After the historic vote – where next for the FE campaign over pay, workload and binding national bargaining in England

The results of the Special Further Education Sector conference, at long last, are out and the first round of negotiations with the Association of Colleges (AoC) took place last week around our claim.

What follows is a strategy on how we take our campaign over pay, workload and a binding England-wide framework forward.

The results of SFESC

The results eventually were published three weeks after the conference. They reveal that the votes were close and perhaps could have been different if votes were allowed to be taken directly after the debates rather than several days after the conference had finished.

Overall, for those who supported the strategy of moving to an aggregated ballot, the results are disappointing. But the votes did not simply reject the idea out of hand. Motion two was carried with amendments. The first amendment, replaced the sentence that said that an aggregated ballot would undermine the gains made by the nationally coordinated campaign with a sentence that said they would build upon them.

More importantly it amended the final resolves that said, to build towards a future FE England aggregated ballot, and to move to ballot only following a consultation which reaches a turnout over 50% with, ‘To build an FE England aggregated ballot, and move to ballot only when a consultation reaches a significant turnout’

Clearly 51% is a significant turnout, it beats the Tories’ anti-trade union threshold.

Motion one calling for an aggregated ballot was tied (54 votes for and 54 against) and only fell because of the union rule that if a motion is tied then it falls and existing policy remains in place.

Importantly, Motion 8 from Kendal Branch was defeated. It argued that UCU should continue with local disputes and not move to a national strike.

Motions that argued that we need to win a binding England-wide bargaining framework before we move to an aggregated ballot were carried but failed to provide any ideas on how this will be achieved without taking England-wide action.

Not only the delegates who supported moving to an aggregated ballot now will be disappointed, but critically members who voted by 87% on a 51% turnout for, ‘a national campaign’ will be in disbelief that delegates went against the clear mandate members had given them.

An historic vote

The General Secretary often likes to use the word ‘historic’ to describe everything UCU does under her leadership. It is interesting she chose not to use this word when addressing the SFESC to describe the ballot results. In fact, she failed to mention the results at all.

A 51% turnout with 87% vote for action is a genuinely historic event (i.e. it has never happened before). Never have UCU members in the FE sector got over the trade union thresholds of 50%. You will have to trawl way back into when FE lecturers were a part of NATHE to see results like these.

Odd then that the GS forgot to mention this in her address.

What makes these results so stunning is that, whilst there was more of an England-wide campaign compared to other FE campaigns, it wasn’t resourced anything like the ones that have been conducted in HE. It is no secret that the GS, President, the FE chair, national and regional offices were, and are, opposed to launching an aggregated ballot to allow us to take our campaign to a national level. Therefore, to gain such a clear mandate from members is very significant and tells us there is a real appetite to support an England-wide campaign.

In a FEC report from the secretariat, they put the case arguing it would be disastrous to launch an aggregated ballot (i.e. an England-wide fight) back in January,

‘Last year’s consultative ballot (22/23) the overall turnout was 27.5% (3,977 voted out of a ballot group of 14,368). There was a 91% Yes vote for action. 16 branches got over the 50% threshold. 33 branches got over 40% and these 33 became part of the nationally coordinated action. Approximately 70 were excluded from the consultative ballot because of important local material factors.’

Disgracefully UCU FEC members and national negotiators have not been given the chance to examine this year’s results, due to the chair refusing to allow this. However, the President, in her summation speech at the SFESC, clearly had seen the breakdown of the results and was able to inform the conference (in an attempt to persuade them to vote against an England-wide campaign) that 110 branches got over the 50% threshold and 120 didn’t.

We don’t know how many of those 120 got near and how many didn’t but this clearly is a very significant set of results. We are not sure why in the 22/23 consultative ballot 70 branches were excluded from the ballot because of ‘important local material factors.’ And it is interesting that it appears the vast majority of branches, this time, were put into the ballot.

‘Wins’ – the facts

One of the central arguments of those opposed to a nationally aggregated ballot is that it will undermine the work we have done around the national coordinated action campaign that we started in 2018.

We are all very proud of these campaigns. Indeed, some of the signatories of this report wrote the FE Respect campaign strategy and the FE charter. Our branches have taken strike action on several different occasions and, some, won significant and benchmark deals. The problem is that this strategy can only take us so far; we need to move to the next level – an England-wide campaign involving all branches in England.

When we look to this year’s campaign 33 branches took part in that campaign. 16 won some kind of deal on pay; 16 did not, despite taking strike action (and in some cases significant strike action). Out of the 16 that got deals 10 were worth between 2% and 5% or to put it another way when inflation is at 14% this is a pay cut of between 12% and 9%. 

Any way you try and stack these results they are not ones that defend our members from the cost-of-living crisis where food prices have soared to an ‘historic’ high of 19%.

AoC response to our claim

Last week the National Joint Forum (NJF) met to discuss the claim submitted by UCU and FE staff unions with the Association of Colleges (AoC). 

David Hughes, AoC CEO, opened the meeting by saying they wouldn’t even dispute the validity of the pay claim for 15% and it was a reasonable claim given the state of pay and with food prices rising 19%.

He argued that we should be entitled to the offer rejected by the NEU. However, as colleges do not have enough funds they couldn’t match it. And he went further, saying funds are so depleted they would not be making any offer as it would simply be insulting to do so. Which sheds a rather bad light on those within UCU who have trumpeted pay deals between 2% and 5% as ‘wins’!

If the AoC meant what they said about the pay element of our claim being ‘reasonable’ they would make an offer that matches our claim, then go to government and demand that they should fund it. This is what the head teacher’s union are doing.

On national bargaining the AoC said it would not be possible to sort out England-wide bargaining in two months. They cannot mandate their members beyond recommendations. However, they said they were not dismissing that out of hand but this could not happen in the short or medium term. 

Also they were not opposed to some kind of independent review body but it was not clear how to achieve that or whether it was possible in the short-term. 

This is something UCU can win. There is no reason that FE pay cannot become a part of the independent review body alongside the teachers’ and other public sector organisations and quickly. Those within UCU who have argued that we should wait before we take any England-wide action until we have reached an agreement on this are playing into the employers’ hands.

Government and the employers will only move to implement such an agreement if they feel threatened by our members taking action. Without action any deal that is reached (unlikely that this is) will be a weak deal and is more likely to benefit the employers.

It is clear that we are going to have to fight on an England-wide basis if we are to achieve real wins for our members and the sector.

Forward to an England-wide campaign

Whilst delegates voted for a delay in moving towards an aggregated ballot, they also recognised the limitations of simply organising more local battles with the employers. Delegates made clear their desire for a much wider campaign that involves as many branches as possible.

Therefore, we now need to move to an England-wide, coordinated campaign. However, this year the campaign needs to be different if it is going to be successful.

First, all branches that achieved a 35% turnout or over (and who voted for action) must be automatically balloted (disaggregated). This could mean that there are around 150 branches involved. The ballot needs to be run from September 2023 for 6 weeks allowing us to take action from October.

Second, the campaign must be focussed on the government and the employers nationally. Whilst some colleges can afford to offer a real offer, many cannot. We need more funds coming into the sector if it is to survive.

Third, no branches/regional offices should agree deals and therefore pull out of action unless the deal has been agreed by the ratification panel and the FEC.

Fourth, the amount of strike days to be taken and the nature of the campaign must be determined by the FEC and FESC.

Fifth, UCU must call a national demo and lobby of the DFE on a strike day.

Sixth, If the government has not conceded to our demands by the end of 2023, then preparation for an aggregated ballot must begin from January 2024.

Sean Vernell, UCU National Negotiator FE, Capital City College Group

Juliana Ojinnaka, The Sheffield College, Rep. Black members FEC

Cecily Blyther, Petroc, Rep. casually employed members FEC

Peter Evans, Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College, Rep. LGBT+ members FEC

Regine Pilling, Capital City College Group, Rep. women members FEC

Delmena Doyley, Croydon College, London and East FEC

Richard McEwan, New City College, Vice Chair & London and East FEC

Elaine White, Bradford College, North East FEC

Naina Kent, Hackney ACE, UK-elected FEC

Nina Doran, City of Liverpool College, UK-elected FEC

Saleem Rashid, The Sheffield College, UK-elected FEC

Dharminder Singh Chuhan, Sandwell College, UK-elected FEC

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