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  • Published in Conference 2013

A report on political trade unionism in action at a six form college in York

A political approach to organising in my workplace (a sixth form college), using Counterfire.org creatively, has allowed us to strengthen the union and create a real left in the college.

York College staff and students are regularly invited to read articles on the Counterfire website and a good many have taken it up and have given very favourable feedback. We now have three members of staff who write regularly for Counterfire on a range of topics, from education to history, to international politics and welfare. We can clearly identify a periphery with which we can work.

There have been a number of off-shoots from this approach. By negotiating with management in a political/educational manner, rather than as simple trade unionists, we have made surprising gains. Our policy on Observations on Teaching and Learning (internal Ofsted) are actually quite progressive, and our arguments on educational philosophy have given us a lot more respect across the college. The most important thing is that we have a meaningful dialogue with students as well as staff, because students see us as clearly on their side.

The dialogue with students makes us try harder to fight. I think York College is a positive example of political trade unionism, although we should add that we probably suffer from conservatism in terms of the new things we try. This became clear when a group of students – who had read the articles on Counterfire around the Gaza atrocities in November – decided to form a Stop the War group. About 20 students attend and they are delighted that John Rees is coming in January to do a talk. We need to ask more of the students, because going back to the November 30th 2011 demonstration, we get the most exciting results from them. For example, last year we got 2 Counterfire speakers invited to the college – James Meadway on the crisis and John Rees on Egypt - and the meetings were packed. Students came out buzzing.

We need to be more imaginative about what we do on the one hand, and involve wider groups on the other. I think sometimes someone from outside needs to come in and say ‘why don’t you ...?’ to force the pace a bit. For example, we should have done something along the lines of the Emily Wilding Davison meetings that have been going well. We should get students who read articles on the site to write some things. So far two students have written articles, but there should be more. We need a more visible presence as Counterfire through writing leaflets, holding meetings and using film clips to put on the website. I think we will grow spectacularly when we recruit students who begin to use Counterfire as a tool to fight with. A relationship between comrades is better than teacher/student.

Video made with Doncaster comrades during Aslef strike

John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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