, although I've since heard that enrolments for the Autumn term were no better than previous years.

These low numbers were consistently blamed by most staff on the fact that the (ex-)Principal's daughter had been marketing manager for a year or so - a task she spectacularly failed at (like no advertising or letters being sent out until students were enrolled at other colleges), as opposed to the official reasons of competition from academies with sixth forms opening up. Most staff and students also had a very low opinion of the college, in terms of organisation, outside reputation etc.There was also at least one other family group amongst the Senior Management Team (SMT)/Human Resources (HR) and central office staff.

There was generalised discontent amongst both support and teaching staff, mainly directed at nepotism, corruption and incompetence amongst the SMT and wider college management, and regular rumours that the college was going to close. The principal and two other members of SMT (out of five total)l eft while I worked there - one of whom's job was advertised in Metro <fn>Metro is a free London newspaper. A secretary found the advert and the news went around most of the college before his e-mail an hour later to announce his departure</fn> before his departure was announced in the college. This led to a general sense that they were all jumping ship before a collapse, although a new principal and vague noises from the LSC stemmed that a bit. As I write this, I heard that another member of the Senior Management team who joined last year left over the summer for 'family reasons'.

There was very high staff turnover in the college as a whole - about 30% of staff per year, not to mention high numbers of agency and contract staff not included in that figure.

What were the unions at the college?
For teaching staff there was the NUT, I think they had around 60-70 members (not 100% of teaching staff by any means) by the time I left. There was one rep who'd built them up from nothing - as a new college there was no history of militancy, and we'd geographically displaced another college that was known for militancy amongst both teaching and support staff. As far as I know the teachers had never been on strike, although I think there'd been a mass walk-out of a meeting about registers - as far as I know the changes were introduced despite this though with little further action.

For support staff the union was Unison, except it was nowhere to be found. I was part-time for the first year I worked there, and during that time no-one I asked knew who was a member or anything about it. A couple of us had discussed joining, but several had had bad experiences with Unison in the past, both on individual grievances and industrial action, so they discussed shopping around for while for the GMB or TGWU (now Unite), which led to no-one joining any of them.

When I was about to go full-time, and had just got back from paternity leave, I made a point of finding out what was going on with Unison, and went to see the one Unison member, Dave, I'd heard about. He said there was only a couple of Unison members there, but had some application forms, and gave me one to fill out. He was then off work for several months due to personal circumstances, which meant there was zero union presence for support staff in the college at all. Although I think the unions are useless for, and actively suppress, collective action in most cases, I still think it's worth being an individual member for individual protection at work.

What was going on in your department?
We ran two areas - the library (with a large computer area), and a computer area which also had classrooms attached, although we weren't supposed to be responsible for those. The library is open 8.30am to 7pm, run by about ten staff on a shift system - one early and one late per week, 9-5 the other three days. We only closed to students one hour per week, and didn't have an office with a door on it, so student contact was about 95% of the job, even if we weren't on desk duty.

Although I mentioned low student numbers earlier, you wouldn't have noticed this in the library. A combination of a complete lack of common areas for students elsewhere in the college, and a lot of students being unable to work at home (due to family or housing issues), meant we always had high numbers of students working, socialising or both throughout the year.

There was a mixture of full-time, part-time, year-round and term-time staff, plus one senior, one co-ordinator and one manager. Most of us got on very well, and due to the very hectic nature of the working environment, we'd go out of the college for lunch to local cafs or the park. The lunch break wasn't paid, but it was always an hour due to shift patterns. This meant there was a good hour per day where we'd be in each other's company, but not working and usually outside the college building, and led to quite close personal ties. Only half the team could be on lunch at any one time due to rotas, and it'd be a different combination every time. This meant that those of us who were the most interested in discussing workplace issues could do so sometimes 2-3 hours per week within 9-5 hours, and without any other staff or students around, but then some weeks we'd not have lunch together at all.

Were there any disputes in your department?
Just a few! But they rarely led to direct action, although we talked about just walking out on many, many occasions.

Our manager was very personable, and also on a management training course while I was there - so she managed to diffuse a lot of things that came up by taking things up officially and diverting things into proper channels - as a responsible manager should of course. This meant there wasn't a lot of direct conflict within the department, and things would end up between 'the team' and either management or other departments depending on what was going on. Having said that, both HR and SMT were so bad, that their complete failure to respond to any complaints led to a lot of disaffection in the department - which included our supervisor and manager who would end up with nothing back from them at all. This meant they either turned a blind eye to or actively encouraged organising attempts later on and had their own personal grievances with senior mangement, so a lot of contradictions in their role, and there was quite open discussions of these contradictions especially towards the end.

The constant issue we had to deal with was the amount of time spent dealing with student discipline. Like I said, there were no common areas in the college, so we could easily end up with all the seats in the library full, and an additional 30-40 students standing around either waiting for space or just having a chat. Since it was supposed to be a library (but was noisier than the canteen much of the time), we'd constantly be under pressure to ask people to be quiet, leave, stop talking on their phones, stop eating, stop fighting over computers etc. both from our manager, from students, and often each other when it was getting too loud to concentrate.

A few things happened with this - after a few fights and fire alarms being set off, SMT started emptying students out of the the canteen every day after lunch. In many cases, this led to students who were just quietly hanging out in there being uprooted and literally herded into the library by managers and premises staff. On several occasions, this led to my supervisor standing at the entrance stopping any more students from coming in, whilst managers were behind large groups of students telling them to 'go to the library'. On one, quite funny, occasion, they met in the middle! This resulted in a great deal of conflict between us and the students, and between us and the managers who were making these decisions. However, no-one in SMT would take responsibility for the overall policy, and we were never actually told that stuff like this was going to happen until weeks after it had started - sometimes we'd just get extra high numbers of students for a week, then one of us would walk past an empty canteen and realise why. So we were usually a few steps behind and managers would actively lie about sending students to the library to hang out.

There were very few direct confrontations about this - having to deal with so many students at once meant it was difficult to then go and confront the people responsible while it was actually happening. However at one point I just started locking the entrance door when things got too busy. We didn't chuck students out, just stopped any more coming in until things had calmed down a bit. This idea was enthusiastically welcomed by the rest of the people I worked with, including my supervisor and manager who started doing it as well. This continued for a couple of months, and took the pressure off us quite a lot until we were found out by a senior manager who'd just taken on responsibility for our department and were told to stop. Apart from me having a massive rant in a team meeting the day after this was announced, nothing much happened about it, and I ended up feeling fairly isolated and demoralised for a few weeks afterwards.

There was a lot of stuff about equipment and health and safety as well - chairs falling apart, computers dying all over the place etc. We had to rely on other departments to get any of that fixed, put in orders etc., so it didn't really get anywhere although we managed to piss a lot of people off about it and did get some things fixed at a very basic level. I spent a lot of time trying to get the students to complain about the conditions there, both individually and collectively, but this didn't come to much.

At various times we heard rumours flying around about management decisions, cuts etc., and would have spontaneous meetings while we were working - this again helped to keep everyone informed about what was going on - we always knew more about developments than almost any other department and some individuals would come to us to catch up on things. This kept confidence high, but again not much would come of it usually.

What about the rest of the college?
There was a whole raft of individual grievances going on due to a really shocking HR department. One woman in my department had been on nine months probation for every post she'd held at the college, and had holiday pay taken away when she was on sick. A couple of managers literally disappeared - either sacked or quietly left when complaints were made against them. The way this was done was very dodgy, but only really led to gossip and conspiracy theories - not least because they were managers rather than people we were working with directly. Overall, most of these issues were very individualised, and we'd often not hear about them until days, weeks or months after they'd happened - which meant that for most of the time I was there, there was very little potential to generalise them.

With no union presence within the support staff, anything we did was entirely off our own bat. Also, because generally people would leave rather than deal with any issues that came up, management were able to get away with a whole raft of stuff - much of it unlawful, with very little resistance. This meant we were at a standing start, and there were a few things that I was 95% sure we could just enforce on them without much trouble at all, since in some cases they were breaking contracts and policies that they'd written themselves, along with statutory legislation. This was around holiday and pay mainly - and would mean several hundred pounds a year, or several days extra leave per year if resolved (and in some cases lost since they were also trying to take things away while I was there).

There were three issues which affected reasonably high numbers of staff, and affected people in different areas of the college.

1. Term time contracts.
Although several of us in the college were on term-time contracts, we were on a different term to the students - which meant an extra 2-3 weeks work per year. I checked my contract, and was sure we could get those three weeks back if we called their bluff, and began talking to people about it, and asking HR questions about how exactly they were working out our annual hours. This dispute is still going on there (not helped by some term-time staff leaving - including me! and some replaced by agency staff - so there's much less permanent staff on that contract than there were a year ago). It was a concrete issue that a lot of us were pissed off about though, and led to many, many conversations within and between the departments affected during the year.

2. Spine points.
Whilst reading that bit of my contract I also realised I was getting my spine point increments about five months later than I was supposed to - they were paid every September, but I'd started in April. I took this up individually with HR, whilst getting as many people as possible to bring in their contracts so I could compare them - there were loads of discrepancies, and some people had started in September anyway and weren't affected. It ended up with HR/SMT getting legal advice from 'two different sources' which relied on 'custom and practice'<fn>"Last refuge of the scoundrel "according to one legal website, and usually used by trade unions to protect perks that have crept into working practices over time when new managers try to attack them</fn> as a defence. I left while this was still going on, but am hoping to help those still there if they want to take it further. The process of going through contracts was worth a lot in itself, most people had never read theirs, and it led to a lot more issues being discussed.

3. Long service leave.
Instead of having 'closure days' between Christmas and New Year like most places, they'd given everyone an extra three days annual leave, which they then took away again between Christmas and New Year. No-one really minded about this until a few people who'd been at the college started getting close to their fifth year at the college. After five years, they were due an extra five days annual leave, but there were various rumours flying around that the three days at Christmas were going to be taken out of it; in other words they'd only get two days per year instead of five. There were at least 10-15 staff due this leave in August '07, and others who had it coming up. By the time I'd left the college still hadn't made an announcement about it, but everyone knew it was on the cards - and that they'd wait until the last minute to announce it. A friend of mine also went from full-time to part-time - and on his new contract (which arrived a month late) the long service leave had reduced from five to two - this was the only thing in writing anyone had seen apart from a leaked e-mail. He didn't sign the contract, but he also handed in his notice about a week after I left!

Baby steps
For the majority of my time there, since there was no organisation already, I concentrated on finding other people who would be interested in talking about issues and possibly getting together to do something about them. This meant constantly bringing up working conditions and other issues in team meetings and lunch breaks, and generally trying to make issues at work, and ways we could deal with them, a topic of conversation in addition to general chit-chat and job-hunting.

Overall this was pretty successful - anything people were having problems with personally was usually discussed by us as a group, and people got more and more confident about speaking out if our workload was going to be increased etc. (although we'd often still end up taking on the work one way or another in most cases). Some people had been there for a while, and the large numbers of people passing through the library meant we had good links with other departments - so we'd also find out about local issues elsewhere in the college, and had a steady stream of information about any new measures that might be coming in. This meant that a few times we were able to discuss our response to things before we were officially told about them, which led to us being increasingly more unified as time went on. However, there was always a tension between our relationships with the students and taking real action like a work stoppage, which most people didn't have an appetite for. Also since so many people had issues with probation, contracts, or were temporary staff it made direct confrontation over working conditions harder.

Although it was slow progress, with very little tangible result, it did have an effect when the rumblings about long service leave started. I'd joined the union in April '06, but was always very honest about my opinions on them - that although it's fine to join as an individual member, they'd be no help (or worse) for any collective action and we'd have to run everything ourselves whatever happened. Most of the people I worked with also knew pretty much what my politics were like, and several knew I was involved with libcom.org (I'd told them about the blog during the CPE events when the subject came up, one guy even signed up although he hasn't posted). However around the college I was generally seen as the person trying to 'organise a union' and 'get Unison in' despite all this, and was asked many, many times to go up for shop steward by people who hadn't even joined by that point.

By January '07 the new principal had been in for a while, spent a load of money on a re-branding and facelift, but there was still likelihood of some teaching jobs going, the beginnings of restructuring of various departments, and a worsening in daily working conditions. A large number of staff had stuck around at the college to see if things would improve (and wait for their five days extra leave which are transferable to other local government and education jobs), and the general feeling was that they hadn't improved, and that several thousand pounds had been squandered on making the place look nice whilst actual equipment was falling apart.

This led to a much higher frequency of conversations about working conditions, and much larger numbers of people involved. I ended up with workers who I'd only really said hello to coming to talk to me about working conditions and contract stuff, and an even higher number went to Dave the technician (mentioned earlier) who had a pile of UNISON application forms on his desk, and was an experienced trade unionist with a lot of experience, although still reluctanct to take a leading role for a number of reasons. Dave reckoned about thirty to forty application forms had been taken, although by April/May just about no-one had come back to him to say they'd joined, and there were probably less than ten members out of 50-odd support staff.

Getting organised
By April/May a few of us decided to write up a list of the main grievances, get people to sign it and present it to management. With a statement at the end that we'd hold a general meeting to discuss further action three weeks later if nothing had happened.

By the time we'd finished the first draft of the letter, the Vice Principal announced a "support staff forum" to be held next week, and asked for seven or eight volunteers for it. I later found out he'd been tipped off about the letter by my line manager who we'd kept in the loop for most of this (it being not much beyond a petition), and who'd offered to present it officially once it'd be signed. One of the grievances on the letter was we'd had a some staff surveys and consultations earlier in the academic year, which management had just sat on, with not even the findings publicised, let alone followed up or acted on. Not the biggest issue, but something most people were pissed off about, and it made a convenient answer to "why not just go through your line manager?". This was the only thing they responded to (although they didn't admit it had anything to do with the letter). The rest of the letter was about pay, conditions, vacancies not being filled, restructuring, high turnover, agency staff etc. etc.

The next week came, and although about 14 people had volunteered for it there was no support staff forum meeting announced. We were hardly surprised that nothing had been followed up, but it delayed the letter, since most people thought the same issues could just get put on the agenda for the staff forum.

The week after that was half-term, when I found out I'd got a new job - I'd been the only person in my department not looking for another job for about a year, but I sent off 3-4 applications over a period of six months, and got lucky with the fourth.

I came back after half-term to hear that while the managers had been out on external training on the Friday, the central office staff - usually the hardest people to speak to about organising since they worked directly with management, and I personally didn't know many of them very well - had held a mass meeting in the office to discuss unionisation. It had started out as a coffee break, but as the conversation developed a couple of people called 'round other departments, including Dave, to get them to come and join in.

This meant that when I got back on the Monday, things had moved from a half-assed letter and even more half-assed management attempt to circumvent it a week or two earlier, to a large meeting on the Friday which itself led to an official Unison meeting to be organised for interested people on Thursday - set up by Dave and one of people in central office who'd had enough by that point.

About thirty people turned up to the first union meeting, while there were still only about six or seven members at the college, and although it was only an initial meeting to gauge people's reactions, it ended up with six shop stewards and a secretary being nominated on the spot (some of those, again, weren't members either). A lot of people at the meeting automatically assumed I was going to be shop steward, but not all knew I'd handed my notice in by this point, so I was saved a decision on doing it or not. Although I'm not in favour of people taking shop steward positions, and things were going pretty well with the informal organising that I and others were doing, I may well have done it to have the experience, and because although a lot of what was going on was taking the form of recognition, the content had very little to do with this and was very much self-organised. There was no interest in our workplace from Unison itself, absolutely zero, and most people 'in the union' weren't actually members by that point, so although people did want recognition, things had a large amount more independence than if there'd been an official organising drive or existing union presence.

By this time I was on my way out, so I concentrated on trying to tie up as many loose ends as possible with the HR disputes I had going on, and making sure as many people as possible knew the details so they could carry on with it in case it was still going on after I'd left.

Although I didn't get actual resolutions to most of them, I managed to get paid for un-taken annual leave when I left the college. I handed in my notice five weeks before the summer holiday was due to start - when I'd get paid holiday for six weeks, but was neither told to take any of that leave early, or that I'd get paid for some of the holiday period after I'd left. Essentially I'd have had to write it off (and due to my new job starting at an awkward time I'd almost resigned myself to doing that), but ended up getting paid the full whack.

This came out of another issue I had around my contract, and the annual leave was a side issue really. However I ended up with six weeks pay I otherwise wouldn't have had, and any other term time staff leaving just before a holiday will get paid as well. Not a single member of staff (or apparently manager, or anyone at payroll, surprise surprise) had asked about this before in five years at the college, but I made sure everyone knew about it before I left of course.

So what's happening now? What did you learn from it?
Well although my new job's a bit of an improvement on the old one, I was pissed off to be leaving just as everything was kicking off - I got offered the job while on holiday, the same day as that central office meeting happened. Dave had an initial meeting with the principal, who indicated that the long service leave decision might be reversed before it was even officially announced. I think there'll be a few other things like that as well - that just get resolved simply because enough people are asking about them to avoid open conflict. If they don't, I think there'll be lot of very pissed off people there and things could continue to develop.

I'm trying to keep in touch about some of the other issues as well, since I had the main overview for a couple of them. Things go quiet during the summer holiday though, so it's most likely that if the momentum's still there, it'll kick back in when the new term starts. A few term time staff were talking about simply not coming in the extra two weeks they work in August - something I'd been planning for a good six months, I don't think that's likely to happen though since many of them may well have got other jobs by that point - I only started applying myself because I was certain my friends would leave before me! (update, there's apparently still four vacancies un-filled in my old department, about 50% at time of writing)

I think I picked the wrong issues to concentrate on when I started - stuff like conditions in my department which were tied into all kinds of operational issues and were often neutralised fairly effectively by my genuinely nice supervisors and managers taking it up all the time, rather than pay/contractual stuff which affected higher numbers of staff and turned out to be a catalyst for organisation there. I got it right in the end, but maybe more would've happened earlier if these issues had come out in the open early on.

Overall, I went from being completely isolated, to having two or three members of my department working with me to get things organised as much as possible, and maybe another four-five elsewhere in the college doing the same. I was also incredibly impressed with the turnout at that first unionisation meeting - having expected 15 or so to come. The place was quite unusual in that due to no union presence, we were completely cut off from any of the national disputes over pay and pensions, and due to the pernicious HR department, there were a lot of issues that were more immediate and which it looks like the work we did will have an impact on.

The real changes were in culture - open discussion of workplace issues between all kinds of people who'd barely said hello to each other before it got started. Dave told me that in January/February, a few people had told him they'd joined Unison, but "please don't tell anyone" - suggesting they thought they'd be victimised just for being members. Given the central role of Unison in management elsewhere, as evidenced by their role in the current pay dispute, this was quite bizarre really, and shows how effective the "shut down, open up" education policy is in breaking traditions of militancy at older institutions.