Schoolworkers at Harbinger Primary School in east London have suffered a major setback in their dispute over management bullying.
The National Education Union's most senior unelected official, Assistant General Secretary Avis Gilmore, and the so-called NEU Action Committee withdrew union support for the Harbinger workers' strikes, hobbling the union group, on the eve of their long awaited grievance hearing.
Just a few days before their planned strike on 6 June, Gilmore agreed to accept an offer from the headteacher's union behind the backs of school workers. The same offer had already been rejected by the Harbinger union group weeks ago.
The school union group first raised concerns about management bullying and incompetence back in November. At this November meeting they also voted unanimously to strike in an indicative ballot. The union insisted on a further three indicative ballots (all of which returned 100% yes votes) before it finally released the official ballot over the Easter holidays.
Despite the fact many workers were abroad on holiday during the official ballot, the union group returned a 100% yes vote on an 87% turnout. From the original 17 members who submitted the initial complaint, the union group grew to 43 members, with density over 90%.
The three day strike that took place before half term saw picket lines of over 70 people and a lively demonstration to the town hall of over 100. They received over 250 solidarity messages from activists and other union groups, including one from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. They had good support from parents.
All union members picketed, all union members attend the meetings, and all were active participants in the dispute.
After the May half term they had a plan of escalating action starting with one day on Thursday 6 June, two days the following week, three days the week after, etc.
48 hours before the 6 June strike, and the day before the long-awaited grievance hearing, the NEU Action Committee sent word via a Regional Official that the union bureaucracy was withdrawing official support for the strikes.
Emboldened by the union's withdrawal of support, the governors and the local authority concluded the grievance hearing the following day by finding headteacher, Andy Smith, had no case to answer.
This came as no surprise to workers in the school, who have been ignored and maligned for many months, and had been undermined by their own union leaders at the crucial moment. The NEU did not bother to send a trained rep to the grievance hearing. and left it to the school workers to present the grievance themselves.
The only concession to the workers' case was an acknowledgement from governors that the NEU's three day strike showed some problems with the head's leadership skills. But governors were deaf to the suggestion that bullying, lying, child safety concerns and incompetence were reasons why 43 devoted and committed school workers withdrew their labour.
In the minds of the governors, the reasons for the strike remain a mystery. The governors have nothing to say about the fact that 43 members of staff have one version of reality, and the head has peddled an entirely different version of reality.
On the balance of probability, the evidence points to the conclusion that the head is a liar - and yet the governors did not see this as a barrier to him leading the school and felt no compunction to establish the truth out of the contradictory claims made to the investigation.
Workers are now battling the union bureaucracy to salvage some dignity.
There is a big question mark over how the decision to withdraw union support was made without any discussion with workers in the school. The official line from Gilmore is that the head has apologised, agreed to undertake additional training as advised in the independent investigation, and agreed to mediation.
She says the official demands of the strike were for mediation and for meaningful consultation on changes at the school. Given the head's agreement to mediation the strike can be considered a success.
Gilmore and the Action Committee would have been aware of several problems with this line if they had bothered to speak to the union members at the school. First, the demands of the union group were not for "mediation and meaningful consultation on change". The union group passed a motion in March setting out a long list of demands including: "the head commits to stop shouting at staff, belittling staff, and talking about staff in an unprofessional way".
The demands were designed specifically to ensure someone in management, perhaps the head himself, acknowledged the reality of the head's wrongdoing and took measures to make amends. These demands were made public and formed the basis of negotiations at ACAS. The Action Committee, or people close to the Action Committee, appear to have made up their own (much weaker) demands behind the backs of the workers in the school.
Second, even by the low standards of the Action Committee's demands, 50% of the demands have not been met. There is no commitment to consult on changes.
Third, the union group demanded that the head engage in anger management therapy and equalities training, and that there was a system in place to ensure basic competency. The head has not agreed to any of these demands.
He has promised to engage in training as advised by the "independent investigation". As the head is well aware, the independent investigation did not recommend any training. So in her wilful ignorance, Gilmore has negotiated for him to do precisely nothing. And given legitimacy to an investigation that the union group had denounced as deeply prejudicial and biased.
Fourth, the union group rejected the offer because the head's half-apology was really no apology at all. The union group felt that mediation was pointless as long as the head continued to lie and malign members of staff.
The head and the LEA needed to show at least a nodding acknowledgment of reality before staff would agree to any mediation process.
Fifth, the offer Gilmore accepted was rejected by the union group before the strikes had taken place. Even if she thought she knew better than the people who work at the school, the Action Committee could have saved both workers and the community considerable disruption by insisting they accepted the bosses' offer prior to the three day strike. Why allow them to strike and then accept a deal that was already on the table?
That the strikes were first allowed to take place and then stopped suggests that the strikes were effective. The LEA and the head clearly scrambling around for a way out of this dispute.
Their first response would have been to try and find a weakness in the union and conclude the strike without any concession to the workers. There was no weakness to be found in the 43 union members who were strong and resolute. However, management were successful in finding willing scabs and toadies occupying high office within the NEU, only too happy to obliged when the NAHT (National Association of Head Teachers) came calling.
The deal between Gilmore and management was brokered by the NAHT. The actions of the NAHT have gone well beyond a union's duty to defend a member.
Just before the strikes a letter from Matthew Waterfall, the NAHT regional official, went out to all NAHT members in Tower Hamlets (about 75% of heads) stating the Harbinger dispute was the work of "a handful of members" with "no stated aims" intent only on "hounding out" the head and "ruining his future career". Effectively, Waterfall ran a campaign to blacklist striking workers within the borough.
After his letter any head would think twice before hiring an ex-Harbinger worker. If the LEA, or indeed the NEU, were serious about their duty of care to their workers, then they should sue the NAHT for defamation.
Waterfall was once a left-wing activist within Hackney Unison. His role in the NAHT's vicious campaign is a stark reminder of how principled left-wingers can so easily become corrupted by the power and money of the union machine. His corruption is particularly acute because he works for a bosses' union.
The experience of the Harbinger workers has provoked anger within the union movement. Members of the rank and file organisation, Education Solidarity Network, have pushed for an explanation of Gilmore's undemocratic decision, and there is hope that the union will reverse her decision and allow the workers to continue their battle for truth and respect.
There are motions going through NEU branches calling for an independent investigation into the decision-making process. The NEU can have no claim to be a member-led union while unelected officials and distant committees have the power to shut down workers' action without any discussion with the workers involved.
We might question why the Action Committee exists at all. Decisions about how to conduct a strike should reside solely with the workers taking action. Why does the union need a separate committee?
At their demonstration on 27 May workers and parents raised the call "What do we want? To be listened to. When do we want it? Now!"
The Harbinger dispute shows that in 21st century Britain, the working-class has to take extraordinary measures to be listened to not only within the workplace, or within supposedly democratic bodies like the local authority, but also within our own unions.
Their struggle has revealed the contempt and indifference that people above a certain pay grade have for workers. It has revealed gross double standards that govern the lives of bosses and workers. The head, the local authority and the governors have are united in turning a deaf ear to Harbinger workers.
Through boneheaded stupidity or malign intent, Avis Gilmore and the NEU action committee have acted in precisely the same way. Having raised concerns about one bully, they have united against them a conspiracy of indifference extending from the headteachers office to the national union headquarters.
Nothing has changed for Harbinger workers. Their working conditions are still intolerable. Staff are struggling under extraordinary levels of stress with a head who feels emboldened to continue with his bullying behaviour.
The Harbinger workers have shown us that workers have a higher moral code than the liars and bullies, the scabs and the toadies that are currently in power.
It is in the interests of us all that the bosses and bureaucrats who arrogantly swagger around Harbinger School, the Town Hall and NEU headquarters are humbled.
* The printed paper has an abridged version of this article.