On Friday 11th October the Further Education Committee voted to ballot members over this year’s 0.7% pay offer with a recommendation to vote YES in the ballot for strike action.
The result of the branch consultations showed that a majority (52%) were for rejecting the offer and going ahead with the FE sector conference decision to ballot members over the AoC’s derisory offer.
This decision comes after it was announced on Thursday that UCU members in Higher Education had voted for strike action in their ballot over pay (62% in favour of strikes, 77% in favour of action short of strikes). Unison members had already voted in favour of action the previous week and Unite announced a clear majority in favour of strike action on Monday 14th October.
Talks with other HE unions will now take place to plan a programme of action should an acceptable offer not be forthcoming from the employers. This opens the possibility later in the term for FE, HE and other unions to consider taking action together to defend our living standards and the services we deliver.
Pay cuts are making it impossible to make ends meet
With inflation running at over 2% and workloads constantly rising, FE staff deserve a better deal. Since 2009, three rounds of very low pay increases have seen the pay gap between FE staff and schoolteachers widen to 7.5%. Overall, estimates suggest we have been hit badly by the austerity program of the last few years and have lost something like 13% of salary in real terms over the last five years.
At the same time multiple rounds of redundancies have left increased workloads and stress for those who remain working in the sector as working hours and pressure from Ofsted and punitive observations has been ramped up. Our pay campaign will demand fair pay for all, irrespective of gender or ethnicity and will oppose pay excess at the top.
We will continue to argue for fair contract terms for all, including instructor/trainers, part-timers and hourly-paid staff. Materials arguing the case for fair pay will be sent to your branch very soon.
Building the biggest possible YES vote for action
A clear majority of branches who responded voted for rejection of the offer and for a ballot.
After discussion the members of the FEC felt confident that the coming industrial action ballot can deliver a resounding YES vote for action if there is a concerted and bold campaign and the proposal to do so was unanimously agreed.
The experience of our colleagues in the Higher Education sector is that with such a campaign an excellent response from members can be achieved. In their original consultation HE members voted by a majority of only 50.3% for an industrial action ballot but that was turned into a majority of 62% in the real ballot. This was done by a combination of excellent materials produced by UCU, energetic campaigning by UCU’s campaign team and the detailed hard work of branch officers and members.
We can do the same in our sector. Each branch will be sent a ‘Get the vote out’ campaign guide with supporting materials.
It’s about more than pay
The debate on the Further Education Committee accurately reflected the concerns and the mood of members which is evident in every college. FEC members reported that although pay was a central concern for them and the union needs to draw a line in the sand over the issue their anger was also about what was taking place in the sector. The rise of the bullying manager, the obsession with OFSTED and graded lesson observations and the attempt to introduce more and more draconian capability policies are driving our members to want to take action.
Although the ballot will be about securing a decent pay deal that stops the year on year erosion of our salaries in real terms, it takes place in the context of the government’s austerity agenda which far too many college employers use as an excuse to push through further attacks on our working conditions.
It is not only the living standards of staff that are being eroded, it is also our students’ education that is under attack. Our employers love to talk about the ‘learner’s journey’ and the ‘the learner experience’ whilst they close another course and sack lecturers. This mendacity is not lost on the students or their parents.
This campaign is as much about them as it is about our pay and conditions.
Coordinating action with other unions
We are not alone in preparing to take industrial action. Firefighters have taken strike action in defence of their pensions, civil servants are campaigning over privatisation, pay and pensions, postal workers are being balloted over pay and conditions in the context of the sell-off of the service and teaching unions are in the middle of a campaign to defend pay, conditions and pensions.
UCU’s policy is ‘where possible’ to coordinate action with other unions, in particular with the teaching unions. We have done this before and we would like to do it again. The teachers are at the moment involved in a campaign of rolling regional action. Their next strike is on the 17th October in London. The teaching unions are likely to call a national strike at the end of November. This is the earliest that we will be able to take action. So if members vote for strike action and the teachers union do decide to take action then UCU should coordinate its first day of strike action with them.
However none of this is guaranteed so we need to pursue our own campaign to secure a decent settlement. Where we can we will coordinate, however we must also be prepared to go it alone if these opportunities do not present themselves.
Build the union
Our membership density across branches is quite variable but in every branch there is scope for recruitment to the union. Now is the time to raise the union’s profile with email shots, posters, and stalls at lunchtime. As is always the case when the union is seen to campaign over issues that are relevant to them – people join.
So alongside getting a YES vote out in the ballot we must encourage every branch to map out ways that we can increase our membership. You can order more membership forms from UCU head office if you do not have the up to date version.
The FEC also received an update on local industrial action, pensions contributions, DfE consultation on accountability and performance, changes to initial teacher education, and zero hours contracts.
In an amendment to a motion brought by a member it was agreed to support a lobby of parliament in January in support of a private members bill being brought to oppose such exploitative contracts.
A report was received on the progress of research commissioned by UCU into observation policies and practices. A round table event with employers, providers and others is being planned to examine best practice, and a report will be submitted soon.
In discussion FEC members emphasised the pressure many branches are under from managements over observation policies and their linkage to capability, grading and performance on the basis of little evidence that graded observation policies are any more useful or effective than peer observation or ungraded policies. A national model policy and a campaign to achieve implementation is required.
Saturday October 19th: Unite the Resistance conference, Organising to Win, click here to see agenda.