From today, and throughout September, lecturers at 89 colleges in England – organised in the UCU – will be voting over whether to strike for a much-needed 15.4% pay rise. Already, indications are that these ballots will smash past the Tory anti-strike turnout threshold.
The employers shouldn’t be surprised. And a quick glance at the record in further education (FE) shows why. Real-terms pay is down 35% since 2010. Workload and class sizes, meanwhile, have been increasing steadily, with staff working on average two extra days per week – for free!
A recent report from the union found that government funding to the sector has increased by £700m in three years. But this is not going to the staff who need it.
Instead, the extra money has gone to quadrupling CEO pay to six-figure salaries, and to increasing infrastructure projects by 50%. At the same time, teacher numbers have decreased by a fifth.
This is the result of an economic model based on colleges competing to fill classrooms for the smallest cost per head – and rewarding themselves generously in the process.
But it’s not just pay and class sizes that are pushing FE staff to the wall. It’s also the constant demands from above. Layers of bureaucracy keep up the pressure on lecturers to complete worthless box-ticking tasks for the sake of Ofsted.
As a result, turnover in the sector is high. Such disruption has a big impact on student learning conditions. It’s not uncommon for students to go without a specialised subject teacher for large parts of their time at college.
Conditions in FE are like a pressure cooker. And now, the accumulated anger amongst staff and students is on the brink of exploding.
Organise through struggle
Many colleges haven’t seen industrial action for decades. One issue is that, unlike in mainstream schools, there are no nationally-binding pay scales in FE.
Subsequently, some colleges pay more than others – predominantly those where local trade union branches have fought tooth and nail.
Those of us looking to fight back through strike action commonly face the argument that before we can do so, we must first increase membership figures and build up union density.
In reality, this puts the cart before the horse. The NEU teachers’ union, for example, grew by 40,000 in their dispute after they had announced strike action.
The way to build the union is to show its value to workers: that it is prepared to fight and win. This ballot is a step in that direction.
Having sensed the growing pressure from below last year, the union launched a big campaign and held a national e-ballot of all members. This saw over one hundred branches getting above the 50% turnout threshold. Some colleges saw turnouts of over 80%, all in favour of striking.
This bodes well for the formal ballot for action that has now started. Indeed, many FE workers are already joining or re-joining the union.
Fight for education
We potentially have a golden opportunity ahead of us. But no trust can be given to any more promises of ‘fair offers’ from the employers, especially if these come with strings attached, such as demands to call off strikes.
Enough is enough. Across Britain, strikes over the last year have repeatedly shown that where action is taken, workers can always win more than the ‘final’ offer put forward by management.
To win, the bosses need to be hit where it hurts most – in their pockets. Let’s remember, it’s workers that produce all the value. The boss’ role is merely to exploit workers as much as possible, in order to gain a bigger share of a pie they had absolutely no input in baking. The union leadership must make this clear to all members.
Alongside this political message, strike committees should be established across every college and within every department. These should be tasked with discussing issues with every member, so as to maximise the turnout and the ‘Yes’ vote. This will also draw new members into activity, and help to revitalise union branches.
These steps will also make it easier to convince non-members to join, by showing that the union is serious, organised, and ready to fight for them. In turn, if we move to strike, these rank-and-file workplace committees can form the basis for organising and coordinating action.
Finally, non-teaching staff must also be convinced to join the struggle. After all, this dispute is about a joint pay claim for all staff.
Similarly, students, parents, and the local community should also be called upon to actively support our struggle. Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
This is a fight for education against marketisation and profit. The more we are prepared and organised; the more that members are convinced that we can and must win, the less time we’ll be standing on the picket line, rather than in the classroom.