On Wednesday 24 February, workers in Further Education (FE) colleges in England will strike over pay.
University and College Union (UCU) members struck in November but this time they will be joined by workers who are organised by Unison. The dispute is in response to the imposition of a pay freeze by the employer organisation, the Association of Colleges. Imposing a pay award without union agreement is an unprecedented action by the employers, but to be expected given the confidence of the employers. Why are they confident?
There has been no serious challenge from the unions to a year on year attack on pay and conditions. The average FE lecturer has lost £5,950 in pay over the last six years resulting from a collapse in the level of pay awards and increment and scale negotiations.
All this is bathed in the background radiation of the systematic dismantling of further education, now happening in the form of the government’s area reviews. Our trade unions have called for an increase in pay of £1 per hour for all college staff. This is a unifying demand, which is good, but the problem is it is attached to the now ritual strategy of striking to protest rather than to win. One and two day strikes are easily absorbed by an employer in a further education setting. We need to make the 24 February a solid and loud protest against the assault on further education but it must also be the beginning of an urgent debate in our unions on strategies to win, and with urgency.
We cannot wait for a general election, there will be nothing left of the post-16 education system our class needs by then. We need emergency conferences, uniting all the unions in post-16 education, to begin this work and we should call on and unite with the new forces of anti-austerity in the Labour Party to stand with us. We need a strike of all workers in post-16 education and it needs to be indefinite. We have to unite the grievances in higher education, further education, sixth forms and academies because the governments has united them in a strategy to bend and contort education to fit the needs of big business, in fact, to make post-16 education a big business. Let us educate ourselves on how to win.
Tube workers to vote on deal
London Underground workers in the RMT and Aslef unions have begun voting on an offer from the company aimed at settling disputes over pay and “Night Tube”. The company's proposed settlement is a four-year deal, giving increases in basic pay of 1% or RPI (whichever is higher) until 2019. The offer also includes a bonus for implementing Night Tube, and commitments to explore schemes for improving work/life balance, particularly for drivers. Although RMT and Aslef are recommending their members accept the offer, many activists are mobilising a no vote. Unite, which also has members on the Tube, has rejected the deal.
A supporter of the Tubeworker bulletin told Solidarity, “multi-year deals stack things in management's favour. While we're restricted from fighting over all-grades issues like pay and terms and conditions, management has a free hand to plan their next round of cuts.
“The deal is pretty shoddy on its own terms; the pay increase offered barely keeps pace with inflation, and will be negated by increases in employee National Insurance contributions.
“The elements of the offer relating to work/life balance are vague promises rather than firm commitments, and don't apply to all staff. “We should reject this offer and reinstate industrial action to push for a better one.”
Paramedics win victory over pay
Paramedics in Yorkshire ambulance service from Unison, Unite and GMB have won a victory on pay after a long battle on the issue. Paramedics have had a massive increase in their responsibilities in recent years and pressure has been building nationally for this to be reflected in pay. Last year the government recognised this, including a call for issues of recruitment and retention to be addressed in the NHS pay deal, though they went on to refuse to fund this. Yorkshire unions were the first to ballot on the issue. An informal ballot of Unison (the majority union) paramedic members showed 97.9% vote for action on a 76% return, and a formal ballot had been prepared. The day before it went out the Trust agreed re-banding. It's a sectional dispute and there's still elements to fight on. We need to use this victory to broaden out gains for all our members. But it's been a big success and given our members a lot of confidence that we can win through a strategy of industrial action. Other ambulance branches have had their eyes on Yorkshire over this, and there's a possibility of a national ballot.
E-ballot or no, fight the Bill
A leaked letter from Business Innovation and Skills minister Nick Boles to Oliver Letwin and Chris Grayling shows the government is considering some ″concessions″ in order to ensure the Trade Union Bill is passed in the House of Lords.
The letter, dated 26 January, suggests that the government is worried that the threshold provisions for strike ballots will not be passed in the House of Lords. They propose to commit to conducting a review into allowing the use of electronic ballots for strikes, something the TUC and most unions have made a prominent part of their campaign against the Bill. This does not mean that e-ballots will become a reality. There is currently no time-frame on when any such review must report and no guarantee it will report in favour of e-ballots.
Boles says in the letter ″I would not propose that we should also announce the period in which the review would report, although I expect us to come under pressure to do so.″ Tellingly the letter says ″there are areas of the Bill where we could make changed .... without significantly defeating its primary purpose.″
This is a clear response to the TUC′s campaign, which largely focussed on the need to e-ballots and the hypocrisy of the government allowing e-ballots for the Conservative party mayoral selection but not for unions. However the pitfall that always existed in this tactic has now come to bite us, we may be given e-ballots as a way of passing all the rest of the attacks on our class in the bill. Our movement shouldn′t, and should never have, suggest we are anything but opposed to the Trade Union Bill full-stop. We are conceding to the government meddling in our unions′ democratic processes.
At the Campaign for Trade Union Freedoms′ London rally on Thursday 11 February union leaders including Dave Prentis talked left, saying we should not settle for e-ballots. However, not one person on the platform made suggestions for where the campaign against the bill will or should go now. The letter also suggests that the government may remove the requirement for picket supervisors to wear an identifying armband and provide their details, but illegal picketing would still become a criminal offense not a civil one. E-ballots or not, the campaign against the Trade Union Bill must continue.
ENO singers ballot over cuts
Chorus singers at the English National Opera may strike after the company announced plans for four redundancies and a pay cut of at least 25%. The singers′ union, Equity, is balloting them for strikes, and has lauched a public campaign to oppose the cuts.
The cuts come after the company′s subsidy from Arts Council England was cut by £5m a year. A strike would not be unprecedented, chorus singers struck in 2003 under similar circumstances. The company was given an emergency grant by the Arts Council that time, something which wont happen this time. Equity members have labelled the cuts as ″cultural vandalism″.
Coventry bins unofficial strike
Bin workers in Coventry staged an unofficial strike last Tuesday (9 February) over the suspension of a colleague. The strike, which lasted a day, happened after a union representative was sacked for putting up a poster advertising a demonstration in support of two other union members who were facing disciplinary hearings. Workers went back to work on Wednesday 10 February and their union, Unite, is planning a ballot for official strikes if the union rep is not reinstated.