What happened to the ‘national’ FE dispute?

Last week saw UCU members in FE on strike over pay, workload and national binding bargaining (i.e. a pay rise that is paid to every branch). The strikes were well supported with large, vibrant pickets – many members were out for the first time. Billed as a national ‘Respect FE’ campaign members were initially excited to be on the offensive, but the campaign failed to provide this national fightback. What happened?

In March, an aggregated consultative ballot led to a historic result – a 51% turnout with a resounding 87% YES vote for national action. Members were angry. Pay, in real terms, has declined 35% since 2009, staff are increasingly ground down by unmanageable workloads and micro-management. A quarter of teachers leave within their first year, and two thirds of current staff would leave the sector if they could. FE is in crisis and a fightback is more urgent than ever.

For the first time since incorporation in 1993, when colleges severed their links from local government and became individual entities, the threat of national action brought the possibility of regaining national binding bargaining. In the national pay talks in June, the Association of Colleges (the body that represents the FE employers) agreed to ‘exploratory’ talks.

However, this opportunity was squandered. In March nearly 150 branches were balloted, by the statutory ballot in late August only 88 branches were. This ballot was held at a time when FE staff are incredibly busy with the start of term and enrolling students. 13 branches were pulled out during the ballot as they reached below inflation pay deals. By the end of the ballot period, only 32 branches beat the anti-trade union 50% threshold. The national leverage UCU had, was gone.

So how did this ‘national’ campaign start to fall apart?

According to the General Secretary Jo Grady and her team it was for three main reasons. First, the AoC recommendation of 6.5% in September was timed to undermine the vote. Second, that pay was the most important issue for members and that national binding bargaining wasn’t resonating with them. Third, that branches were not ready for strike action. We do not agree with that assessment and instead argue it was due to a lack of leadership and a flawed understanding of how to build a successful national campaign.

At the Respect FE Rally held on the first day of strike action (where no striking worker was on the platform of 7 speakers) the GS argued we needed to win 100% of our members to the arguments and that’s where we now needed to focus our attention. However, rarely is a strike supported by 100% – it only requires a majority of members. Action taken by some can then provide confidence to others.

Moreover, despite publicly supporting the national campaign, almost half of the Further Education Committee didn’t even participate in the ballot. In some of these branches, they had beat the 50% threshold, but still they settled for local deals well below inflation without firing a shot. This sent a clear message that the priority was local branch deals rather than fighting to level up the whole sector and make sure no branch was left behind.

Before the consultative ballot and throughout this campaign, there has been a call by some within the national FE leadership and within some branches to maintain and respect local branch autonomy. They argue that the national union can’t “tell branches what to do.” Of course, the national union can never tell members that they have to strike – but they can provide leadership and solidarity that can give branches the confidence to take action and fight for better deals. We would question, what do they want autonomy from? Do they want autonomy from the national union? If so, it begs the question – why are they in a national union at all? A basic principle of trade unionism is our collective national strength. We are much weaker when we fight on a branch by branch basis. The majority of colleges will not even implement the AoC recommendation leaving the majority of our members with a cost of living pay rise. As a union our power lies with our ability to take national action.

It is not surprising that the AoC outmanoeuvred UCU with their pay offer. The national office made little reference to workloads, an issue that is leading many to leave the sector. And they did even less to raise and popularise the idea of a national binding bargaining. Many members still ask what this is despite the 9-month campaign.

The GS openly stated it had been difficult to popularise national binding bargaining as it wasn’t “sexy”. Well, most things in FE trade unionism aren’t “sexy”! But what are members calling for? Not to be left behind school teachers pay deals, which are based on national binding bargaining. Not to be struggling to pay their bills and struggle to have a good standard of living. Not to be working 12+ hours for free due to gruelling workloads.

We need a radical change in UCU’s national industrial strategy within FE. Otherwise, the sector will continue to be left behind and divided with members left alone fighting their individual employers.

Regi Pilling (FE Women’s Rep NEC & UCU Branch Secretary at Westminster Kingsway College)
Alyson James (UCU Branch Chair at Westminster Kingsway College)
Outcheuma Ezekiel (UCU Branch Rep at City and Islington College)

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