English language teachers - Standing together and delivering a victory

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"In the space of 2 weeks a group of EL (English language) teachers joined a trade union, won our pay dispute with the multi-national we work for, and started planning to unionise the EL sector and campaign against zero hours contracts." - We are delighted to bring you this account from Aideen Elliott of her and her colleagues' recent victory against proposed wage cuts at EF Language School in Dublin.

"This is significant for a number of reasons. Most EL teachers are precarious workers on zero hours contracts of a fixed term (in our case 3 months) so we have no job security and the work is of a transient nature. Zero hours contracts mean that workers who dispute with management are wide open to having their hours cut and their contracts not renewed.

However none of this stopped the entire staff from getting organised when on Friday 16 May EF International, the world’s leading language school centre, and official supplier of language to the Olympic games’ announced 10% and 15% pay cuts to teachers, depending on our current rate.

The director told us in individual meetings that EF had to make these cuts because due to currency fraud in some Dublin schools, the Venezuelan government were no longer giving student visas for Ireland and that this had hit EF hard. We didn’t buy it. For one, EF International is rich. Also fewer students means fewer classes and since we’re paid by the class we are already taking a hit for the company. In addition, we’re coming into summer and as everyone knows that means booming business for EL schools in Dublin. As teachers we provide the service that students pay for. We’re not selling a product EF have made; we are the product – we stand in front of classes and make it happen. This makes it difficult to stomach when we know how much the students pay and how little we make, we can practically see the cash floating by us on its way to the company’s Swiss headquarters. We’re already only paid by the hours we teach, despite all the preparation and admin work we do, and the money isn’t good. We basically felt that we had nothing to lose and were in complete agreement that none of us would accept any pay cut.

This put us in a strong position to act. But EF didn’t recognise this. As soon as we got a chance to meet on Monday we wrote a letter to EF to say we unanimously rejected the cuts. We gave the letter signed by all of us to the director and said that we would not do any more individual meetings but wanted to be treated as a collective. Her response was to invite each of us to an individual meeting. A week of back and forth followed, us joining the Independent Workers Union, them refusing to recognise trade unions, us inviting management to meet us as a group, them responding requesting individual meetings.

Conscious that for many of us time was running out as the 3 month contracts were coming to an end we were anxious to act fast. We got great advice and support from our own trade union and from others in the trade union movement. We discussed our options and decided to ballot for strike action. This was carried unanimously and planned for the following Tuesday. We also organised a protest for the Thursday of that week which a lot of people supported and publicised.
On Tuesday morning we served the director with strike notice. That same day a teacher did an interview with the Irish Times and the journalist called our director for a comment. By that evening we’d all been invited to meet, as a group, with the director and an EF executive who was flying in from Switzerland to discuss our proposed strike action. This in itself felt like a small victory.

On Wednesday at this meeting the EF exec started off by apologising to us. She gave a long explanation for the cuts (Venezuela, rent increase) and also for why EF really didn’t want us to strike (the bother of flying in EF teachers from other schools). She finished by saying that EF would retract the proposed cuts and we could keep our current rates of pay.

It wasn’t enough for us. EF had issued each of us with a letter warning that if we didn’t accept the cuts this could result in fewer hours for us. When we asked management what guarantee we could have that they wouldn’t just give all our hours to the cheaper new teachers we didn’t get a straight answer. This was one reason we decided we’d go ahead with the protest despite them meeting our first demand. Another was that we didn’t want to be working alongside other teachers getting such rubbish pay and we felt that EF was dragging down the conditions in the sector.

On Thursday just an hour and a half before the planned protest EF management gave us each a signed letter informing us that they would ‘withdraw the proposal’ for all wage cuts, ours and future teachers, and they ‘hoped’ that we’d call off our protest and strike action…basically that we’d won!

We decided to cancel the protest and suspend (not cancel) the strike, pending negotiations with EF.

Since then we’ve been in touch with the English Language students whose schools closed down leaving them high and dry and we’re talking about working together for improvements in the sector for workers and students. We know that there are lots of teachers getting screwed over in this sector and we’re hoping to link in with some of them and have some more successes. We’re also realising now more than ever how zero hours contracts need to be abolished.

Our spirits couldn’t be higher and we’re all excited about working together and confident about what we can achieve with collective action."