Workplace rep Ted at Gordano school
Workplace rep Sam at Gordano school

Before this dispute began, our members would often come to us when they had an individual grievance but when there was an issue that affected the whole staff body such as workload then other than just feeling disgruntled, they had no way of channelling that anger and frustration into effective change.

From the outset we followed the guiding principles of the ‘1199 advice to rookie organisers’, originally put together at a trade union conference in the USA in 1985. This is essentially a 20-point list of how to organise workers.  What this list made us do was to emphasis to members that the union belongs to them and if change was going to come about it was only ever going to happen by working together.

So with members frequently telling us that their workload and stress levels were increasing, our first step was to look around at other schools to see how they tackled the issue.  We then created a list of practical ways to reduce workload at our school and then put these to members in a survey.  With these results, we then presented them to our head teacher but disappointedly nothing really came of this and then Covid-19 hit.  However, the one trait you need as an activist, is persistence.  So, when schools returned, we then took up the issue of directed time at our school, after being prompted by the National Education Union (NEU) campaign.  We challenged the school’s calculations and eventually it was admitted that we were very close to the limit of 1265.  We said that it was because of this that staff were feeling overworked and stress levels were rising.  We also held a meeting with members to explain what the directed time budget was and why we had concerns over it. 

Still no real substantial change had come from the employer, so our next move was to put together a motion, which had five demands on workload.  We took a vote of members to ask what should be included in the five demands.  We presented these demands to the head, but again no substantial progress was made.  Our next stage was to hold an indicative ballot, where members were asked if they would be willing to take industrial action unless these demands were implemented.  The result was an overwhelming yes from members.  It was now that the employer started to give ground, but still wouldn’t agree to all our demands, which wasn’t good enough, especially given that our demands were so moderate to begin with. During this period, we held several meetings with the employer but they were still not prepared to implement all five demands.  We also held several meetings with members, not only to inform them of the latest developments but also to check they still wanted us to continue with this campaign.  We very much wanted them to understand that this was a collective campaign.  This buy-in from members was very important and helped to keep the momentum going.

Another useful tool we used was to create a WhatsApp group for members, which was an excellent way to keep them informed.  We also set the group settings so that only the reps could post messages, to ensure members didn’t get overwhelmed in the group chat and just received clear and succinct messages from us.

When no further progress was made following the indicative ballot we then moved to a formal ballot.  This was a big step and understandable many members felt uncomfortable with taking action that could disruptive the pupils education.  We spent many hours as reps going around the school talking to members to explain that we had given the employer every opportunity to implement our demands but they had chosen not to.  We said that often the threat of strike action was enough to get employers to back down, which eventually proved to be the case with our school.  A major factor in getting the 90% vote for strike action that we eventually got was that members trusted us as reps, knowing we had their best interests at heart.

The week leading up to the first day of strike action was very pressurised, as reps we were very grateful for the advice and support from the full-time union officials who explained that the days leading up to the strike are the most fraught.  What still concerned members in these final days was that whilst the school had at last agreed to the five demands, there was no long-term commitment.  When the leadership of the school realised that members were still prepared to strike if they were not prepared to give a long-term commitment then the employer conceded at the eleventh hour.  Our finally agreement which again received overwhelming backing from members means that in future when a new school wide policy is announced, if the union thinks this will affect staff workload, then we can ask for to be workload assessed by a group that not just includes SLT but also a full-time member of staff and a member of staff with a TLR responsibility.  Additionally, it was agreed that if a policy does increase workload, then something else must be taken away.

The dispute was a stressful time for everyone in involved, but when it was finally resolved members really did have a spring in their step, knowing that collectively their collective action and strength had brought about positive change in the workplace, that will also in the long term benefit the students too.