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THEY SAY it’s grim up north — but they obviously have never stood on a picket line in Liverpool on a sunny spring day. After rejecting insulting and divisive pay offers the City of Liverpool College UCU branches along with six Further Education (FE) colleges in north-west England took strike action yesterday May 18.
This isn’t the first strike of its kind; unfortunately FE colleges every year force members to take industrial action in the face of pathetic below inflation pay offers. UCU members voted overwhelmingly for strike action last year and they did again this year.
What bad bosses don’t realise is that every time they force this then it just increases the strength of the workers. Nina Doran, UCU secretary to the UCU liaison committee at City of Liverpool College, told us that “the support for action is increasing, despite the anti-trade union actions and intimidating tactics of a leadership who do not listen to UCU members.
“After six days of strike action last year, the best the employer offered a between 0 and 3 per cent raise for our members. Those older staff would receive 0 per cent. The board of governors considered this a generous offer! And all the while sitting on up to £9 million in the bank and knowing there is incoming £6m for the government in the new academic year.
“The UCU reps in each site declare the increasingly high level of workload where the time to teach on the courses and to support the students is decreasing. The poor working conditions include inadequate IT; teachers report having to buy their own pens and resources for teaching. The members are concerned that the high educational standards for Liverpool students are slipping under this leadership; these are working-class students that deserve the best.
“UCU members believe the staff at the City of Liverpool College have suffered under the leadership and management of the principalship headed by Ms Elaine Bowker for over 10 years. Every year of this leadership the employer gave no pay offers at all or a derisory pay award that was below the AOC recommended pay award and/or way below inflation; this has amounted to a 10-year pay cut of about £7,000 on average.
“The principal has one of the highest salaries in the FE sector; her wage was boosted during a time of near bankruptcy for the college, plus at the same time there was the failed business ventures with First for Skills and selling off the estate. All the time year after year the employer declared they couldn’t afford a pay offer to teachers.
“Staff wages have meant people are suffering. The rise in bills and cost of living has compounded 10 years of cuts to pay by this employer.
“The employer’s lack of concern over pay has created more issues affecting the workforce. The increase of casualisation and part-time staff under this leadership is also an increasing concern to UCU reps. The retention of staff is a huge issue as maintaining teaching standards requires keeping the staff.
“We do not want our teachers needing to look round for a better employer. We need to keep the talent in the college. But also, recruitment is a challenge as vacancies remain unfilled in some areas. Management turnover under this principal is close to 90 per cent.
“Over the last 10 years the board of governors has changed too. They no longer represent the diversity of the community nor do they have a teacher representative anymore to listen to their issues. A considerable increase in funding has already been announced and the college financial rating is good to outstanding; pay talks have been going on since last summer.
“UCU has asked for an inflation-plus offer. The employer can afford it. UCU has campaigned on pay for years and it’s time the employer listened and paid up.”
The UCU model should be looked at by other unions who want to win in the workplace with UCU branches being highly organised and density of members one of the highest in the north-west. The five branches had pickets on each of the five sites yesterday and then joined comrades in The Casa for an online rally with hundreds of members across the region and nationally.
Direct action gets results. Just the threat of strike action was enough to get Bury college to the negotiating table where they tripled their original offer from a derisory 2 per cent up to 6 per cent plus a raft of other improvements to working conditions. Even more importantly perhaps union density has increased massively in the college making the UCU team a force to be reckoned with.
Salma Bhuta and Jayne Gillies, fresh from the dispute in Bury, explained how they fought and won with support from their regional officers:
“We led a grass roots we call Spider Webbing campaign. We established a group of key members who became spiders in our Spider Webbing network. We used our spiders to talk to other members thus creating a network of communication which allowed us to disseminate information quickly and at short notice.
“We set up WhatsApp groups for spiders and for our lead negotiators and regional officers. All of these avenues of communication helped us to achieve the fantastic outcome on Wednesday.
“We increased our numbers and therefore our bargaining power. Solidarity is our strength and we stand with our brother and sister comrades at Burnley College, Oldham College, Hopwood Hall, City of Liverpool College, Manchester College and Nelson and Colne College who have yet to agree a deal.”
The fight doesn’t end there — UCU members will be out on the picket line in coming weeks. If you visit or have visited the UCU picket (or any other!) send us a short note via direct message or email about how you found it, so we can encourage others to sign up to visit a picket.
On June 15 we are hosting an event led by reps, stewards and strike leaders on how we sustain action and win. Visit bit.ly/strikeandwin to learn more and register for June 15.
This is a small step towards the important re-establishment of the rank-and-file fighting committees of years gone by. We hope all those troublemakers can join us for an evening of action planning and discussion on tactics, strategies and how we win.
Robert Poole and Henry Fowler are the founders of Strike Map UK.
Submit a strike or view our map www.strikemap.co.uk. Follow Strike Map UK on Twitter @StrikeMapUK.
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