Thousands of lecturers in Scotland have delivered a thumping 93 percent vote in favour of the first national further education college strikes in over 20 years. The turnout in the EIS-Fela union ballot was 64 percent.
The first walkouts are planned for the 17 March, escalating to two days the following week and then three days a week indefinitely. The dispute, involving 4,500 members, is about equal pay but also in defence of education and unions’ right to collectively bargain for their members.
EIS-Fela president John Kelly told Socialist Worker, “The vote has been overwhelming all over the Scotland, whether you look at individual colleges or the picture nationally.
“We’re striking on different days so as not to hit the same students, but the blame for this lies squarely with management.”
But the strike also shines a spotlight on the Scottish National Party (SNP) government. Further education has borne the brunt of its cuts. Courses, funding, staff and student numbers have all been slashed under the “anti-austerity” SNP.
John said, “Lecturers have sent a very clear message to college management and to the government that they are not prepared to accept broken promises on national bargaining and equal pay.”
The SNP has failed to deliver on its election pledge to return to national bargaining. Bosses at several colleges refuse to participate—and those that are are imposing a 1 percent deal.
This first “negotiated settlement”, a year and a half since the first talks, actually increases the inequality that sees a £12,500 a year pay gap for workers doing the same job.
John said, “The imposition pushed more people to get involved and vote. We are not going to take it any more and the whole union is fully behind our strategy on this.”
The EIS argues that the SNP’s reorganisation of further education has been “misused as a means of implementing cuts”. The SNP’s justification was £50 million a year in “efficiencies”.
But spending watchdog Audit Scotland’s 2015 report said evidence for this was “unclear”. The only money “saved” that it could identify was from a 10 percent cut in staff between 2011-12 and 2013-14.
During the same period Scottish government funding fell by over 12 percent in real terms.
Students have suffered too. The report states that part-time student numbers halved and the number of students aged 25 or older fell by 41 percent between 2008-09 and 2013-14.
The final insult has been senior college staff themselves six-figure payoffs during college mergers that took place around 2011-14.
Bosses’ group Colleges Scotland claimed that “the college sector simply does not have access to additional funds to deliver more” than the imposed 1 percent deal. This is a lie.
The money is there to plough into courses and fund students. Audit Scotland noted that £79 million was still sitting unused in arm’s length trusts where bosses squirrelled away college cash.
And between the money that colleges hold in historic surpluses and SNP education budget underspends, at least another £200 million exists. Just £15 million would settle the lecturers’ pay claim.
Edinburgh College EIS-Fela branch secretary Penny Gower told Socialist Worker, “Our members have made their views about the imposition of the 1 percent abundantly clear.
“So far we have had national bargaining that is neither national nor involves bargaining. Like the junior doctors in England, we are aware that if we don't fight, our conditions and the service we provide will be in jeopardy.”
Every trade unionist needs to get behind the lecturers’ action and build solidarity for the strike days.