Over the last week, hundreds of workers at colleges across the country have been on strike, demanding a meaningful increase to their currently stagnant pay. After years of failed negotiations with the Association of Colleges (AoC), Further Education (FE) staff have escalated their struggle for a decent income.
In a period where the average workload of FE staff has never been greater, not even the meagre 1 percent pay rise approved by the AoC was carried out this year in the vast majority of colleges across the UK. By contrast, latest figures reveal that over a third of college principles received a pay rise of at least 10 percent in 2017, with some earning in excess of £200,000 a year.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), noted recently in an open letter to UCU members that years of negotiations with the AoC have achieved no meaningful reforms for FE staff. Any small gains that were made during the negotiations were never implemented in the majority of workplaces and, as a result, many FE workers are struggling financially. This, as well as the relatively-less-dismal pay available in schools, has prompted many to leave FE, as it is no longer financially viable. This undermines the whole sector. As FE colleges tend to be populated by more working-class and mature students, this will be to the direct detriment of worse-off learners.
The UCU is demanding a 5 percent pay rise for FE staff at all colleges in England and will ballot for strike action at any college that does not implement this. Shamefully, the AoC has refused to take part in any pay negotiations, until all local disputes over pay and working conditions are resolved. This is an absurd and unrealistic stipulation, clearly intended to avoid any meaningful progress and prevent negotiations from taking place altogether.
The AoC’s unwillingness to deal directly with the unions is a clear sign the AoC is rattled, perhaps with the memory of the recent UCU strike over pensions (which lasted four weeks and became quite militant) still fresh in their minds. The lesson of that strike – which was undermined by Sally Hunt and her team of bureaucrats and ended without reaching its full potential – is that FE workers can trust in nothing but their own strength, and that of other organised workers. They must raise their sights to a broader, political struggle against Tory austerity and attacks on the education sector, which flow from the underlying crisis of capitalism.
Both academic and non-academic staff across the education sector face cuts, low pay and poor working conditions due to austerity. In addition to mobilising solidarity from its membership in HE, the union must reach out to teachers in primary and secondary education, health workers and – crucially – students. Student solidarity was a key factor in the HE strike, in which grassroots activists forged goodwill with the wider student body by connecting pension cuts to other questions, like the demand for free education. The union should further highlight the fact that attacks on FE specifically harm the working class, who are already severely inhibited from accessing tertiary education. On this basis, they should reach out to the Labour Party and Momentum, both of which offered solidarity to lecturers during the pensions dispute.
The primary objective is to win a reasonable wage for FE workers, but the crisis-ridden capitalist system is incapable of providing even this basic concession. Therefore, the strike should not be an isolated campaign, but instead be turned into a political struggle against Tory austerity and the marketisation of education!
by Ollie Brotherton, KCL Marxists