The UCU’s Further Education committee (FEC) voted on Friday, by two votes, to end this year’s pay campaign. This is a massive mistake.
The majority of FEC members voted to reject joint action with members of the NUT in 6th form and to oppose the call for escalation of the campaign to win £1 per hour extra for all.
All the hard work put in by our members and the achievement of the first joint action with Unison for a decade has been thrown away.
This retreat gives the green light to the employers to continue to hold down our pay and play fast and loose with the future of Further Education.
In a very worrying development for the democratic decision-making processes of our union, the General Secretary intervened into the debate to tell the FEC that if they voted for joint strike action with the NUT on 15 March she would override that decision.
With no strategy in place, unbelievably, the call to hold an FE sector conference to allow members the democratic right to debate the way forward for next year’s campaign was also opposed and voted down.
The membership disarmed
This year’s national negotiations with the AoC begin at the end of April. If our leadership gets its way history is going to repeat itself. Last year we walked into negotiations with the AoC knowing that UCU had cancelled its national pay ballot half way through.
The result was last year’s pay offer was 0%.
Unfortunately those who argued to abandon the ballot last year did not learn from that mistake.
Officials argued at the FEC that we should abandon this year’s pay claim campaign and start again with a new campaign over next year’s claim.
This decision makes no tactical sense. It is like destroying all your weapons before you engage in battle.
UCU is now effectively implementing the Tories’ anti-union Trade union bill before it has become law. Every possible potential legal challenge is being interpreted as a certainty and used as a reason to call off effective action.
The decision by the FEC to support a motion calling on the FEC to dump this year’s claim and start afresh will lead to significant demoralisation amongst our members.
UCU members will be told, once again, that their leadership doesn’t believe that we can win a fight to defend our pay and Further Education.
The employers will see this as a sign of weakness and will be more confident to go onto the offensive both at a national and local level. Union members will be left exposed.
We were in a good position going into this year’s negotiations with the AoC.
If we had remained in dispute over the 2015-16 claim and rolled it into next year’s we could have continued to take action over this year’s claim while opening negotiations over next year.
We had a live ballot, two days of successful strike action and growing support from the Labour front bench. We were also receiving significant coverage in the education media.
We had the very real possibility of co-ordinating further action with the NUT in 6th form colleges on 15 March. In Scotland EIS members in FE have just voted by 93 per cent to strike.
All that potential has been wasted.
Local deals must not undermine national action
For some time now there has been a false debate that counter-poses local and national action. For UCU to remain relevant and to build its influence it has to be able to organise effective local as well as national action. National action feeds into local action and strong successful local action builds the union’s ability to take effective national action.
The FEC members were told that employers would be able to make challenges to the national ballot because branches had accepted local pay deals since the initial ballot. This was cited as another reason to abandon the fight.
If this is really the case then every time we have a national strike ballot, the strike ballot will be null and void a week or so later if any colleges agree a local deal.
The impact of this interpretation will lead to a ‘Wild West’ approach to negotiations in the sector. Some branches may win local pay awards while less organised branches, or branches with particularly stubborn managements will be left isolated and abandoned by the national union to further years without a pay rise.
Levelling up not down
The drive by the national union to allow local deals to take precedence over building a national campaign has led to some bad results for our members that will undermine the union’s ability to defend us locally and nationally.
Some local branches are signing up to deals that gain extra pay at the expense of terms and conditions. Some are allowing the employers to impose inferior new-starter contracts in exchange for pay deals. This is a disastrous, dangerous and divisive strategy.
In the context of the rationalisation of the sector where employers will be looking to impose new contracts on staff this approach will allow employers to drive all our conditions of service downwards. This strategy will encourage a race to the bottom.
Build a mass campaign to defend pay and education
The strike on the 24 February was a success.
There were some branches that found it difficult to get all their members out and involved. This is not surprising. Where was the campaign? Where were the national leadership tours in colleges? Where were the posters and stickers?
Many members understandably questioned the validity of a series of one-day strikes. Some felt that their national leadership was not putting forward a strategy that meets the severity of the crisis hitting the sector.
UCU members have shown time and again that they will fight. The problem is they need to know that they have a chance to win too.
The UCU leadership believe that members won’t fight. So they constantly pull back from meaningful national action. The failure to give a serious lead becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as after each strike we’re told about every weakness and never about the positive results.
The FEC’s decision is a significant step backwards.
The union’s leadership seems to have no strategy to defend pay and to defend second chance education.
Activists have to get organised and apply real pressure on the national union to adopt a strategy that can inspire our membership and win.
What can you do?
- Get your branch to support the call for a Special Further Education conference to debate the next steps in the campaign to defend pay and education.
- Organise activists meetings in your region to discuss the next steps.
- Call branch meetings and pass motions calling for a serious escalating strategy over next year’s pay claim that has some hope of shifting the AoC.
- Contact your local FEC member to ask them how they voted and demand an explanation from the General Secretary on why she intervened to halt joint action with the NUT.