A national strategy to win real national bargaining in FE.

UCU is currently consulting branch officers and the wider membership in FE on how the union can develop effective national bargaining. This consultation process derives from a motion carried by the FE sector conference in May 2014, which argued

to consider a strategic and systematic approach to persuade the employers back to a position where nationally binding agreements look a sensible proposition.

This discussion is a welcome one. Below is a contribution to that debate.

UCU officials have forwarded to branch officers in advance of the four consultation meetings beginning on the 21st November in Darlington and ending in London on the 4th December, a briefing document entitled Developing meaningful collective bargaining in England. This was tabled at an FEC meeting and involves a phased approach to developing a strategy intended to bring about meaningful and effective national bargaining. It proposes:

  • Phase one to look at what the differing pay agreements are across FE and determine how many colleges actually implemented AoC recommendations.
  • Phase two to develop a Bargaining information system. This involved looking at college finances, staffing information, including identifying any variance of local scales from the 8-point scale and the national pay spine. Over the summer, work was undertaken to develop such a system and obtain the data required. The financial data that colleges report has been accessed and a system built to allow easy analysis.
  • Phase three: implementing the new approach based on the findings and research made by UCU.

    However, phase three is where the problems arise and dangers begin in the approach now being proposed by the union.

    For years many UCU FE members have argued that the national bargaining framework we currently with the AoC is window dressing. We get insulting offer after insulting offer while our members’ pay is cut year on year. Even where, on occasion, additional agreements on associated issues are made between the AoC and the unions represented on the National Joint Forum (NJF), the majority of employers refuse to implement them.

    In the past when some negotiators have complained about this the accepted wisdom of the national union was that whilst clearly it was not an acceptable state of affairs the union has to be careful not to push too hard out of fear that the employers will use this as an excuse to break up the NJF and stop meeting and negotiating on anything on a national level.

    Yet this was never a realistic assessment of the employers’ position. A recent AoC survey revealed that 85% of the employers want to keep the NJF, but they also want to retain the right not to implement recommendations. A classic case of having your cake and eating it. The survey does, however, reveal the employers’ fear of UCU at a local level running riot with pay demands and campaigns if there was no NJF. Clearly in some areas of the country this fear is unfounded but in others it is not. Significant resistance could be mounted at a local level over a range of issues including pay.

But the bottom line here is that UCU have, in the proposals for pay bargaining now on the table, replaced an unrealistic assessment of the employers’ strengths with a pessimistic assessment of members’ ability or willingness to support national action on pay.

National and local strategies

In the UCU briefing paper it rightly argues that,

It is important that we keep a coherent and co- ordinated national approach; there seems little point in replacing a free-for-all by some employers with a similar approach by our branches.

Unfortunately if the strategy outlined in the briefing paper becomes policy it would leave the union without any effective national strategy and leave the less organised branches open to wider attacks.

UCU’s proposals include:

  1. A national claim to be submitted to AoC. This should include the usual cost of living claim. As ever, the intention should be to agree a joint claim with the other unions, if possible.
  2. A national template for the above claim should be made available to branches via their regional offices. The template will enable branches to submit the same cost of living increase for uplift to the local pay points. Additionally, the template will enable branches to submit additional items in the claim. This could include references to the local pay scales to pursue progress towards the recommended national scales or to select an issue of local importance
  3. Members should be involved in the selection of local issues to be the subject of local ‘national plus’ claims.
  4. National campaigning on pay will continue.

At the same time as these discussions are happening, supporters of the Independent Broad Left, a faction within the union, are campaigning for a special sector conference to overturn the national ballot on pay for the current pay round and instead “focus on implementing an effective strategy for 2015/16” (although no strategy is actually proposed!) and then implement the lessons learnt from that campaign for the 2016/17 pay claim. Their strategy is the logical conclusion to the strategy outlined by UCU nationally – abandon national industrial action and concentrate on building local campaigns on pay, casualisation, observation policies and workload.

This would be a disastrous response to a discredited and ineffectual national bargaining framework. National industrial action allows the whole union to respond to cuts in pay. Of course not every branch will be successful in getting all of its members out. These branches need to be identified before the strike and support offered.

National strike action over pay has always gained us something. Even the last national day of strike action on the 3rd December 2013 forced the employer to drop any strings to any improved offer and raise the offer by half a percent to 1%. Clearly nowhere near enough but it does demonstrate that national strike action can and does have an impact. The problem is that the leadership of the FEC last year refused to follow it up with further action and once again we were left with taking an isolated one day strike, which is understandably unpopular with members.

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

Clearly members face an avalanche of attacks at the local level. Local disputes involving industrial action over these issues will be paramount if UCU is going to be able to defend its members in the colleges. Although these attacks might be presented as being necessary due to local difficulties they flow from a government-led attack on funding. UCU will not and 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 the local attacks.

The idea of identifying which colleges have not implemented pay awards and target those colleges for sustained action is fine. But it is very difficult to do this unless those branches feel that they are part of a national campaign. If this is not the case the sense of isolation for many branches involved with such action is a real one. 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 UCU’s strategy outlined 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 try and bargain for pay deals at a local level without a national action framework will be to allow managements to play off pay against working conditions. This situation 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 cut in pay for a less draconian observation policy.

Rather than levelling us all up, 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.

Of course there is no guarantee that national strike action running alongside local targeted action will lead to levelling up but such an approach makes it more possible because any victory we might win can then be generalised across the whole union far more effectively.

National, targeted and sustained action can bring about a nationally binding bargaining framework

The new FEC since Congress has in fact developed a realistic and dynamic campaigning strategy to arrest the decline in members’ pay, timed to ensure that this year the union is tactically in the driving seat. The campaign involves:

  • To ballot for the national strike action alongside other unions where possible;
  • To develop targeted strike action to involve one or two colleges in each region (selected on the basis of the highest paid principals) and supported by twinning arrangements and financial collections in other FE branches in the regions;
  • For a mass lobby of parliament to press the case for proper FE funding, with another strike day to best facilitate a mass turnout on the day.
  • A charter for FE: We also instigated a new charter for FE, endorsed unanimously at the last FEC meeting, putting the case for FE. This can be used, for example, in promoting FE within our communities, and lobbying MPs and parliamentary candidates in the coming general election period as part of our political defence of the sector.

Carlow Street is quite capable of producing good campaigning materials, ensuring that there are regular emails to all members from the GS in the run up to a national ballot encouraging members to vote, and organising for FEC members to work with regional/national officials to ‘Get Out The Vote’ through systematically visiting branches winning support for the campaign outlined above. Certainly, twinning the less organised branches with the more organised may not be enough to convince all of them to get involved in the campaign but this can be a very effective way of encouraging solidarity and building confidence and the exchange of practical advice and support.

However, if the union nationally were to demonstrate a little élan and energy we are confident that a campaign of national strike action coupled with regional targeted action, all underpinned by demands for decent FE funding within the wider frame of the essential defence of Further and Adult education, then members can be convinced and enthused to rise to the challenge. This, rather than the proposed retreat from national bargaining and opening the Pandora’s box of local negotiations on pay, is the only way that UCU can secure decent pay, protect working conditions and develop a national bargaining framework that would be far more likely to ensure that when pay deals are reached with the employers they will be worth more than the paper they are written on.

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