FE: not just a one day wonder

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Further Education lecturers in Scotland won a stunning victory in March after just one day of planned all-out strike action. Lecturers' union activists Donny Gluckstein and Penny Gower draw out the lessons we can all learn from their methods of organising.

In October 2014 the Further Education Lecturers’ Association (FELA), a semi-autonomous section of the EIS teachers’ union in Scotland, called for national bargaining to bring equal pay to the level of the highest paid college. In March 2016 strike action began and after just one day these demands were won, along with a pay rise for all and no deduction for striking. By 2019 wages will have risen by 11 percent on average, with the lowest paid lecturers seeing an increase of at least 33 percent. We need to learn the lessons. This article focuses on processes rather than detailed description of the events. Three elements stand out: all-out indefinite action; rank and file orientation; and a focus on politics.

FELA’s strike had several sources. One was the cuts suffered under Labour and recently the SNP. These were markedly greater than for schools or universities because working class kids, the bulk of our students, were judged more expendable. Then, from 2012, most colleges were merged, causing job losses and degradation of the service. The fight was ostensibly over salary levels, but it channelled enormous anger at this general state of affairs. Another reason was fallout from the 2011 pensions’ strike. In the biggest stoppage since the 1926 General Strike, the EIS was extremely effective, shutting 95 percent of Scotland’s schools. This only intensified the disappointment when no further action followed. In 2016 lecturers would not back mere token protest. Finally, in the week Jeremy Hunt imposed the junior doctors’ contract, our employers imposed a 1 percent pay rise. That widened differentials, negated national negotiations, and threatened future conditions. Simultaneously several principals, including three from large Glasgow colleges, refused to join national bargaining at all.

On a 62 percent turnout 90 percent voted for action, with an incredible 99 percent in one Glasgow college. We were now set for escalating indefinite strike action until victory was secured. With this approach, a solid strike on day one would have an infinitely greater impact than any number of single days.

Reaching this point was by no means guaranteed. Across Scotland branch officials and rank and file activists campaigned hard for months, the prize for sheer tenacity going to the president and vice-president of FELA, who toured colleges tirelessly. Objective and subjective forces generated this layer. Objectively the fight for national bargaining and common pay arose because in 1993 the Tories removed colleges from local authority control and “incorporated” them. Henceforth they were run by the principals who behaved like feudal barons; chaos ruled. When the SNP decided to end the mayhem through mergers and central direction, a by-product was encouragement of national bargaining to inject rationality into industrial relations.

Incorporation opened the path to lecturers’ pay being negotiated at individual college level. When that happened each EIS college branch had to sink or swim, independently of EIS HQ. Those that sank tended to fall behind in pay, which is how a 33 percent pay gap developed. Those that swam were led by resilient lay officials. Mergers extended union branches’ reach across more than one college, while the return to national bargaining combined their strengths Scotland-wide.

The current 20-plus FELA national executive includes many battle-hardened individuals, and of the eight lay reps in the EIS national bargaining team no less than six have recently been involved in building for successful local strike action. The majority of EIS members are school teachers, and FELA therefore forms a distinctive sub-group in the wider union. Nonetheless, the EIS’s organisation and resources were vital for lecturers’ confidence. That much was proved by the 5.5 percent increase in FELA membership preceding the strike, though union density was already high. Leaflets, posters and approval for ballots and strike action were readily provided, with full representation of full-timers on picket lines and our lobby of the Scottish Parliament.

However, the memory of how national bargaining was originally lost could not be erased. In 1995 the EIS’s right wing general secretary defied a ballot and secretly negotiated a ramping up of workload in return for retaining national bargaining. When the members rejected this sell-out the employers ended national bargaining. By a bizarre coincidence, in 2016 a key figure in the 1990s EIS bureaucracy was reincarnated as a lead negotiator for the employers (being chair of Scotland’s Institute of Directors). His presence across the table was a permanent reminder of past betrayal.

Fortunately, the right wingers of old are long gone and the EIS has a new left wing general secretary. Even so, tensions developed. It was not that the full-timers wanted another sell-out. But they inevitably lacked the on-the-spot knowledge and sensitivity that only a rank and file leadership can have. Sitting in a staffroom is not the same as sitting in EIS HQ. Paradoxically, generalising from the wider experience of the EIS (which has no recent successes) was not as reliable a guide as the FELA lay officials’ experience of how to win.

Differences showed on a number of occasions. It took a hard argument by the FELA executive to get an emergency conference on pay. Above all, communication channels became a disputed issue. To give a typical example, HQ rightly sent a list of 32 initial strike dates to the employers hoping to terrify them into early surrender, but sending the same list to members with minimal explanation was a mistake. Some were shaken, saying that they had voted for strike action but not realised the financial sacrifice to come. It took patient explanation from branch reps to convince them that the strategy was for swift and maximum impact.

Wherever possible the official stamp was welcome as it lent authority, but fortunately it was not essential. The absence of strike pay meant we had little to lose if official approval was withheld. Therefore, if documents prepared by executive members disappeared into HQ when they urgently needed to be disseminated, alternative communication channels were deployed — including an unofficial email network and social media. An example of rank and file independence was that contrary to official advice limiting pickets to six, mass picketing was characteristic. Head office soon learnt that it was easier to accede to our requests than try to block them.

However, one document — a model letter to send to politicians — never saw the light of day. If this apolitical approach had persisted, an essential weapon in our armoury would have been lost. Fortunately we did not have to find out whether, in a long war of attrition, it would have been the employers or the lecturers who buckled first. But politics was also a bone of contention among the rank and file leadership, both in formulating and prosecuting the claim. Two of the bargaining team are Socialist Workers Party members, and here it must be said that the party provided excellent tools for class struggle. Debates in the International Socialism journal on strikes proved useful.

The pay claim was therefore based on understanding unevenness in consciousness, simultaneously accommodating the views of the most advanced and more timid elements. Many Scottish lecturers were influenced by the lack of confidence that still afflicts the labour movement generally. Some feared being labelled “greedy” if they weren’t the worst paid. Others worried about disrupting students’ education. Finally, while the scale of cuts could provoke rebellion, it could equally induce acceptance of the employers’ mantra — “There is no money”. Therefore the claim focused on justice. The slogan was “From Galashiels to Stornoway, what we want is equal pay”. Some of the rank and file leadership were initially uneasy, but as the campaign gathered pace, it became clear that combining politics and economics was effective. There was also an explicit argument against austerity. Inflated bankers’ bonuses and obscene pay-outs to retiring principals at the time of merger demonstrated that the resources were there — we just had to access them.

The same debate applied to how we should run the campaign. It was uncertain if we could hold a long strike. Would industrial militancy win quickly, or should it be combined with targeting the ultimate paymaster — the SNP government? Luckily FELA conference took place shortly before the strike and delegates decided the matter. The week before the strike we leafletted SNP conference denouncing the “Westminster Tory style” pay imposition and Scottish government failure to honour its pledge of common pay. With the Holyrood election campaign just beginning, this was a warning of embarrassment to come, though we were careful to avoid identification with either Labour or the SNP.

On its first day the strike was remarkably solid. Branch officials who had feared a weak response were surprised by how enthusiastically members responded. That afternoon hundreds appeared outside the Scottish Parliament in a noisy protest which, unusually, could be heard in the debating chamber. This was political lobbying at its best. Unless our equal pay strike was quickly addressed it would dog the electoral campaign right up to the 5 May vote. Caught in a vice between the strike from below and pressure exerted by a worried SNP from above, college employers capitulated the following day.

As this account makes clear, success was based on hard work over years by large numbers of union reps. There were setbacks along the way, including a string of victimisations — part of managements’ campaign of resistance. But in the end audacity, rank and file initiative and a political focus brought success.

Donny and Penny are lecturers in Edinburgh and part of the EIS-FELA national bargaining team. Personal capacity.