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Leeds University UCU banner February 2020| Photo: Alarichall | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 | cropped from original | license linked at bottom of article

Leeds University UCU banner February 2020| Photo: Alarichall | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 | cropped from original | license linked at bottom of article

As the union fightback rises nationally, ten days of strike action in Further Education marks a significant return to industrial action in the sector, argues Tom Whittaker.

Twenty-nine Further Education colleges in England are set to embark on up to ten days of strike action over the next four weeks. UCU members at nineteen colleges will walk out on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week in a dispute over pay, with a further ten colleges joining the action the week after.

The action was announced by the Further Education Committee of UCU on Monday 12 September. This felt like a bold and decisive stance, given the period of national mourning that had just been announced, and it is one that has met a very positive response from members.

UCU has described the action, by a proportion of its FE membership, as ‘unprecedented’, and it is certainly the case that in the all the years of cuts and job losses in FE since 2009, such sustained strike action by so many FE branches has not been proposed. 

The current pay ‘recommendation’ by the Association of Colleges – the umbrella body for FE college employers - is for 2.5%, well below the current Retail Price Index measure of inflation, which stands at 12.3%.  Moreover, it is not binding on individual colleges, with only a minority of colleges tending actually to implement the AOC’s recommendations.

The background

Since 2009, UCU estimates that college lecturers’ pay has lost 35% of its value. On average, it lags around £9000 behind that of school teachers. At the same time, many FE colleges have also faced successive rounds of redundancies since 2009.

Despite these attacks on pay, jobs, and terms and conditions, there has only been a very limited fightback in FE. There were important local strikes at Tower Hamlets College in 2009, and Lambeth College in 2014, but these proved the exception not the rule.

For the most part, the misery heaped on the sector throughout the years of austerity has been endured, rather than actively resisted, and the 2016 Trade Union Act has made any sort of national action much more difficult to achieve.

However, there have been recent signs that things are changing. An impressive pay offer was won at the City Capital Group of colleges following strike action there last year, and strikes at a number of colleges in the north west of England have won some significant concessions.

Strategy

With the cost of living starting to spiral this year, UCU embarked on a bolder attempt than in previous years to get a national pay campaign going in FE. There are two obvious obstacles to this. Firstly, the ballot thresholds imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act make winning a national ballot difficult. Secondly, ever since FE colleges were removed from the control of Local Education Authorities under John Major’s government in the 1990s (a process called incorporation), they have had the ability to set their own pay and conditions, meaning that there is no meaningful national bargaining in the sector.

In March, UCU began a consultative ballot of all FE colleges with a view to launching as many local pay disputes as possible. It was hoped that the disruption of pay negotiations and strikes at a local level would pressure the employers to return to national bargaining. Also, a disaggregated ballot enables a sufficient number of FE college branches to take action, so that something approaching a genuine national pay campaign can be achieved.

Dilemmas

Following the consultative ballot in March, 33 branches were formally balloted in June, and 29 of those achieving the threshold for action are now set to strike from next week.

At my own college, an initial slight shock about the ten days of action announced by the FEC is hardening into a mood of determination to make the strike as effective as possible. Our emergency branch meeting to discuss the strike was the largest in the college for almost a decade. Many members who usually only have limited engagement with the union are coming forward and volunteering to get on the picket line. After years of feeling downtrodden, there is something of a new spirit of defiance.

Yet the strike also faces difficulties, in that it is only a minority of FE colleges involved. This means that the pressure will be on to conclude local deals that may often fall far short of the 10% pay increase demanded by UCU. Our branch meeting, for instance, also saw a debate as to whether our pay demands might jeopardise the college’s financial viability. This is obviously the line being pushed by many colleges’ senior managements in response to the strike.

These are real dilemmas. In a national strike, you can seriously go after the government for more funding for the sector as a whole, whereas with a minority of branches out, the aim becomes getting the best local deals possible. What is won locally will depend on the strength of the union’s action at a particular college, but it will also be shaped by how financially successful the college has been in a highly marketised and competitive sector. 

Therefore, UCU members will have to fight hard to prevent the pernicious logic of incorporation from asserting itself in our dispute and to press our just demands resolutely.

Picket lines

However, with Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng declaring a ‘class-war budget’ of tax cuts for the rich and new restrictions on trade unions, it just feels good to be joining the fightback alongside other unions such as the RMT and CWU.

Hopefully, strikes by UCU members in FE colleges can help play a galvanising role as many other unions move towards ballots over pay. The results of the national aggregated ballot amongst UCU members in HE will no doubt be of particular interest to FE members.

Ultimately, the restoration of collective national bargaining in FE is needed, and colleges need to be brought back under proper local democratic control, so that they can most effectively serve the communities that need them. None of this will be achieved without a more active FE membership in UCU, one capable of standing up for its own interests and also able to fight for an expansive vision of what college education can really offer to our society.

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