The UCU Further Education conference that met in Harrogate last Saturday was exactly what was needed to boost the spirits of lecturers fighting redundancy and attacks on wages and pensions. The mood was very combative, despite some harrowing accounts of swingeing cuts reports John Westmoreland.
Massive attack on Further Education
The scale of the attack on FE is completely unjustified. FE lecturers are underpaid and give massive value to their communities. Clearly a big part of the attack on FE is about breaking the union. Newcastle College has huge reserves, pays the principal a quarter of a million pounds, yet wants to make 250 lecturers redundant. Lecturers at Barnsley College face 25 per cent redundancies and the degrading and casualisation of staff who stand to lose about £13,000 a year if they are reduced to associate lecturer status - and all because the principal wants to build some flashy new buildings.
The UCU FE leadership has led one of the best fight backs against the cuts that any union has produced. UCU marched with the students over tuition fees, and led the protest against the cuts in Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) alongside the NUS. The students at Barnsley College have offered fantastic solidarity to their lecturers by supporting picket lines, demonstrating, and just last week blockading an entrance to the college that warranted the mobilisation of the riot police. This is clearly one reason why the Tories would love to see UCU broken. If they are successful, then the effect on communities promises to be devastating too.
Defend colleges and communities
When Cameron says that the cuts in the public sector will lead to job creation in the private sector it is simply a lie. There are currently 750,000 young people out of work, and the attacks on FE will make it worse. The FE conference lambasted the pathetic apprenticeships that the government is touting as narrow, cheap and unworthy of the name. Tory apprenticeships often mean getting paid less than the minimum wage and making the tea and sweeping up. If Barnsley College moves on to associate lecturer status for the bulk of their staff, students will get just one hour a week with a subject specialist. The logic of dumbing down on this scale is absurd. How will British firms compete if their workers are given the minimum in skills and education?
One of the best discussions was the call to defend ESOL. Branches across the piece spoke of devastating cuts that will prevent immigrants and asylum seekers gaining the language skills to be able to take part in society. Cameron is waging war on multiculturalism as his racist speech before the EDL march in Luton last February proved. Speakers who denounced Cameron’s racism were cheered to the echo - and this is the key to the fight back.
It is absolutely certain that the UCU branches that have done best in defending jobs are the campaigning branches - over EMA, ESOL, equalities and war - that have lifted the idealism of the membership and politicised the defence of FE. One successful defence of jobs recently was at Chesterfield College where a proposed ballot and an active campaign in the college and community, led by socialists, saw the management drop their plan to make lecturers redundant.
All out on 30 June
Despite the successes we have seen, UCU members are having to fight branch by branch against job losses and deskilling. This is why we have to build flat out for the strike in defence of pensions on 30 June. If teachers, lecturers, civil servants and local government workers can stop work for one day over pensions there is a good argument that we can build coordinated strike action to stop the cuts. Campaigning should obviously take place around every staff room, but we need to involve the students and the communities too. The government has declared class war and we need maximum unity to topple them.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.