Pay, workload and national bargaining: levelling up to win in FE

UCU has just launched a consultative ballot in Further Education via email. Every member in every college will be asked, ‘Are you prepared to take strike action over pay, workload and a national binding negotiating framework?’

The Further Education Committee is recommending to vote YES in the e-consultation. The FEC also supports the aim to launch a national strike over these issues. After the consultation ends there will be a Special Further Education Sector conference to debate how to implement the decision made by members in the e-consultation.

Two of the demands, pay and workload, need little explanation. Our pay has been cut by 35% in last decade. Equivalent to working two days a week for free. Inflation stands at 12% and the fuel bills are set to rise again. The sector is having the worst recruitment crisis in over twenty years. FE staff have the lowest rates of pay compared to all the other education sectors.

Unsustainable workloads are creating an ever-increasing rise in physical and mental health issues amongst staff. Attendance chasing, unrealistic weekly deadlines, cuts in guided learning hours (GLH) and increases in marking is making our role as teachers untenable.

The third demand, for a nationally binding negotiating framework, might need a little explaining why this is such an important part of this year’s campaign.

Why national action?

Since the 2016 Trade Union Act was passed, making it a legal requirement for unions to get at least a 50% turnout in an Industrial Action ballot before strike action can commence, UCU in FE have pursued a nationally coordinated strategy. We have attempted to encourage as many branches as possible to put in local claims over pay and conditions. We have then tried to coordinate those local disputes nationally.

We have had some success in this. Both in terms of wins and the strengthening of our branches. However, this strategy was never meant to be an end in itself but a means to be able to build up our strength so that we can get 50% of our members to vote in a nationally aggregated ballot to allow us to come out together. It is generally recognised by most that a union that can’t deliver national action, does not have much of a future.

Since 1993 when the link with local authorities was severed and the sector became incorporated (private sector but funded through the public purse) the disparity between colleges on pay and conditions has grown wider and wider. We won’t be able to level up the sector by fighting college by college.

Whilst the locally coordinated national strategy that we have pursued over the last five years has produced some success, it has not levelled up the sector. It is not just in the less organised branches that members wages have been cut and their conditions worsened. In those branches that have taken action and won better pay and conditions, those gains are quickly eroded because other college employers refuse to offer their staff the same deals because there is no pressure on them to do so.

Most of us working in the sector will recognise the employer’s argument behind refusal to offer a better deal, ‘You have the best pay rates in the region/country’. It is rarely true but when a college is paid better rates for the job compared to others its nothing to shout about. The pay rates are so low everywhere, being at the top of this league doesn’t actually mean very much!

Unless everybody’s wages and conditions rise together it is difficult to make gains at a local level for more than a short period. A victory in one college is soon evaporated as they become isolated because a critical mass hasn’t followed through.

Levelling up

Recently the FE sector has been reclassified as being a part of the public sector. This provides us with an opportunity to campaign for parity with schools over funding, pay, conditions and a national bargaining framework which is binding.

At the moment FE does not have a binding national bargaining framework. What we have is something called the National Joint Forum where unions meet up with the AoC to negotiate pay and conditions. However, it is not binding. Any recommendation that the AoC makes to its ‘subscribers’ (college members of the AoC) is down to individual employers to implement or not.

Of course, invariably, many colleges don’t implement the recommendations. Even last year’s paltry pay offer of 2.5% and £750 one-off, less than half of colleges implemented it! It is clear the AoC national negotiating framework is not fit for purpose and hasn’t been for somewhile.

This is why the demand for a binding national negotiating framework is so important. If we are to be able to level up the sector then we need a framework that binds all colleges to any agreement that is forthcoming.

What this framework would look like and who we negotiate with is something we will need to work out. But we can only begin this if we are able to force the employers to agree to negotiate it.

Will we miss out the AoC and negotiate directly with the DFE or will the AoC be the ones who mediate our demands to government? The yearly public sector pay rate (including schools) is recommended to government by the Independent Pay Review Body. Despite its name it is not very independent and makes the decision on the amount based on what the government says is affordable.

However, whatever the amount, the vast majority of schools in local government and those in academy chains implement the pay review body’s recommendation. Now that FE is a part of the public sector should we not at least have this?

Any of these potential frameworks would be a step forward for the sector. But the employers and government are not going to voluntarily implement such frameworks. We will have to fight for them. In the late 1960s and early 1970s workers in the private and public sectors successfully fought for national collective bargaining so all workers enjoyed the same rates of pay and conditions. If we want parity and equality in our sector then we will have to do so again.

It is a fight worth having. Vote YES to strike over pay, workload and a binding national negotiating framework.

Sean Vernell UCU FE national negotiator

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