Nationwide college strikes loom!

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Striking lecturers at Lambeth College in Clapham. Now another 26 colleges are balloting to strike
Striking lecturers at Lambeth College in Clapham. Now another 26 colleges are balloting to strike

STRIKE ballots proposing industrial action at Further Education (FE) colleges are currently underway, the University and College Union (UCU) have announced, and will close on December 19.

At the same time, UCU is warning that a pay offer of just 1% – from college representatives the Association of Colleges (AoC) – is a ‘wholly inadequate response’ to the ‘pay crisis’ in FE, and ‘has left teaching staff being paid £7,000 a year less than school teachers’.

The union also warned that the AoC now risks becoming an ‘irrelevant voice’ in the FE sector. Capital City College Group (CCCG) has agreed a 5% pay deal for over 1,700 staff, and less than half of colleges followed the AoC’s previous pay recommendation.

Last year the AoC said it regretted making only a 1% offer, and has conceded that staff need a rise. The union said warm words were not a substitute for fair pay – and warned that the 1% offer sent a ‘worrying’ signal to staff that they were not valued and that their employers were not prepared to fight their corner.

UCU members at six colleges walked out for two days last week in the first wave of strikes over pay. Ballots are also now open at another 26 colleges, and will close on Wednesday 19 December. And Unison has announced it will be launching a ballot of its members in English further education colleges in January.

UCU head of policy and campaigns Matt Waddup stressed: ‘This insulting pay offer is a wholly inadequate response to the crisis in our colleges. The offer will annoy staff who need their employers to be fighting their corner as the pay gap between them and school teachers widens further. ‘It is not right that staff at one college can receive a 5% increase while their colleagues down the road get nothing for doing the same work.’

At the same time threats of strike action by Welsh FE staff in a row over pay have prompted a revised pay offer from colleges in Wales after the Welsh government provided extra funds to cover it. Ballots on possible action at a further 26 colleges have opened and are set to close on December 19.

Meanwhile, two planned strike days are still on the table for December 13 and 14, the University and College Union (UCU) have said. In fact UCU, UCAC, NASUWT, Unison, GMB and the NEU are now consulting members at Wales’ thirteen FE colleges on the revised pay offer from their college employers.

FE lecturers say they should get the same 3.5% award made to teachers in Wales and England, while support staff have complained they are so badly paid they struggle to make ends meet. Although FE lecturers do the same or a similar job to school teachers running A level, Welsh Baccalaureate and other courses to students aged 16 to 19, their pay is not agreed in the same statutory way as school teachers’ pay. They voted to strike last month after being offered 1% compared to the teachers’ 3.5% award.

Meanwhile Unison members working in further education in England are to be consulted over an offer from the employer of 1%, or £250, whichever is the greater.

Wages in the sector have fallen by over 25% in the past decade. When negotiations opened in July, the unions asked for 5% or £1,500, whichever was greater.

UCU members in colleges have already taken strike action, the union noted, and Unison ‘will now launch a consultative ballot in January to ask members if they would be prepared to take strike action themselves, or action short of a strike. In fact, during that walkout by more than 700 University and College Union (UCU) members, there was disruption across six colleges last week – while one was forced to close for two days.

Bradford College shut eight of its 12 buildings and called off all its planned lessons on Wednesday and Thursday, while at least three other colleges cancelled some classes.

‘Despite the weather, members have been out on the picket lines explaining to their students why they have been on strike,’ said Matt Waddup, the UCU’s head of policy and campaigns.

He acknowledged that the action had ‘meant serious disruption’ but insisted the union’s members ‘have been left with no alternative’. Staff are demanding a five per cent pay rise, and are angry over an Association of Colleges’ offer in July for a ‘substantial pay package’ over two years, dependent on government funding.

UCU members at New College Swindon, Bath College, Petroc, Lambeth College and Croydon College, as well as Bradford College, took part in that week’s action. A spokesperson said the union had balloted around 700 members across the six colleges, and expected that all of them had walked out – and that in fact the actual number would likely be higher since new members had joined since the ballot.

Ballots on possible action at a further 26 colleges opened on Wednesday and are set to close on December 19. Matt Waddup said that the results from those colleges would be back before Christmas ‘and we hope that will focus college leaders’ minds’.

‘If they refuse to act, then we will be looking at further waves of strikes with more colleges in the new year,’ he said.

FE Week also reported, last month, that UCU members in more than 100 colleges across the country had been balloted since August, but had been frustrated by trade union laws which stipulate a minimum of 50 per cent turnout before they can act on the results.