The current spate of local disputes provides a glimpse of the potential for a fightback. Donny Gluckstein reports on the successful strike at Edinburgh College.
The strike of further education lecturers at Edinburgh College has been described as "a classic example of how to conduct a strike" by the executive of the EIS, the Scottish education union. The bare outlines of what happened make impressive reading.
After three years of no pay rises lecturers were offered a small increase with draconian conditions. Management's key aim was the abolition of a fundamental condition for any teacher - the weekly class contact maximum in front of students. With national bargaining in Scottish further education about to resume after a break of 20 years, allowing such a change at one of the largest colleges in the UK could have had wide spread consequences.
However, three days of strikes ended in victory. Not only were existing conditions defended, but major improvements won, including a cut in weekly class contact for the most overworked. By August this year a salary rise will be in place amounting to 7 percent for most lecturers and 22 percent for the lowest earners. During the strike EIS membership at the college rose from 453 to 500, with the union HQ having to stay open late to process applications in time for the first day of action.
Such experiences are rare these days, and it is worth asking whether Edinburgh College's strike has relevance generally. Many features of our story are typical. For years lecturers have suffered from austerity and watched our students suffer even more. When in October 2012 Edinburgh's three FE colleges merged, the new bullying management generated rising levels of stress. It did everything it could to marginalise the teachers' union and sought to play lecturers off against support staff and students.
Restructuring meant that much administration fell onto lecturers' shoulders. The "more for less" agenda was writ large in every corridor and classroom. Within a short time over 240 staff (both lecturers and support) out of 1,500 had left, through a combination of voluntary severance and despair.
From the EIS point of view the situation looked grim. The merged college straddled several geographically distant campuses, and the union facility time was slashed by half so it was difficult to support members. Like so many others, lecturers felt angry but lacked the confidence to fight back.
We began with helping people realise that others shared their anger and frustration. The first step was a stress survey that found half of lecturers experienced bullying. Management did not accept this and brought in a private company to conduct a rival survey. The results were identical, and when compared with the company's database of all surveys, our results were off the scale. Another important tool was the union moderated blog. It gave a space for lecturers to express thoughts and feelings suppressed by intimidation in the workplace. And in sharing these, others realised the common situation of all. The blog gives a real feel for the dispute in all its stages - go to edincol-eisfela.blogspot.com.
The road to the strike was long, however. At first EIS officials attempted to alert the college's board of management to the problem of stress. Its refusal to even hear a delegation. This turned into farce when, in one of the few concessions made, de-stressing workshops were run for staff. A mountain of flip charts with proposed solutions was generated, but it disappeared late one Sunday night. The video evidence showed it being dragged away by a mysterious "cleaner". It never surfaced again.
Late in 2013 the branch went to the press and politicians. A dossier detailing the impact on staff and students of college-wide failings was presented to the Scottish education minister. The sort of evidence included examples of students evicted because their funding had been mismanaged. An inquiry by the Scottish Funding Council for further and higher education ensued. Although the result was a whitewash, the fact of ministerial intervention and the publicity confirmed to lecturers that their concerns needed to be addressed.
Parallel to the campaign over stress and systems failures, the union put in a pay claim. The stock reply came back. There was no money. When a consultative EIS ballot produced a strong vote in favour of potential industrial action the money appeared, but with strings.
There followed an intense discussion of the offer. Meetings across all the campuses, regular bulletins - four explaining the management proposals alone - plus full discussion on the blog led to a unified view. Abolishing the weekly class contact maximum would mean more stress, a heavier teaching load for lecturers and fewer jobs harming education. The motto of the dispute became: "The conditions lecturers teach in are the conditions students learn in". An increased workload was unacceptable, whatever money was on the table.
It was this high ground that gave lecturers the confidence for action. A campaign focused exclusively on pay might not have produced such a definite response. The official postal ballot produced a 92 percent vote to strike on a 64 percent return - the strongest mandate in Scottish FE history.
Now a word about the six lay EIS branch officials. They come from a variety of backgrounds (Labour Party, Socialist Workers Party and no party) but share a commitment to rank and file democracy and active trade unionism. One of the three colleges that had merged to form Edinburgh College had come through two successful strikes.
There was also considerable experience at national level - the branch secretary was also the current president of the EIS FE section. Together the branch reps were a cohesive body that would refer everything to the rank and file and would not be browbeaten.
The anti trade union laws aim to transfer power from the rank and file to full-time officials and the EIS constitution puts the area official formally in charge of a dispute. However, the EIS had recently acquired a new, left wing general secretary and the heavy-handed bureaucratic practices of the past no longer applied. This would prove important.
When, prior to the strike ballot, the management tried to open separate talks with the area official, the reps made it clear that this would not happen. The area official agreed. His conviction must have been strengthened when management then tried to bully him as it had the branch reps. Such was the strength of the ballot that the EIS nationally agreed to back strike action, beginning with one day in the first week, two in the next, and then three days a week indefinitely.
The first day of strike brought all the elements of anger, confidence and unity together. There were large picket lines across all campuses and all entrances, bolstered by the presence of EIS full-timers and students. Management attempts to split the students from us came to nothing, as in the space of a few days 2,500 of them had signed an EIS petition.
Understanding the political dimension of the dispute, the branch proceeded to the Scottish Parliament where over 200 strikers heard from branch officials, MSPs, students, higher education lecturers who had their own strike that day, the EIS president and general secretary and others.
Our blog carried full reports. Messages of support began flooding in, especially after a report was carried by Socialist Worker. There was financial backing too, with delegations of strikers visiting other colleges, teachers' meetings, a PCS union meeting, among others. The atmosphere on the picket line was expressed by a blogger.
COLD HANDS, WARM HEART
It was cold on the picket line today. Blooming cold and I wasn't even on the dawn patrol. Hats, scarf and gloves off (briefly!) to those brave souls. Well done! Yes, the fingers and toes nipped a wee bit but even the wind couldn't penetrate to the core or chill the lovely warm feeling inside. So where did all this warmth come from?
Finally getting to do something positive after months on the receiving end.
The very real backing from our support staff and students.
The waves and toots from passing traffic.
The student who brought her two-year old daughter along and the wee lassie proudly holding up a placard that was bigger than she was.
Above all the strength, spirit and solidarity of colleagues and students which reminded me why I chose education as a career and why there is none better in the world.
So management tried a new tactic - a two-year deal worth 7 percent in total in return for a milder attack on conditions. But they had misjudged their audience. The new offer was put forward with the request that the union suspend strike action while talks continued. The EIS answer was "No", to which management responded, "That's not what they did at Grangemouth!"
Our dispute was indeed in the shadow of Grangemouth, but not in the way management expected. Before that defeat Unite the Union held a mass demonstration outside the refinery gates. This was just after the workers had voted for action and were holding out against the imposition of a new contract.
Only one speaker on the platform talked about the potential of strike action for gaining solidarity and winning - the branch secretary at Edinburgh College, there as president of EIS FE sector.
The new college offer was presented to campus meetings whose numbers exceeded those who voted in the ballot. To attend, some lecturers had to leave classes, and did so despite management orders. It quickly became clear the new offer had not gone down well.
Not only had the success of the first day and outside support strengthened resolve; the idea that we were seen as willing to sell our principled defence of jobs, conditions and education had enraged people. We would not be bought and putting more money on the table just increased the insult.
Having cancelled all classes for the first strike day, management attempted to put them on; but 92 percent of staff failed to turn up. At lunchtime support staff in Unison union, who had been threatened with discipline if they did not attend or phoned in sick, came out to our picket lines to show solidarity.
With still fewer classes running, our plan was, once again, to take the strike to the streets of Edinburgh. This time the target was the Scottish Funding Council. When the branch officials arrived at the meeting point outside Edinburgh's Haymarket Station rain was pouring and the space was deserted.
The automatic doors of the station opened to reveal a flashmob of lecturers inside. An impromptu mass meeting followed, much to the consternation of the station management. We then marched to the Funding Council. Its earlier refusal to hear from us melted away in about three minutes, and two leading officers came down to hear our concerns.
With more strikes to follow a new round of talks began. The negotiations began with a statement from the EIS reps: "We want to make you aware of the current situation. Membership of EIS was 453 before dispute. At the last count it was 500. Picket lines are larger each day and the number of classes the college is able to run on strike days is falling. The principal suggested going to the ACAS [arbitration service]. That is not going to happen. The dispute needs to be solved in this room.
"Why is there such strength of feeling? The way management offers have been framed would suggest that our primary motivation is money. That is far from the truth... Management's approach has been to antagonise staff instead of bringing them along. The results have come out in the stress surveys and now in the sickness figures. We are here as educators and will not accept a reduction in the service we provide the students. Our hands are tied therefore. The issue of no further deterioration in conditions is not a pose; it is the bottom line."
That day ended in victory. What are the lessons of the Edinburgh College strike for others? Firstly, the rank and file was at the centre, and once the anger gained collective expression anything was possible. Confidence was the other issue. This developed through an interaction between the rank and file, the branch leadership and the national union.
Without rank and file organisation the dispute could easily have gone the way of so many others. Indeed, a move to strike over workload by EIS members in schools had recently been sidelined. The fact that branch officials held lay positions within the national union helped us gain national backing.
Members knew the union was fully behind them and yet kept control of their own fight. Finally, the strike was not a token, but quickly escalated to three days a week indefinitely. This showed how the working class is powerful when it is united and active.