Strike leaders write on stunning victory for Scottish Further Education lecturers

1 June 2017

NATIONAL STRIKE ACTION WINS. LESSONS FROM SCOTTISH FURTHER EDUCATION

Written by:

John Kelly – EIS-FELA President (personal capacity)

Penny Gower – EIS-FELA national bargainer (personal capacity)

Donny Gluckstein – EIS-FELA national bargainer (personal capacity)

 

College lecturers in Scotland have just won after 4 weeks of national strike. At our victory rally Dave Moxham of the Scottish TUC said it is something that all trade unionists can learn from.

The background to this was a national strike in March 2016 which ended after a day since the employers signed up to phasing in equal pay over 3 years. The first stage was to be completed on 1 April 2017. But the employers turned around and declared they would only fulfil their promise if we agreed to a draconian worsening of conditions. That would have produced a dramatic increase in workload, poorer services for the students, and job losses.

We had no choice but to strike. This time, however, would be different to 2016. The anti-union laws were in place and the employers were determined to sit it out, even if it meant wrecking the life chances of a whole year of students since they were about to take final assessments. Their plan failed and it is worth understanding why.

The lecturers’ union is the Further Education Lecturers’ Association, a section of the Educational Institute of Scotland. Within it lay members play the key leadership role and we put together a strategy including several components:

1) We argued that the money is there. The UK is a wealthy country and so we rejected austerity. FELA also plays a prominent role in anti-racist campaigning which might divert our members away from correctly identifying the real threat to public services and living standards.

2) The campaign had a clear target that all could understand and would be proud to stand by. This required a tactical discussion about slogans.  For example, in 2016 the debate was whether to campaign for ‘fair pay’ or for ‘equal pay’. The first is more economic (and attractive to lecturers only), and second was more political and appealed to a sense of justice that anyone could relate to. In 2017 the slogan was ‘honour the deal’ – we were not asking for anything new, just what had already be agreed.

3) Most importantly, the action we were proposing was intended to win, not be a half-hearted token protest. This message was essential both to pressure the employers, but still more to give our own members the confidence their sacrifices would be worthwhile. Starting on 27 April we would have two weeks of one day all-out strikes, followed by two weeks of two day strikes, escalating to three days indefinitely. Without that plan, and a huge amount of detailed campaigning, reaching out to every member we could, we would not have had a 96% ‘yes’ vote on 67% turnout in the ballot. As a result the first national strike conducted under the new anti-union laws could go ahead without challenge.

 

THE BATTLE BEGINS

The college Principals were dug in for a long dispute and ready to destroy the sector to get their way. They even paid a PR firm £10,000 a week to keep the strike out of media. To counter this we had to focus on the political character of our campaign. Our first day saw a national protest outside the Scottish Parliament. On the day before the council elections there was a rally outside Glasgow City Chambers. These were followed by a spontaneous march on the BBC, a protest outside Nicola Sturgeon’s residence and many more.

Social media kept the members informed and involved. So everyone was kept up-to-date, knew what was at stake, and each strike day brought larger pickets (at some colleges in the hundreds). We believe the picket on the remote island of Benbecula may have been a first ever there. The pickets were evidence of growing determination rather than faltering resolve, and acted as regular mass meetings. The length and breadth of Scotland lecturers were petitioning students and the public. Publicising the assault on conditions, and in particular the preparation time we could devote to students, was crucial in keeping them on side. That prevented the employers from using our commitment to our students to blackmail us back to work. The students even organised their own rally in Glasgow to show their support for our strike. STUC backing and messages of support from trade unions far and wide also helped.

An important turning point was the decision of the EIS to provide strike pay just as we were about to escalate to three days a week. The signal was loud and clear: we would stay out as long as necessary. The government began the strike saying they would not intervene. But with our members driving the dispute back to the top of the news agenda in the middle of the general election, bombarding MSPs with messages, and even making their presence felt in the Holyrood debating chamber (and being admonished by the Presiding Officer), it had no hiding place and had to step in.

Fourteenth months of interminable negotiations had resulted in total deadlock. As a result of the strike lecturers will be paid the same across the country at the level of the highest paid college. There will also be a substantial improvement in conditions for many, and the protection of existing conditions for all members, and the national bargaining framework that was under threat will  continue. A clear strategy of mass involvement, confidence in the power of national action, and sheer determination from the membership got the result we all wanted.

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