As the new term gets under way in Further Education (FE) colleges up and down the land, trade union members are being encouraged to hold union meetings to discuss the latest pay and conditions offer from the employers’ organisation, the Association of Colleges (AoC). Co-ordinate strike action between the various teaching unions is on the agenda. Darrall Cozens of the West Midlands UCU reports on the latest struggle in the teaching sector.
As the new term gets under way in Further Education (FE) colleges up and down the land, trade union members are being encouraged to hold union meetings to discuss the latest pay and conditions offer from the employers’ organisation, the Association of Colleges (AoC).
During the summer, on June 25th, a third national negotiating meeting was held between the AoC and six FE college unions (UCU, Unison, ATL, ACM, Unite and GMB). The AoC put forward a final offer of a 0.7% increase from August of this year with a lump sum of £282 for all workers on £14,052 or less.
Prior to this meeting negotiations had broken down when the same AoC withdrew a 0.5% increase offer after the trade unions had refused to accept a statement that would have committed the unions at a local level to a “positive discussion regarding approaches to incremental pay, flexibility and working practices”.
National bargaining and progression pay awards under threat
The unions were correct in rejecting this commitment as acceptance would have driven yet another nail into national pay and conditions bargaining and would have opened up the possibility of ending annual incremental pay. In teaching, either in schools or colleges, it has long been accepted that as your skills and abilities as a teacher increase you would also move up the pay scale on an annual basis. This gave staff a progression ladder until you reached the top of the scale. It is a system that helps to retain staff in teaching institutions. Furthermore, the annual pay progression went some way to maintaining real wages, especially as during recent years the annually negotiated pay awards have been below the level of inflation.
Yet the coalition government has already stated that it intends to abolish automatic pay progression for workers in the public sector as it strives to make workers accept lower living standards to help reduce the government’s overall debt levels. Let us never forget that the present financial mess of the government was not caused by public sector workers, nor by so-called “generous” publicly funded services at national and local level, but by the bailout with public money of the banking and finance sectors.
After the rejection of this statement of commitment by the unions there were further meetings at officer level which resulted in a more acceptable general statement. Yet this too has serious implications for workers in FE despite it being more general.
National agreements not recognised by FE colleges
Firstly, both sides in the negotiations recognise that colleges “continue to face major challenges arising from the stringent funding circumstances across Further Education and that implementation of the recommended pay award will be based on affordability at each individual college.” So national talks take place and agreements and recommendations are made, yet the implementation of the agreements depends on the ability of colleges to pay the agreed rises, on affordability! It is this “arrangement” that is still producing disputes in a number of colleges over the non implementation of a national agreement from 2003 on the excuse of affordability. This 2003 agreement sought to reduce the annual progression scale from 14 points to 8 to try and bring it more in line with teaching staff in schools. There are still colleges that have not fully implemented this national agreement.
Secondly, while there is a joint understanding that colleges have a priority to “to maintain employment to sustain and continuously improve services to learners, employers and communities”, it also recognises that there is “a need for positive engagement in local discussions regarding the need for all staff to be responsive and proactive in an ever changing environment. This includes open and positive discussions on new approaches to deliver efficiencies and flexibility, where these are proposed”. Even this more general statement opens up a path through which can be driven the coaches and horses of even further diminished terms and conditions.
Attacks on terms and conditions from funding cuts
Let us speak plainly: efficiencies in an environment of decreasing funding for FE colleges can only come about through fewer staff working longer hours as about 70% of a college’s budget goes on staffing costs. To give just one example: teaching staff in the schools sector can have about 21 hours of class contact per week. This gives teachers time to prepare, mark, assess, administer, develop resources, train and do all the other tasks that are necessary outside the classroom. In FE it is not uncommon for teaching staff to spend up to 28 hours per week in class contact time. The only way therefore that all the other tasks can be done is by teachers spending a much longer working day in colleges and by working evenings and weekends at home. It is also not uncommon for teaching staff to be on site and teaching from 9am to 9pm for at least two days per week.
Is it little wonder that so many dedicated FE teachers leave the profession or are away sick due to stress? And how does FE management replace full-time staff who leave? Some 61% of teaching in FE now occurs with staff on zero hour contracts – yet another example of the drive to cut staffing costs to the bone.
On the basis of the trade union side accepting this more “general statement” the following offer was made:
- A consolidated salary increase of £282 for staff earning equivalent to spine point 4 of the AoC harmonised pay scale (£14,052);
- A consolidated salary increase of 0.7% for all other staff.
- Payable from 1 August 2013.
And what will be the effect of this pay rise for some workers? It will increase the recommended minimum hourly rate to £7.45, in recognition of the UK Living Wage. To think that in a college in 2013 you can have some staff taking home a gross pay of £280 for a 37.5 hour week should be completely unacceptable to the trade union movement. How do you plan your life, enjoy some leisure, get married, bring up a family or even buy a home on this kind of money? And remember too that the CPI between May and July of this year grew by an average of 2.8%, and RPI, which includes housing, by 3.2% over the same period.
The pay claim
The pay rise that is therefore being proposed by the AoC amounts to yet another erosion of real wages and therefore living standards. And when you consider that the pay claim that was lodged back in January of this year was for “a 5% consolidated increase in all salaries and allowances with a £750 underpinning for the lowest paid” and for all colleges to “to apply to the Living Wage foundation to become fully accredited Living Wage employers”.
The claim was not only based on the cuts in real wages over the past period from inflation but also on the findings of the Lingfield Report called “Professionalism in Education” (October 2012), which stated that: “…the average salaries of FE staff, relative to their counterparts in schools and universities, appear to have declined substantially over time, and particularly sharply so in the last decade. It must be a common-sense conclusion that this would have an impact on FE lecturers’ sense of professional self-worth and, in particular, on the appetite for interchangeability of qualifications with school teachers which was noted in our Interim Report.” So pay parity is an important element.
And all of this is happening at a time when FE colleges are being opened up to the 14-19 age group so that some students who should be in schools will now be educated and trained in FE colleges by teachers earning far less than their school counterparts and whose wages are being eroded by inflation. It is yet another example of education on the cheap and a model that, if the Coalition gets away with, will be rolled out in schools in England.
Coordinated and escalating strike action
In recognition of all of this the FE Sector Conference at the UCU Annual Congress back at the end of May passed a motion that in the event of an unsatisfactory offer there should be a ballot for escalating national strike action as early in October as possible. On the basis of that decision the Further Education Committee (FEC) met on June 28th and unanimously rejected the offer given the rate of inflation and the “ever increasing levels of workload faced by members because of the tightening and/or worsening of conditions of service at a local level”.
The FEC was also aware that both the NUT and the NASUWT had launched a campaign back in June on pay and conditions and that both unions would be organising strike action in various regions during October, culminating in a national strike during this term. The FEC also believes that achieving an improved offer “requires a very significant level of industrial action”. For that reason UCU members in all FE colleges are being urged to convene meetings before October 9th to discuss the offer and the FEC’s recommendation of rejection to see what support there is for a ballot on escalating national action.
And here is the rub. This is a ballot that must be won. Any sign of weakness on the part of FE trade union members will be a golden invitation to the employers locally and nationally to cut living standards, move towards local pay bargaining and thereby erode conditions of service even further. But to win this ballot and to make gains from strike action will depend on a number of factors some of which are in the hands of UCU members and some not.
How to win the strike
Will strike action bring about an improved offer from the AoC when the government’s austerity policies mean even further cuts to FE budgets on top of the £1.2 bn already planned? Given the lack of coordinated strike action so far by public sector unions and the lack of any clear campaign strategy to win from such action, the gains that have been made are meagre compared to the effort expended. Any strike action has to be aimed at the government.
As for UCU members, they will respond to any call for action if they believe that the sacrifices they are making have a chance of success. The attacks at a local level on terms and conditions, the wave of redundancies, and the cuts in course provision have all had a demoralising effect. Morale amongst UCU members and FE staff is at rock bottom. You cannot fight a battle with demoralised troops who believe they face defeat even before the battle has begun.
So where is the campaign to enthuse UCU members? Are national officials and NEC members travelling out to FE UCU branches to address meetings? Will the possibility of coordinated national action with other trade unions in education engender a belief that the battle can be won? Is there support from other unions as regards picket lines? Will this be a dispute that will move the TUC to organise joint action in support?
Will there be campaign material that explains that the attacks on living and working conditions arises from the crisis of capitalism and that therefore the only way in the long run to defend what we have gained is to put an end to the anarchy of capitalism? Will it be explained that this system must be replaced by a democratically planned and socially owned economy where the wealth we produce is used for the benefit of all and not the tiny layer of parasites at the top?
A one-day strike should therefore be a stepping stone to measure support: to enthuse and galvanise; to explain the realities of a crisis-ridden system; to explain that even if there is small growth in the economy, the cuts in wages and conditions will continue in order to appease the bond markets; to point out the political alternative that we need in order to challenge what is being imposed on us. By trade union action alone this battle will not be won. That is only the starting point.