England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Leicester strike leader interviewed by socialists in Sweden

Interview with Ash Field Academy strike leader Tom Barker for Offensiv, regular paper of Socialistiskt Alternativ (ISA Sweden). 

After seven months of strike action at a school in Leicester, England, over 100 teaching assistants won higher pay and better conditions. The wage increases are 25%, according to the BBC. Offensiv spoke with strike leader Tom Barker.

Ash Field Academy is a school with 160 pupils with special educational needs in Leicester. The fact that it is called Academy means that it is a kind of independent school, similar to the Swedish system. Tom Barker, who is a member of Socialist Alternative (ISA in England, Wales and Scotland), said:

“We teaching assistants have long had salaries and conditions at a lower level than at other schools. With 110 union members in UNISON, which is the UK’s largest union, two years ago we demanded a wage increase of £3,000 per year to get up to the same level as others, plus a salary ladder with future increases. In May 2022, negotiations began, which lasted for six months. The owners agreed that we had lower wages, but made promises of action only next year. We had many member meetings with good participation. A meeting was held at the school gates when the school management refused to allow union representatives who do not work at the school to enter.”

“When the negotiations did not yield results, a twelve-member strike committee was elected at the end of 2022. Most had never gone on strike before. However they were now studying the example of the railworkers’ and teachers’ strikes which were taking place around the country. All members received regular newsletters.”

In Britain, unlike in Sweden, there is a local right to strike. 54% of members took part in the required vote, and 84% of them voted in favour of a strike. Then the employer became worried, and called a meeting where everyone was offered £500 each to call off the strike. They also offered a retroactive increase in wages. For us, it showed that the strike notice had more effect than six months of negotiations.”

In May last year, the strike began. It took place in batches of 2-3 days at a time according to a special schedule. About 70 members participated in the picket lines during the first period. 

“In the beginning, we had support from a group of parents, who were often public sector workers themselves. As in all strikes, it is about showing that the responsibility for the effects of the strike lies with the employers. We also had strong support from elected officials in the teachers’ union and from our own union. The left leadership in UNISON came to us themselves and participated in the picket lines.”

“There were also complications. About 20 strikebreakers continued to work and a few strikers went back to work. The law meant that there was a pause in the strike. The strikers received £50 per day in strike compensation, which became a financial burden.”

“We discussed how we were going to step it up. An important step was when we convinced the union to increase the strike compensation so that it compensated for the loss of wages. The decisive factor was when we refused a new offer and declared that the strike would be continuous throughout November. Then the school management backed down.”

“The end result was a great victory. Wages are being increased by £1,925 a year, which was the original offer from the government. The entire salary system is being reworked to bring it on par with other schools. In addition, everyone received a lump sum of £2,000.”

“The strike at Ash Field Academy is an example of a persistent, well-grounded struggle paying off. It is about resisting the inevitable pressure from employers.”

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