We’ll be striking in 25 colleges on 17 October, and then again on 5 and 20 November.
The feeling I pick up is that oversized classes, workload, management bullying, interpretation of directed time agreements are the big issues, exacerbated by issues of funding and pay.
Sixth Form teachers’ pay has fallen behind school teachers’ pay. We probably need a 15% rise to get us back to the relative level of 2008.
There’s been a general pay freeze, but that has been eased in schools and continued in the Sixth Form sector. The government is trumpeting the end of austerity, but the Sixth Form sector is still slipping behind.
The Department for Education [DfE] has been budgeting for a rise of only 1.0% in funding for the Sixth Form sector.
I teach adult education — trade union studies — but since Shrewsbury College (my employer) amalgamated with a Sixth Form college, we’re all under the Sixth Form college agreements (which was an improvement at the time), and our whole college is on strike.
We live with constant threats of redundancies. In my particular sector, trade union education, funding has gone down about 50% since 2014-5, and there are constant pressures to maximise class sizes.
At Shrewsbury College, we were in a prolonged dispute last academic year over lesson observations. I was worried about a danger of dispute fatigue. But the fact that, going immediately in the new academic year, we’ve beaten the Trade Union Act threshold in our ballot, shows that there is very strong feeling on the issues.
Overall, in the ballot closing on 16 September, 84% voted Yes to action, and the turnout was 43%. 25 colleges were above the 50% turnout threshold.
We’ve been emailed by the principal at Shrewsbury College says that they aim to keep the college open on the strike days, as they did during our dispute over lesson observations. I’ve heard some colleges will close, but at most, I think, the principals will keep them open one way or another.
We have a unique opportunity now to put pressure on the DfE at a time when the government is vulnerable. The DfE is already signalling some movement. Whether enough, I don’t know. That the NEU is re-balloting 16 colleges which came close to 50% should increase the pressure.
It makes sense, especially with the Trade Union Act, to front-load action. If we don’t get a result by 20 November, we will have to escalate.
So far there is no democratic running of this dispute. It is directed nationally. It’s very different from the local dispute we ran over lesson observations, when we had regular meetings of all striking members.
Yes, it would be good if we do as the CWU in Royal Mail has done in the past, and organise regular national meetings of workplace reps to debate and vote on the dispute.
The Trade Union Act 2016 was an unprovoked attack on the unions, but it is forcing unions to act more like unions than they did before.
The only way those 25 colleges beat the threshold was by thousands and thousands of workplace conversations and phone calls, building relations based on solidarity.
It has been an opportunity to actually build a union. The latest TUC figures shows that only one-third of workplaces where a union is recognised actually have a union rep on the premises. But without the reps, without the activists, there is no union.
This ballot was different from ballots in the past when you pretty much knew the result in advance. Now the ballot itself is a struggle which builds the union.
• Hugh Workman is an NEU activist at Shrewsbury College. Sixth Form college teachers will be marching and rallying in London on Thursday 17 October, assembling 1p.m. at 9-23 Marsham Street, SW1P 3DW.