|Issue 12 - May 1973|
|Victory Against Victimisation|
joined the staff of Northumberland College of Education on 1st September
1972, as lecturer in English and Resident Tutor; he took up the post
of Senior Resident Tutor on 1st January 1973.
On the 21st February, the first day of action in the National Union of Students Grants Campaign, Whitley joined the demonstration in Newcastle and spoke from the platform at the rally.
On Monday 12th March, two days before the next NUS day of action, the Principal, Eileen Churchill, issued a memo "to advise all members of the College staff that they were expected to be present at college on Wednesday to meet their normal work commitments". Whitley had no teaching commitments on Wednesday morning. So he approached Mick Marston, the Students Union President, to ask how he could support the student action. Marston asked him to join the picket line which was being mounted at the entrance to the college, and Whitley was there for most of the day.
At 2.00pm on Friday 16th March Churchill told Whitley that she wanted to see him later that afternoon; he asked why but a reason was refused. About an hour later, he was summoned to her office, where Churchill read him a statement saying: "I am concerned that you did not accept my advice of Tuesday evening that you should undertake your work as a member of the teaching staff of the college on Wednesday morning of this week. I have advised the Chairman of the governors of this situation and that in view of the fact that you have shown yourself to be a person on whom I may not rely I can no longer consider you to be a suitable person to hold a post of special trust in the college. I am relieving you of all your duties as Senior Resident Tutor as from today."
The NUT took up the case immediately, telling the Clerk to the Governors that the dismissal was "entirely improper". The college Students Union passed a motion which read: "The union is totally opposed to the Principal's actions in the attempted sacking of Mr Whitley and that the union continues to recognise Mr Whitley as Senior Resident Tutor".
Militant students at once began to argue for action to reinstate Whitley. Opposition to this came from three groups: right-wing students, apolitical students and part of the Liberal wing. Many of the right-wing students welcomed his dismissal, pointing out his membership of the International Marxist Group. They and the apoliticals were also horrified at the prospect of strikes and occupations, claiming that it would get "the college a bad name" and "affect their future careers". Some of the liberals claimed that the college Principal had acted in an unconstitutional way and thus the attempt to reinstate him should be conducted in a purely legal way.
The militants rejected these views, pointing out that Whitley's dismissal would strengthen the hand of the Principal and encourage the most reactionary lecturers in their attempts to strengthen college discipline. They explained that by occupying the administration they would not only disrupt the college but encourage students and lecturers in other colleges to take supporting action. Furthermore, only such action could inspire any campaign amongst the unionists who were hardly likely to act in defence of Whitley if students of the college were accepting his victimisation.
The position was fully justified in practice. Even though only a minority of students occupied the administration block it evoked messages of support from over 30 colleges - the universities had already closed for the vacation - and received the support of the NUS executive, backed by a resolution at the NUS conference at Exeter. Academics throughout the country signed petitions demanding his reinstatement, many of which called on the NUT and ATTI to 'black' the college if his dismissal was confirmed.
Meanwhile, a Steve Whitley Defence Committee had been formed from local friends and supporters. Recognising that some members of the board of governors had connections with the trade unions and local Labour parties, the Defence Committee campaigned inside the local unions and Labour parties for support. Branches of NALGO, NUPE etc went on record for his reinstatement. The Newcastle Trades Council carried a motion of support and circulated its affiliated organisations on the case. The South Shields Trades Council not only came out in clear support but sent their banner and pickets to the Board of Governors meeting.
Some people had argued that this activity might alienate some of the more 'progressive' members of the Board. But the Defence correctly saw that what would move these people was an open demonstration that the trade union and Labour movement would not tolerate any complicity on their part in Whitley's projected victimisation.
By refusing to let the case be tied to legal manoeuvres alone, and thus isolated in the rooms of secret committee meetings, the Defence Committee ensured that the maximum pressure was brought to bear against the authorities and thus laid the base for Whitley's reinstatement.
The meeting of the college Board of Governors of 9th April decided to lift the suspension and to reinstate him to his former post as senior resident tutor. A fine of one day's pay was imposed on him, presumably as 'punishment' for his presence on the picket line on the 14th March.
Although the dispute was resolved within the official channels, that is at the board meeting, the overwhelming support from students and workers emphasised that to take on Steve Whitley was to take on the entire student and labour movements.
This reinstatement clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of joint action between all sections of the working-class alongside students. For the staff and the students of Northumberland College - the victory is very tangible - there will be no return to Miss Churchill's despotism; for trade unionists, who're being attacked on all fronts, to defend an isolated teacher is to defend the rights of the labour movement at large. Solidarity has won the day!