Classes were cancelled at colleges across Scotland today, Thursday, as up to 5,000 college lecturers in the EIS-Fela union staged their first national strike in over 20 years. Reports of big picket lines are widespread.
Lecturers are angry at broken promises from the Scottish National Party (SNP) government, years of pay inequality and the employers’ refusal to negotiate.
“This is about equal pay for lecturers doing the exact same job, from Galashiels to Stornoway. We should get the same pay,” said Penny Gower, EIS-Fela branch secretary at Edinburgh College.
Over 90 lecturers joined the picket lines there to support the action challenging the £12,000 a year difference between the lowest and highest paid lecturers in Scotland.
Pickets were out in force at New College Lanarkshire (NCL). Some 40 strikers at the Coatbridge campus were buoyed by solidarity from other college workers. “The support staff not on strike but who refused to cross are the VIPs on our picket line today,” union rep Angela McCormick said.
She added, “We’re pretty solid here. All classes are cancelled.”
The pickets were 60-strong at the Motherwell campus. Eileen Imlah, union branch secretary at NCL, said, “We’ve had solid support from our members and we’re optimistic.”
At the centre of the dispute is the issue of national bargaining and the right of the union to negotiate collectively for its members. Yet some maverick colleges have tried to ignore it altogether.
In Glasgow three colleges balloted separately to coordinate with the national strike and to force bosses to sign up to the process. Huge votes for strikes at each college underlined just how much college lecturers support today’s action – one college saw a 99 percent vote to strike.
After just one day there are signs bosses may be about to cave in. Paula Dixon, EIS-Fela branch secretary at Glasgow Clyde College, told Socialist Worker, “We’ve had a brilliant turnout, about 90 on the picket lines and other Glasgow colleges have similar numbers.
“We’ve had indications from Glasgow management that they’re prepared to sign up to national bargaining tomorrow. We are waiting to see. Branches have challenged this from the start, if they sign up then it will be a victory for us.”
Colleges Scotland, the bosses’ organisation, claims to “have done everything in our power to avoid a strike”. Eileen said the opposite is in fact true.
“Negotiations have gone on for 15 months and the issue of national bargaining has been live since 2011 but they have imposed a 1 percent pay deal on us that increases pay inequality.”
Hundreds of strikers went to Edinburgh to lobby the Scottish parliament this afternoon, chanting "which side are you on?"
Angela said, “We need to pressure the Scottish government to fund the pay claim.” Eileen agreed, “The SNP manifesto in 2011 promised us national bargaining. The Scottish government now has to do something to make that happen.”
The SNP has driven through massive cuts to funding under its watch. Its college mergers programme in the last few years has been used to disguise the impact of its austerity for further education.
It is in this atmosphere that bosses pretend that they “simply have no additional resources available to finance a deal”. Angela said, “It’s a bit rich to hear that coming from those that voted themselves big payoffs. Managers at our college have walked off with £2.5 million.”
This looting of college cash has fuelled workers’ anger. Today’s strike is part of an escalating series of walkouts. A two-day strike is set for Tuesday and Wednesday of next week and this escalates to three days a week after that.
Penny argued, “This is not a token one-day protest but a strategy based on the model at Edinburgh College that won a 22 percent pay rise for the lowest paid staff and an 8 percent cut in workloads.
“We’re in this for as long as it takes to win it.”