THE conference of the Natfhe lecturers' union took place over the bank holiday, just a few days after a two-day strike by over 30,000 further education college lecturers. The campaign over the insulting 1.5 percent pay offer to further education lecturers dominated the conference.
Ivan Lewis, the New Labour minister for youth and learning, got a taste of lecturers' anger. He provoked outrage among the 230 delegates on Monday morning when he described the two-day strike last week as 'completely unjustified' and 'only causing damage'.
He also attacked Natfhe for not talking to the employers. In fact the college bosses called off talks a week before the strike. Lewis's arrogance provoked three quarters of delegates to walk out. They returned to hear the union's president, Tina Downes, and general secretary Paul Mackney give Lewis a ferocious dressing down.
Lewis restated his attacks on Natfhe members in his final remarks, emphasising the government's contempt for the public sector. His speech left delegates determined to prepare for further strike action by further education lecturers.
They passed a resolution calling for 'further escalating strike action in September'. This is when colleges are at their busiest enrolling new students. It also proposed agreements with other trade unions to conduct ballots for joint strike action at the start of next term.
Pete Green from inner London was applauded when he successfully moved an amendment calling for joint strike action with other public sector unions over London weighting. He said, 'We've had the teachers' strike, the Unison strike, and now other groups are organising over London weighting. 'It's vital we join in now. We are talking about potential strikes by several groups of workers that can paralyse the capital.'
Other groups of workers campaigning over pay, such as firefighters and council workers nationally, fed the mood for strikes in further education colleges in September.
The Unison union, which represents support staff in colleges, is considering balloting for strikes. But many delegates were wary after Natfhe leaders recommended a poor settlement last year and called off planned September strikes despite a successful one-day strike in May. Some 40 percent of delegates voted to move towards an indefinite strike in September.
Executive members opposed it by playing on the weaknesses in a few areas during last week's two-day strike. But Andy Cairns from East Anglia described how weaknesses can be overcome. He said, 'Our branch is not particularly strong. But we had 105 people on the picket line out of 300 union members and a very solid strike.
'Throughout the campaign we encouraged everyone to be active in whatever way they could. We produced stickers, held rallies, and campaigned through the press. We have to get every member possible actively involved in the campaign to build the mood for action in September.'
Delegates from the higher education sector, which includes the 'new universities' (former polytechnics), heard that their pay offer due next week is likely to be inadequate. There is pressure here too for a strike ballot alongside members of Unison for action at the beginning of next term.
They also backed a raft of other important policies. They included support for the anti-war and pro-Palestinian position adopted by the union and its general secretary, who has spoken at several demonstrations. Some 35 delegates attended a Stop the War Coalition fringe meeting.
The conference also passed a resolution calling on the TUC to take a lead in opposing the BNP, by organising an anti-Nazi demonstration in Burnley. Peter Jones, a lecturer at Burnley College, was applauded when he said the Natfhe branch there had passed a resolution supporting any lecturer who refused to teach one of the BNP councillors who is on an off-site course there.
Round-up of college disputes
- DELEGATES FROM Southampton City College told the conference how their principal, Lyndsey Noble, has threatened union activists. Paula Coles said, 'We informed her of a work to rule, and a day later union activists received letters saying their jobs were under threat. 'The branch has voted for an indefinite strike if management do not back down over the victimisations.' Delegates voted for a national campaign in support of lecturers in Southampton.
- LECTURERS AT South Bank University in London will be on strike for three days next week between 11 and 13 June. Their action is against 128 planned redundancies. About a quarter of the university's lecturers are facing the chop. The redundancies result from a claw-back by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) of £14 million over two years. But South Bank's problems are part of a wider crisis in Higher Education. Ex-polytechnics are the poor relations of higher education. Their students, often from poorer backgrounds, receiving lower spending per head than students in traditional universities. All the unions are now engaged in a campaign for greater education funding.
- NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY is imposing £6.25 million of cuts.
Lobby Newcastle University Council, Wednesday 12 June, 3pm, Times Square, next to Newcastle station. Send messages of support to AUT Office, 10 Eldon Place, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, or fax to 01912 226 734.
- THE TWO-day college lecturers' strike was well supported in Bristol. Over 100 lecturers joined a protest rally in Bristol last Wednesday. Lecturers from Bristol City College, Filton College, Gloscat, Stroud, Bath, Soundwell and Weston packed the rally.
- MEMBERS OF Natfhe and Unison across Wales joined a 60-strong rally in Swansea on Wednesday. Guy Stoate from Pontypridd Natfhe reported a 99 percent solid strike. He told the rally, 'It is a slap in the face for hard working staff that we have been rewarded with a pay cut.' The meeting called for further action and a ballot for indefinite strike across all unions in further education.
- COLLEGE WORKERS in central London are gearing up to fight against threats of redundancy. Management at University College London announced a budget deficit of £8 million. At a packed meeting called by the AUT lecturers' union last week union members agreed to oppose the cuts and start a campaign. It will begin with lobbies and protests, and will move to industrial action should staff be threatened with redundancy.