15 December 2014

Report from Special FE Sector Conference, Saturday 13th December

You may be aware the recent special FE Sector Conference held to discuss national bargaining and pay campaigning strategy. The conference was requisitioned by twenty branches with the intention of overturning your Further Education Committee’s (FEC) pay strategy. Attendance at this hastily called and ill-timed conference was understandably low – only 75 delegates were present. It was very difficult for many branches to organise a meeting and elect a delegate to attend at this time of year.

The FEC’s pay campaign strategy was summarised in a motion setting out the following elements, assuming that the current ballot delivers a Yes vote:

1)   The campaign to be launched with one day of strike action,

2)   To be followed by targeted action of one or two branches in each region, supported financially by the rest of the region. These targeted branches to be selected, with their agreement, from those that have not implemented AoC pay awards and/or colleges where Principals have awarded themselves above inflation pay rises, and/or whose Principals are the highest earners.

3)   Another national strike to coincide with a mass lobby of Parliament.

4)   The pay campaign to be framed around UCU’s new Charter for Further and Adult Education.

Unfortunately a motion rejecting this and advocating no action in the current pay round (even if the ballot delivers a Yes vote) and a different strategy without national strike action was passed by 40 votes to 34, which meant the FEC strategy consequently fell.

The FEC pay strategy now consists of:

1) Whatever the outcome of the pay ballot there will be no national or targeted strike action over pay in the current pay round.

2) UCU will put in a national claim for 2015/16 and will send a template to branches asking them to approach their management asking them to pay the award.

3) Branches can opt to add to this a local claim on other issues like workload.

4) Campaign over the 2015/16 pay claim (without any planned national industrial action) and ‘learn the lessons’ of that campaign to shape the 2016/17 pay campaign.

Many members will be deeply concerned about the effects of this motion which in practice rules out any national industrial action over pay until, possibly, 2016/17. Our members’ pay has been cut by 17% over the past five years. They cannot wait for another three years before we might start fighting collectively as a national union over pay.

The strategy adopted on Saturday is a disaster for a number of reasons.

First, the idea of identifying which colleges have not implemented pay awards and targeting those colleges for sustained action is fine. But it is very difficult to deliver this unless those branches feel that they are part of a national campaign backed by national action. If this is not the case the sense of isolation for many branches involved with such action would be very serious. That’s why targeted action must be connected to a national campaign of strike action if it is to be successful.

Without a programme of national strike action the strategy above will leave less organised branches unable to use the strength of the national union to lift themselves up to the levels of more organised ones. The clear danger of encouraging branches to bargain on pay locally without a national action framework will be to allow managements to play off our pay against working conditions. This would leave us in the worst of both worlds; branches either achieving a small pay increase for longer contact hours or a draconian observation policy, perhaps: or receiving a pay cut for a less draconian observation policy.

Rather than levelling us all up and engaging in shared action, as national action can do, local action on pay would lead to a far greater unevenness across the sector in respect of pay scales and terms and conditions.

Second, the significance of national action can be measured not only in terms of the impact it has on pay negotiations but also in terms of the impact it has on the ability of branches to be more organised and effective at local level.

Members currently face an avalanche of attacks locally. Local disputes involving industrial action over these issues will be paramount if UCU is to defend its members in the colleges.  Although the employers claim these attacks are necessary due to local difficulties in fact they flow from a government-led attack on funding.  UCU cannot turn the tide of these attacks college by college. Nor will we be able to casework our way out of this crisis.  National action allows the union to feel more confident and recruit new members.  This is turn allows branches to renew themselves with more confidence to take on these local attacks.

It is UCU’s policy to restore pay to the proper rate for the job, retain national pay scales, and deliver national binding agreements with the employers through effective national bargaining. Many members will recognise that there can be no short cuts to achieving this.

Saturday’s decision is disastrous not only for defending members’ pay and promoting these policy aims but also for those colleges which are currently in dispute with their local managements like Barnsley, CNWL and Lambeth. As the delegate from Lambeth said, ‘this decision will feel like a kick in the teeth to our members’.

There will be meetings in the New Year to bring together all those angered by the overturning of a potentially effective pay strategy and its replacement with something inherently dangerous and ineffective, and to discuss how we can get our union back on track.

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