Only a few short months ago the campaign for fair and equal pay across the further education sector appeared to be making little progress. The Scottish Government’s manifesto commitment to a policy of National Bargaining was failing with slow but grudging acceptance by most colleges; while seven others particularly three large colleges in Glasgow had refused to sign-up.
The final straw for many rank and file members of EIS-FELA was Colleges Scotland’s decision to conclude negotiations and arbitrarily impose a 1 per cent consolidated pay rise, which only served to increase the differentials in pay across the sector, amounting to a £12,000 disparity between the top of the scale at the lowest paid and highest paid colleges.
Lesson 1 – Building
A tremendous amount of work went into the ballot; FELA President John Kelly and other members of the executive (ordinary lecturers) gave generously of their time and energy; visiting colleges across the country to push for a rejection of the imposed uplift.
Meanwhile the EIS staff team at Moray Place in Edinburgh were working tirelessly to organise the main ballot while deftly supporting branches in the colleges who had refused to sign up to National Bargaining, to declare a dispute and carry out a ballot which ran concurrently with the main ballot ending in early March. The results astounded many. In the main pay claim ballot, 87.6 per cent of those who voted supported strike action, with a 61 per cent turnout.
The ballots at the three colleges who had refused to participate in the national bargaining process were even more astounding, with huge votes in favour of strike action, with the most impressive being in the City of Glasgow, who voted 99 per cent in favour on a 68 per cent turnout.
EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan commented after the ballot results saying “These are overwhelming ballot results, which clearly demonstrate the depth of frustration that lecturers are feeling over the lack of progress towards equal pay.”
Lesson 2 – Timing
The timing of a planned programme of 32 days of sustained strike action running up to and beyond the Holyrood elections, with the likelihood of FE pay being the central issue of the Holyrood campaign, obviously concentrated the minds of the Scottish Government, who previously had been sitting on their hands on the matter. Earlier in the campaign, Cabinet Secretary Angela Constance had intimated that the Further Education dispute was not a priority for her.
There was however to be a change of attitude. After the first day of solid strike action across the country on 17 March followed by a mass rally outside Holyrood with a range of speakers including RISE candidate Jean Urquhart, negotiations were back on and management and union were to meet the following day, 18 March, in Stirling.
Lesson 3 – Negotiating
In my opinion one of the key lessons to be learned from this dispute was the fact that rather than union bureaucrats with little day to day knowledge of the sector fronting the negotiations, the EIS-FELA negotiating team was comprised wholly of lecturers, grassroots union activists with years of experience with the support of an EIS National Officer. It became apparent in the outcome of the negotiations that these women and men were absolutely in tune with the membership who were prepared to give up 32 days’ pay to win this dispute.
At 2.55am in the early hours of Saturday morning after more than 12 hours negotiation the EIS-FELA negotiators agreed to recommend acceptance of an offer.
The offer which will be put to a ballot of EIS-FELA members will not only set out a timetable to establish national pay scales and a common set of terms and conditions but the imposed 1 per cent was now to be seen as an interim payment to which an additional £100 would be added for payment in April 2016 but to cap it all the cherry on top surely had to be the agreement that there would be no deduction made from pay for strike action that took place on 17 March.
EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said “EIS-FELA members have achieved a major victory in the campaign for fair and equal pay. Last week, colleges were issuing statements …that they could not afford to offer a better deal and that the EIS pay claim was unrealistic… now after one day of coordinated strike action and one day of face to face negotiations, we have a greatly improved offer which addresses each of the priorities set by the EIS.
Our members should take great pride in what they have achieved and I would urge every member to use their vote in the forthcoming ballot and to vote to accept the new pay offer.