Oaks Park picket line 12 October, photo Rob Williams

Oaks Park picket line 12 October, photo Rob Williams   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

James Ivens, London Socialist Party

The intrepid strike at Oaks Park School in Redbridge, east London, exemplified many of the problems facing school unions today. A culture of bullying, Covid safety, rep victimisation, industrial leverage and political representation all came under the spotlight.

The National Education Union (NEU) took 33 strike days in half a year – probably the longest strike since the NEU’s formation in 2017.

Staff at the council-run secondary date problems back to 2016. A new head installed a top-down, punitive regime. Experienced workers left in droves.

Younger staff – viewed as cheaper and more pliable – entered a school with a culture of bullying and fear. This was in line with the national trend. Excessive workload and exam-factory conditions, under bosses who lead like sweatshop masters, not educators.

Almost every picket line at Oaks Park heard shocking tales of management bullying. Not just against workers, against students too.

There’s been a crying need for national action on the issues beneath this culture, like workload and pay, for years. Socialist Party members have long campaigned for this within the NEU.

‘Section 44’

In this context, reps led a successful fight against dangerous Covid reopening in January 2021. This was part of the national swell of ‘Section 44’ notices that forced Boris Johnson to U-turn and declare school opening unsafe.

Again in line with the national trend, management combed through both reps’ records looking for slip-ups to weaponise. The head (and behind her the borough council) saw a combative NEU as too big for its boots.

Bosses wanted revenge for the Section 44 victory. They launched actions against both NEU stewards within a week of each other.

Realising this was too blatant, they backed off from school rep and music teacher Bill Stockwell – but dismissed fellow rep and media teacher Keiran Mahon.

No sooner had the strike ended than they threatened Bill again, although lacking the confidence for formal action.

The NEU won a mandate for strikes on rep victimisation and bullying culture. Action began on Tuesday 15 June 2021.

In the summer term, two other staff who had lost their jobs after the Section 44 action won them back because of the strike. Bosses dragged their feet on everything else.

The national union maintained 100% strike pay and granted all requests for action. A small core of strikers fought an extraordinarily determined battle. But unfortunately, a number of NEU members who had voted for action, perhaps too affected by the culture of fear, didn’t join it.

Redbridge NEU explored every avenue for additional pressure. Strikers met with parents, leafleted feeder schools, lobbied the council, the MP, even London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Labour council

In the eyes of many workers, the Labour local authority should have had their backs. Instead, it gave tacit approval to a head’s union-busting behaviour, ignoring a whole dossier of evidence.

Local Labour MP Wes Streeting, former shadow schools minister, rallied behind the bully boss. The Labour mayor of London was silent.

Those lefts remaining in the ranks of Redbridge Labour did support the union. But one of the strike’s memorable picket songs, set to the Wild Rover, was telling. Strikers would vote for Labour – or at least Redbridge leader Jas Athwal – “nay never no more”. NEU national executive and Socialist Party member Louise Cuffaro got loud cheers when she called for independent, trade union candidates to stand against anti-worker Labour politicians.

In the end, the strike forced management to the table. Bosses conceded an independent inquiry into the ‘breakdown in industrial relations’. They are already trying to renege on that.

Strikers marched back in to supporters’ applause on 26 November. They asked that consistent supporters, specifically including the Socialist Party, be invited to the end of strike rally. The National Shop Stewards Network was a picket stalwart too.

Keiran Mahon has still not had justice. He’s due in court in February, the NEU supporting its victimised rep to the bitter end. Remedy Recruitment is under investigation for supplying strike-breaking agency labour.

This brave and resolute struggle exposed the appalling state of Oaks Park management. How many more Oaks Parks are out there? National trade union struggle, and a workers’ political alternative, would give confidence to even more workers to join the fight for education.