Article published: Sunday, September 12th 2010
On 15 July members of University and College Lecturers’ Union (UCU) employed by the College’s Offender Learning programme, which runs a large portion of the UK’s prison education service, voted overwhelmingly for strike action over the imposition of new contracts. This follows strikes across Manchester campuses by UCU lecturers on 30 June, with further action being considered for September. Andy Lockhart reports on a year of struggle between staff and a management accused of bullying, persecution and incompetence.
Principal of The Manchester College Peter Tavernor has been forced back to the negotiating table with the University and College Union (UCU), following strike action and public pressure in the row over new contracts for teaching staff. UCU and staff claim the new terms will severely worsen working conditions and damage teaching standards. They further contend that the contracts are being strictly imposed and that the management is intent on destroying the College’s unions.
The Manchester College (TMC) is one of the largest in Europe, teaching around 80,000 students with an estimated annual turnover of £180 million. MULE has been following developments there for over a year, during which dozens of employees have contacted the paper alleging cases of harassment and mismanagement.
In the summer of 2009, UCU went on strike twice in opposition to job losses as TMC threatened to sack a number of crèche workers and teaching staff. The unions argued this would seriously affect both lecturers and students with children as well as teaching standards more generally. UCU asserted that Tavernor and his team were guilty of union intimidation and that Branch Secretary David Swanson had been singled out for the axe as part of a strategy of union busting.
Later in the year, the College threw around 300 pupils off their English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) course with just 5 days notice. TMC said this was due to “an unforeseen error in ESOL enrolment” and changes in government funding. The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) had shaken up the ESOL system earlier in the year, making large cuts in funding, but the College had wrongly assumed they would still receive funding for about 400 students they had apparently enrolled.
Staff and local refugee and asylum groups were most concerned at the devastating consequences that would be felt by vulnerable students – particularly displaced people who are not legally entitled to work and who require competence in the English language to pass citizenship tests. When TMC realised its mistake, it simply chose to cut the course, forcing the City Council to spend £450,000 from it’s Working Neighbourhood fund to reassign as many students as possible to Manchester Adult Learning Services.
In another administrative cock-up around the same time, the College announced it was planning to sack prison teaching staff soon after they had signed new contracts. It was less than a year after TMC successfully bid to become the largest provider of prison education in the UK, teaching in 60 per cent of penal institutions.
Soon after finalising the deal, Tavernor revealed the College lacked the money to operate the contracts, “due to unforeseen hidden costs.” Claiming a shortfall of £5 million the College was bailed out £2 million by the LSC. A pay freeze was put in place and the College later confirmed, “additional savings and efficiencies were needed that could result in up to 250 staffing reductions within offender learning.”
Contract disputes in 2010
In spring this year, it emerged that TMC had started renegotiating contracts for teaching staff, due to come into force in August. UCU complained Tavernor and his management team were imposing terms through intimidation and harassment, while employees told MULE of their own shocking experiences in recent months. Those who contacted MULE asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals from a management they say has a history of persecuting those who speak out in public.
While the prinicipalship voted themselves large pay rises – Tavernor boosting his salary from under £180,000 in 2008 to £193,970 – staff were being asked to take significant pay cuts and commit to longer working hours and fewer benefits.
“I was given a new role by the Manchester College,” said one worker. “My line manager said to me ‘I don’t like to call this or see it as a demotion, it’s more of a revision of your role and regrading.’
“20 per cent less pay and three weeks holiday removed, which we will not be compensated for, seems like a demotion to me, but we are scared to rock the boat as we have been made to feel lucky we have kept our jobs.”
Many went further than the UCU claims. One described the moves by the College as “fairly overt sex discrimination,” especially after crèche workers’ redundancies last year.
“It is an undisputed fact that most childcare arrangements fall onto the shoulders of mothers in society. By changing holidays and increasing working hours the College has not taken childcare needs into account. When confronted by someone who says it looks like they cannot continue in their job due to the changes, the College just says there is ‘no negotiation,’” she said.
Employees who asked for time to arrange representation for meetings regarding new contracts received emails saying: “You do not have a statutory right to be accompanied at this meeting and you do not have the right to postpone the meeting. Therefore we expect you to attend the meeting for this week, if you continue to refuse to attend the meeting this could result in disciplinary action being considered.”
According to one member of staff, “it is clear that any points, no matter how valid, are disregarded. Following the meeting staff are given a further five working days to sign. Failure to sign means that staff are then given three months notice.”
One prison worker for TMC wrote to MULE saying the contract changes in that sector would put literally thousands of jobs at risk. They explained management was “making all full time positions redundant and filling the positions up with part time and hourly paid staff, replacing Lecturer titles to trainer or tutor titles, increasing teaching contact time and reducing holidays.”
“In the prison system TMC are shamelessly exploiting prisoners to generate profits for their private coffers,” said another.
Despite Tavernor’s further statement that, “within the core college more than 500 staff have already signed” MULE’s main source said, “many of those feel they have done so under duress and lodged accompanying letters of complaint.”
UCU balloted in June for strike action to oppose the new contracts and tactics of TMC. On the day it was announced that the strike would take place, Tavernor took the unprecedented step of officially derecognising the union. Said to be thoroughly rattled by resistance among staff, the principal sent an internal message to them, calling an advert taken out by UCU in the Manchester Evening News “a direct and blatant attack on the reputation of The Manchester College.”
He continued: “Regardless of UCU’s behaviour, we have continued to attempt to engage effectively with the union, but these recent underhand tactics have clearly indicated that it is not going to be possible.”
In a further display of intimidation, an unnamed manager had sent an email to staff prior to the strike on 30 June, telling them senior management would be going around the picket lines to take a note of those involved.
Throughout the dispute TMC has refused to make any comment to MULE regarding the accusations levelled against it by staff.
Re-recognition and announcement of prison teacher strike
The day after the lecturers’ strike in Manchester, Conservative MP Gordon Henderson of Sittingbourne and Sheppey submitted an Early Day Motion (EDM) to Parliament. In it he expressed dismay over the College’s “dealings with staff working for the Offender Learning Directorate,” noting that “TMC is forcing long-serving staff who teach in prisons to accept a reduction in salary of up to £7,500 per year, despite having assured them…no-one would lose any pay as a result of the proposed changes to their contracts.”
The EDM, which also expressed “regret” at the College’s de-recognition of UCU, has been signed by 12 MPs, nine of them Labour, though notably none are from Manchester constituencies. Lib Dem MP John Leech is the only local representative to have signed. However, on the back of mounting public pressure, Tavernor was forced back to the negotiating table. On 15 July, UCU members working for TMC in the Offender Learning Programme voted overwhelmingly for strike action.
Manchester City Council remained silent on the issue during the latest dispute. Despite numerous attempts by MULE, the Council would release no public statement. MPs Tony Lloyd and Graham Stringer have both refused to comment, despite rumours that the two had had a meeting with Tavernor following concerned letters from constituents. Neither have replied to persistent emails, and neither would confirm nor deny they had met with the Principal.
Staff from TMC say they are unsurprised, given the “very close relationship” between the College’s management team and the local Labour Party. Tavernor was Graham Stringer’s parliamentary election agent many years ago. Tavernor’s wife Rita is a sitting Labour councillor at the Town Hall. Sue Murphy, chair of TMC’s governing body, is also Deputy Leader of Manchester City Council under Sir Richard Leese. Two councillors are members of UCU. One is Leese’s wife, Joanne Green of Harpurhey, while the other is Lib Dem David Sandiford of Didsbury East. To MULE’s knowledge, however, neither of them has made any statement regarding the ongoing dispute.
UCU is considering further strikes in Manchester this September, if the College’s management refuses to back down, but many on the picket lines are worried that Tavernor and his team are determined to destroy the unions – whatever the financial and reputational cost to TMC. While some staff have already handed in their notice and are considering legal action against TMC, others say they will fight to the end, and expect they will also have to take the principalship to employment tribunals.
The next Ofsted assessment of TMC is coming up in a few months time. Teaching and support staff say that they will pull no punches when talking to inspectors. One member of staff called the struggle “the most significant attack on education since the bad old days of MANCAT. TMC actions could change the face of Adult Education forever.”
This article features in the print edition of The Mule – Issue 10, out now for FREE around Greater Manchester
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