York College picket line York College picket line. Photo: John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland reports on an impressive example of trade-union activism in further education

UCU members at York College are taking two days of strike action this week in protest at an imposed 2.5% pay award by the management. On Monday about seventy branch members and supporters picketed outside the college. They were joined by Rachael Maskell, Labour MP for York Central and Bob Webb, a Labour councillor with special responsibility for education in the city. It was particularly heartening to see Rachael’s willingness to show her support publicly for the strikers in light of Keir Starmer’s recent attempts to discourage Labour MPs visiting picket lines. Councillor Webb commented:

‘These are not strikes that are taking place in the traditional sectors. We’re not talking about people who are by any account militant. We’re talking about educators, people who really want to be in, doing their job. But quite frankly, we all need to be paid enough to live, thrive and survive.

Indispensable

The picket line was creative, lively and in good spirits and received conspicuous support from pedestrians and drivers going past (and also included a vocal canine contingent). A quick straw poll of those present revealed over half had never taken strike action before. Determined grassroots organisation has seen UCU membership at the college grow from under ninety at the start of the year to almost 130 at present. The branch is a textbook example of how consistent and militant leadership can pay off in terms of recruitment and mobilisation. On six occasions this year, both online and in person, lecturers and support staff at the college have indicated their willingness to take industrial action. Bizarrely, management decided to close the college on the first day of action in an attempt to negate the impact of the strike. The effect, however, was only to underline how indispensable lecturers are to the functioning of the college.

Derisory

Negotiations between UCU and senior managers started last January, but the latter have stuck rigidly to their original 2.5% offer, which is, of course, hopelessly inadequate in light of the cost-of-living crisis and with inflation running at double-digit figures for most of the year. UCU analysts have observed that college finances are healthy and that a pay award in excess of 2.5% should be feasible.

The government’s deal of 6.5% with schoolteachers over the summer only served to harden the determination of York College staff not to accept the derisory offer from January. It is worth noting that FE teaching has the highest rate of staff loss of any public-service profession with less than 25% of educators still in the profession after ten years, that FE teachers are paid on average 21% less than schoolteachers and that the 2.5% offer falls way below the offer to schoolteachers in the same time period, let alone the 11.6% inflation rate over the year. UCU member at York College Hamish Brown noted:

‘Nobody wants to strike, we’re doing this because we feel we have no choice. We’ve been offered an absolutely appalling pay deal between January and December this year. The government has just announced there’s going to be more money for college lecturers. I think the general public assume that we get the same as teachers do.

UCU members will be striking again on Friday 15 September. Please send messages of support to: https://twitter.com/YorkCollegeUCU

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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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