A victory for strikes and solidarity

✭ VOICE EXTRA

Photo: Sean MacSuibhne

Voice Extra

by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser

· Lecturers in Scotland’s Further Education colleges have won an important victory that should boost the fighting morale of all workers, as we square up to the worst assault on pay, conditions and jobs for many years.

Overpaid FE college bosses were hell-bent on bypassing hard-won national terms and conditions produced by previous strike actions, as they charged ahead in a race to the bottom of the wages league.

Starting at Forth Valley College, they replaced lecturers with instructor/assessors on £10,000 a year less salary and near-zero preparation and marking time, threatening the quality of education on offer to the overwhelmingly working-class students in the FE sector. In fact at Forth Valley, the lower-paid posts were filled by 25 former lecturers, bludgeoned into savage pay cuts with the blunt instrument of fire and rehire—the new virus spreading throughout workplaces in Scotland and the UK.

Through escalating strike action, most recently 3 days a week, and a tenacious campaign that combined industrial with political action, the EIS-FELA union has now conquered the employers’ resistance and forced them into ratifying a settlement which fully recognises that a lecturer is indeed a lecturer—and should be paid a lecturer’s wage, guaranteed adequate lesson preparation and marking time and continual professional development.

In essence, the deal reached puts a stop to the replacement of lecturers with low-paid support staff on horrendously stressful conditions of work. Now the task is to force the intransigent Forth Valley College bosses to honour that deal and reinstate the 25 lecturers to their rightful job status, terms and conditions.

This is an all-too-rare victory for workers, rich in lessons for other struggles.

First and foremost, “the difference is striking”, to quote the phrase often used during this battle, to highlight the importance of taking collective action to gain results. Strikes work when well prepared and courageously executed, with the maximum involvement of the membership.

Secondly, there should be no Chinese wall constructed to separate the industrial and political aspects of any workers’ struggle. This battle—under the slogan ‘Colleges Need Lecturers’—was conducted in the run-up to the general election period, which afforded the Union an opportunity to put relentless pressure on all political parties and candidates—including the outgoing government and First Minister—to come out of hiding and declare which side they were on.

Scottish government hypocrisy
For months the Scottish government stood silent whilst college principals and their employers’ association, Colleges Scotland, tried to demolish national agreements which Scottish Ministers themselves had helped broker during previous strikes, three or four years ago. They displayed shameless hypocrisy by rightly criticising British Gas for use of fire and rehire against its workforce, whilst saying absolutely nothing about use of the same obnoxious weapon by College bosses over whom the Scottish government has far more control than they do with private sector bosses like British Gas.

It was only after they were targeted in social media, and during election hustings, that the SNP government and Nicola Sturgeon herself began to relent in their studied silence. And undoubtedly they will have instructed Colleges Scotland bosses to concede the union’s demands, as they observed growing revolt and desertion amongst former SNP-voting lecturers and their allies.

A priceless aspect of the EIS-FELA campaign is that it’s led almost exclusively by people actually on the job, as opposed to remote, aloof full-time Union officials who in many unions do not feel the same imperative to take up the cudgels and stand firm in the face of the employers, because their livelihoods are miles removed from those of the workers affected. For instance, all bar one of the negotiating team are themselves lecturers.

As John Kelly, the EIS-FELA national salaries convenor says in the interview below, the solidarity of other workers was an invaluable, irreplaceable asset in winning this battle against a crusade to rob wages.

John and others heavily involved in EIS-FELA branches would be the first to acknowledge that a constructive part was played in building that solidarity by the Scottish Workers Solidarity Network, which systemically broadcast the strikers’ case to try and help break down the mainstream media’s wall of silence, and coordinated messages of solidarity from trade unionists and union branches. The Network combined with the Union itself in orchestrating political pressure on the politicians as they hunted for workers’ votes.

The Scottish Socialist Voice and SSP gave these workers platforms to help popularise their cause amongst fellow workers, and forged links between EIS-FELA activists and other workers in struggle in the NHS, railways, British Gas, BT and elsewhere. The recent, well attended Voice Forum, with John Kelly amongst the panel of workers speaking, was one example of socialist solidarity with those in struggle.

At the most recent meeting of the Scottish Workers Solidarity Network I recall making the point ‘workers need a victory’ to break the logjam, as we planned how best to assist those in dispute to score such a victory.

Primarily through the courageous commitment of EIS-FELA members themselves, who have lost wages short-term in order to protect them long-term, but with the help of others across the wider trade union and socialist movement, we now have such a victory.

This outcome could help scupper the defeatist arguments of far too many Union leaders that ‘the members won’t strike’ or ‘there’s nothing we can do about it’.

Of course, strike action is a last resort for any worker and does not drop out of the sky but has to be thoroughly prepared and built for and then executed by a leadership prepared to go all the way.

One simple lesson is that strikes do work; that the difference is striking. And that struggle and solidarity go hand in hand, and in turn are the foundation stones of the socialism we want to construct.

A socialist future where workers’ pay and conditions, and the education of the working class majority—at any age, regardless of income—are amongst the core values and priorities, rather than inflated salaries for a few College principals and the profits of big businesses which deny society of the funds required to enhance the quality of education accessible to all.

Celebrate a victory, and feel emboldened in the many other battles we face as a capitalist rich and their pet governments try to impose their new abnormal.


Photo: Sean MacSuibhne

Richie Venton spoke to some of the EIS-FELA activists at the heart of this victory about their views of what and how they’d won.

John Kelly, EIS-FELA national salaries convener
“This is a victory. We have won an agreement which recognises that anyone in a college who prepares and delivers lectures and assesses students’ work is a lecturer, on a lecturer’s pay and conditions.

A national and local dispute (Forth Valley College, FVC) ran in parallel. That had to happen because of the Tories’ anti-union laws. We had to have the local dispute at FVC to then conduct national action against the national rollout of what has already happened in Forth Valley. There, 25 staff were fired from being lecturers and rehired as instructors, on £10,000 less. Lecturers have 23 hours a week maximum teaching time; an instructor has a minimum of 25 hours, with no maximum and therefore no preparation time for the job involved.

This was a fight for our members but also to defend the quality of education and students in the main are on board, with NUS Scotland backing us to the hilt.

In early March we had an agreement which the employers refused to ratify, even though it was their own proposal! Our response was to crank up the strike action, which has been solid. Colleges Scotland totally underestimated the ability of the Union to get people out on strike in the middle of a pandemic.

Action Committees in every branch were vital. We see ourselves as a member-led Union. EIS nationally gave us excellent support and continue to do so. But local committees were able to organise local political campaigns against candidates in the election. This local activism meant targeting them, asking every candidate the question whether they agree somebody who teaches and assesses in a college is a lecturer. We asked this of virtually every candidate in Scotland, some of them multiple times.

We got support from all the main political parties except for one glaring omission, the party of government, the SNP. However, at recent hustings they showed signs of wobbling and Nicola Sturgeon last week stated that fire and rehire is unacceptable. So I assume that in the background there’s been political pressure on Colleges Scotland to settle.

The key message is that the difference is striking. Before we went on strike we got nowhere, but when we took the action we eventually won. After the deal we reached in negotiations on 12 March, employers refused to ratify it. Having suspended strike action, they thought we couldn’t get people back out. But we did. Then we started another ballot for action short of strike. This was an escalation not a de-escalation, because it was on top of strikes, not instead of them.

This is a victory for striking workers. However, everyone recognises that an agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on unless the 25 people at Forth Valley are reinstated as lecturers. We think we’ve given a toolkit to the local union branch in Forth Valley to resolve this situation. They’ll continue with strike action with the wholehearted support of the whole Union to get the 25 back and to stop the spread of that everywhere else.

Colleges Scotland is an employers’ association embracing 26 different employers, hence why it’s so important that we’ve got Colleges Scotland to commit in black and white not to roll out the replacement of lecturers and to honour that agreement. That must include Forth Valley.

Timing and organisation are important factors in winning. We’ve established a Get The Vote Out (GTVO) team in every branch who can then ensure massive turnouts, talking to people they work alongside, when we decide on a ballot, after consulting the members on its timing and on the timing of any strike action.

Colleges Scotland denied there was a dispute until we got the 89 per cent indicative ballot result before Christmas. Then they started to negotiate. But it was when we had the real ballot that employers got worried, and more so after the initial actual strike days. The difference is striking, helped by local activism and the fact that our section of EIS is led by people who do the job. All the negotiating team, bar one, are people who teach.

Solidarity from outside the Union was a massive factor. I’ve been at two branch meetings already today—with 140 members at one of them—where your name and the Scottish Workers Solidarity Network came up from members. As well as solidarity in Scotland, we had messages of solidarity from car workers in the US and people in China and South Africa.

Messages of solidarity are enormous. What a boost they give to people on strike. Full-time officials in the unions often underplay this, but there’s nothing better than people urging you on and saying ‘what can we do to help?’.”

Kyla Steele, Argyll College union branch secretary
“Speaking to members there’s a huge sense of relief. It’s been such a stressful year; people didn’t want to have to strike and were hugely concerned about our students.

There’s also a sense of continued frustration at why this is allowed to happen in the first place and why Colleges Scotland keep failing to honour the deal almost annually.

There’s relief and a feeling that it’s good there’s recognition of the role of a lecturer in such an essential institution as further education. Lecturers need to be qualified and registered, that’s very important.

We won because of the actions, everybody coming together in solidarity through industrial action, but also because there’s such an immense sense of passion about education and therefore everyone was on board.

People being willing to make the sacrifice of losing wages through strikes won this. Even in the pandemic we all managed to see each other through virtual pickets and that was very important because otherwise it would have been very lonely industrial action! The political pressure was another factor; we all got onto social media and attended hustings, asking questions. And of course, the hard work of our union negotiators who have been amazing and kept their stance all the way through. And in the end, we won because we were right and they were wrong!

I don’t see this being over until our colleagues at Forth Valley College have succeeded. What’s happened to them is awful.

My message to other trade unionists is that collaboration with each other gives that sense of solidarity, not forgetting why you are doing it and what you are fighting for. We need to share that solidarity with other people. Keep up the collaboration, solidarity and keep fighting—usually because you’re right!

This dispute also shows the need for independence to get devolved employment powers, because most people are unaware of just how much the Westminster government still controls employment rights.”

Hugh Cullen, Newbattle Abbey College union branch secretary
“This is a great victory for our union and should mean that students at all Scotland’s colleges are taught by a qualified lecturer with collective bargaining rights, protected time for planning and access to professional development and qualifications.

Well done to everyone who played a role in the campaign and thanks for all the solidarity and support. It’s been difficult for everyone but clearly worth it in the end, however avoidable the situation may have been.

I hope that in the future members are inspired to unite and take action to protect workers and students from harmful corporate practices like ‘fire and re-hire’ and attacks on the quality of learning.

In class we interpret the world. The point, however, is to change it.”

Lynn Davis, Fife College union branch convener
“I’m absolutely delighted with the outcome. There has been a recognition that it’s the strength and unity in all EIS-FELA branches which helped us get over the line. This outcome has been achieved because it’s galvanized all branches. Fife branch is much stronger, with more members and more people actively involved.

Solidarity between other unions in Scotland, like British Gas, has been really important. I feel our victory has galvanised the workers. Especially at this time when we’ve gone through such a difficult year and the erosion of workers’ rights is happening in all different sectors. That helped in itself to make our union stand up.

And standing in solidarity with our Forth Valley colleagues who face fire and rehire made us stronger. When people throughout the sector saw what happened at FVC and members saw what happened to workers in Scottish Gas—which is absolutely deplorable for a society to accept—it helped lead to increased awareness of the trade union movement across Scotland and helped us immensely.

It’s not just about one Union. The amount of solidarity from different unions and politicians put pressure on the Scottish government. They should have done more and should be doing more in different sectors.

Our college is on four different sites going from Dunfermline to Leven, so we found the use of things like WhatsApp groups invaluable for instant communication to members rather than having to wait for branch meetings to find out what was happening.

I have always been in a Union since I left school at 16. My message to people is always be in a union because those individuals will help to look after you, but if the Union is to be strong you need to be actively involved. That’s the only way together we can make meaningful change.

I found the Scottish Socialist Voice rally on post-Covid an absolute inspiration. The way all the different workers there spoke showed we’re all being exploited, and the way you explained it inspired me. For the first time in my life, I felt I totally agree with that. It galvanised our union because I was inspired and then went back and tried to do the same with our branch members.”

Photo: Sean MacSuibhne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: