French multinational company Sodexho has been forced to stop paying poverty wages to their canteen staff at Haggerston School. From September the canteen staff will be paid the London living wage and over the next year, their wages will increase to £9 an hour achieving equality with their fellow workers in another Hackney school.
The victory was achieved after a very successful one-day strike in
June. On the day of the strike the catering workers set up a picket
line and 35 teachers and 2 technicians refused to cross the picket
line. Sodexho attempted to smash the strike by bringing in managers
to run the kitchens. However, due to the support of the teachers,
most pupils had to be sent home.
The school is tied into a PFI contract with Sodexho who built a
canteen in return for a long-term contract. Sodexho then complained
that they weren’t making enough profit due to the government’s
healthy eating initiative. This was their justification for paying
their staff less than the minimum wage.
The teachers and technicians who refused to cross the picket line on
the day of the strike were threatened with disciplinary action by
the school’s head teacher. They were given letters instructing them
to attend individual interviews and warning them that they were
being investigated for misconduct or gross misconduct – which could
lead to dismissal.
The trade unionists received excellent support from across the
country from rank and file activists and other militants.
Unfortunately they were not supported by the National Union of
Teachers. The General Secretary, Steve Sinnott, wrote to the 35 NUT
members who had not crossed the picket line, warning them that if
they did it again they would be sacked! This was the fourth
repudiation letter NUT members had received during the dispute.
NUT members were however supported by the local branch of the union,
who agreed to represent all NUT members at these disciplinary
hearings. At the very first interview, the management were asked to
produce the disciplinary policy they were using. After a farcical
hour of ransacking filing cabinets, the management were unable to
produce the disciplinary policy or any record of one having been
adopted. The interviews were therefore cancelled.
Despite this embarrassment, the head teacher waited until the day
before the summer holidays to inform “the accused” that any threat
of disciplinary action had been withdrawn. Citing the resolution of
the dispute between the catering staff and Sodexho as well as the
need for good staff relations, rather than their own ineptitude,
staff were informed that no disciplinary action would be taken –
unless it happens again!
The victory of the catering staff and the solidarity shown by the
teachers and technicians at Haggerston shows that strike action can
win – even when we are fighting a multinational company involved in
privatisation. And whatever the anti-union laws might say, the
words “you don’t cross picket lines” remain fundamental to all
workers in struggle.