The Scottish college lecturers’ strike has vital lessons for the trade union movement. EIS-Fela union members overturned “fire and rehire” at Forth Valley College in June—and won a national agreement that will stop it being pushed anywhere in Scottish colleges. As leading activists in the strike, we’re not claiming our experience is a model, but we hope it can help other groups of workers fighting back.
Bosses’ attempts to replace lecturers with “instructors” was at the heart of our dispute. Instead of employing lecturers on nationally-agreed terms and conditions, colleges sought to force lecturers onto worse ones.
The EIS is a big union with some 60,000 members covering universities, colleges and schools. However, since each sector requires a different approach, Fela is a “self-governing association”. And at just under 10 percent of the overall membership, Fela has its own leadership of lay reps and is not overly dependent on full-time officials.
Since 2015 bargaining on basic terms and conditions has been centralised through a national joint negotiating committee (NJNC), which is made up of bosses’ and union representatives. Prior to this, local bargaining at individual colleges produced a wide disparity in pay and terms and conditions across the country.
The change provided an opportunity to build a national fight. Elected national representatives, who were on the left, were able to visit branches which were not particularly active. They provided them hope that they could gain the same pay, terms and conditions as the larger and more militant branches. The message from those national lay officials was clear, “You can win. Others have won these specific terms and conditions—and if you organise, and support strikes, you too can gain the same ones.” This was received loud and clear across Scotland and union activity and membership grew as a result.
Fela members were encouraged to take action as part of a wider collective, which robbed local managements of a significant element of control they once enjoyed. Bosses had wanted to carry on running their fiefdoms as before. In fact, there has been only one year since the return to central bargaining in 2015 that has not involved national strikes. All of the action was successful to a greater or lesser degree. As a result the “Yes we can” attitude prevails, with members acutely aware that they have been able to make massive gains over pay and core terms and conditions through industrial action.
Although EIS bureaucracy shifted leftwards with a new general secretary in 2012, it is mainly busy with school teaching. And it can sometimes see the incessant militancy of the college sector as troublesome and a nuisance. Fortunately, whenever this happens, Fela’s lay reps have been able to act even if officials dragged their feet.
Without wishing to be too grandiose about it we try to follow the famous dictum of the Clyde Workers Committee in 1915, “We will support the officials just ‘so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately if they misrepresent them. Being composed of Delegates from every shop, and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.”
The 2021 dispute developed over a lengthy period. Some college managements tried to circumvent the improved lecturers’ pay and conditions we won by advertising new posts. These had various titles such as “instructor” or “assessor”—it was the same teaching role for less pay and with a higher workload. Because this practice was creeping at the margins, and only in some colleges, it was difficult to confront head-on or to make comprehensible to outsiders.
The situation changed when Forth Valley College management, using Covid-19 as cover, fired and re-hired a large group of existing lecturers. Fela could have left the branch to fight it alone, but acted on a classic union slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” We declared a national dispute. Elected officials from the Forth Valley branch were able to use online platforms such as Zoom/Teams/Webex to visit other branches explaining the dispute and its impact.
National lay officials, with the support of the union, were able to organise Scotland-wide online rallies and meetings. Campaigning material clearly setting out the case was issued online to all members. WhatsApp, Twitter, Tik Tok and all the other forms of communication were used to promote the explanation of the dispute. Again the key message, “Yes we can,” came to the fore. The cybersphere was buzzing. With the mantra, “Lecturers working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” the theme was protection of education as well as justice for lecturers. Our hashtag was #collegesneedlecturers.
Framing the dispute correctly was important. Some argued that defence of “lecturer professionalism” was the key thing to publicise. But our emphasis was always on fire and re-hire, which had only happened at Forth Valley, because that would be readily understood by the wider public. And with a public sector employer, a focus on politics and solidarity would give us the best chance of winning.
The first obstacle to overcome was winning ballots under pandemic conditions when most lecturers were working from home. Once the groundwork of convincing union members about the case was complete, we adopted Heriot Watt UCU’s “get the vote out” (GTVO) system. This simple but brilliant technique had successfully defeated compulsory redundancies at that university and showed how obstacles created by Tory anti trade union laws can be overcome.
What do we mean by GTVO? Under lay rep control, we coordinated efforts nationally and locally. Armed with membership lists a small team of activists at each college wrote individually to all members asking them simply to report if they had voted. They did this rather than spending a lot of time repeating the arguments for a ‘yes’ vote or worrying about how they had voted.
Noting that we were in the middle of a pandemic, this work was carried out initially by email. Every completed vote was checked off against the up-to-date member lists so that further efforts could focus on the dwindling minority yet to vote. Centralising this nationally as well as at branch level meant we could spot areas of weakness, register what tactics worked best, and keep a grip of the ballot process. The result was threshold busting turnouts in both a consultative and statutory ballot with solid votes for action in the region of 90 percent.
The strike was escalating—one day per week, rising to three per week—indefinitely. This sent a clear sign to the employers and our members. This action would not be token and involved the entire union. As before we would not stop striking until we had won. No weak compromise would be accepted.
There were some farcical moments along the way. Being in the public sector the bosses’ negotiators did not dare openly admit to a policy of fire and rehire. When they put proposals to us for a settlement, we accepted with alacrity and suspended our first strike day. But when the negotiators put that agreement to their own side they were turned over. So we ended up striking to win the employers’ own deal. However, comic that this was, it was still an ominous sign of just determined they were to beat us.
Our schedule for action had been calculated like this. We wanted peak action at the time of May’s Holyrood Parliamentary election and set dates by working backwards from there. Strikes were to begin mid-March and eventually stretched over two months. During that time we used online activism to the full with national meetings on almost every strike day, and online virtual pickets each morning. That was combined with real picketing so that we were publicly visible. Working from home was no obstacle to a successful strike, and in many ways cohesive national action was even easier than before.
The political strategy, using action to connect with the public and so pressure politicians during an election campaign was all-important. Through mediums such as People before Profit solidarity messages and donations buoyed us up. An emergency motion at the Scottish TUC union federation conference in late April showed the level of support in the trade union movement.
It was not as easy as it sounds. The press did its best to ignore us and as the action stretched on—without strike pay—it was unclear until the last minute whether it would be the employers or ourselves who blinked first. But we bombarded politicians through every channel with the simple question, “Do you support fire and re-hire?” The strategy of planning for the action to ramp up just around election time meant that we were active at a number of online hustings, with members participating in these events and doggedly filling the ‘chat’.
Eventually almost all the opposition parties spoke out against fire and rehire—some perhaps just for political advantage, but others out of conviction. Nicola Sturgeon was eventually cornered at an NUS hustings and had to say she disapproved of it. At that point we grew more confident. On 4 May we won an agreement which was actually an improvement on the original employers’ proposal we were striking for.
Even then the battle was not fully over. For the settlement to be implemented a circular had to be issued to every college, but the employers were holding back. We were meeting them on 17 June and it required a further threat of strike action if they did not shift to get the Circular issued. As a result, the next day something extraordinary happened at Forth Valley College. After 15 months not only were those who had been fired and rehired reinstated as lecturers, but new employees taken on as instructors were upgraded to lecturer. At a branch meeting full of tears of joy and release of pent up emotion, we could finally celebrate the fact that the post of instructor no longer existed at Forth Valley College.
We showed the Tory anti-strike ballot thresholds can be beaten—pandemic or no pandemic. The “get the vote out” method is a powerful tool in the hands of organised activists. That means that where a national issue arises it is possible to win national ballots if the right preparatory work has been undertaken. New technology affords opportunities for militants to link up in ways that did not exist previously. Networks unthinkable before the advent of Zoom can now be created.
That links to a second point. The importance of an orientation on rank-and-file self-activity and mobilisation cannot be underestimated. Full-time officials, even with the best of intentions, do not have the inside knowledge of what motivates members, how to pitch arguments and what will work. Working from the outside is not the same as working from the inside of a dispute.
Newsletters, social media, WhatsApp networks and the like coming from the lay national leadership down combined with an activist membership mobilising from the bottom up. Both factors were present because, firstly, our campaign had occupied the moral high ground and, secondly, there was a shared understanding grounded in previous experience that militancy wins. Solidarity for Forth Valley within the union and backing for FELA as a whole from other unions meant no-one was fighting alone. And everyone knew it. Regular updates direct from negotiations by the lay reps proved invaluable in maintaining the involvement of all members.
There were, of course, some nervous moments because, in any battle, victory is never guaranteed. But in the end all out action to win brought victory. Any lesser tactic would not have been effective against a management side which had shown itself absolutely committed to not giving in yet again. Confidence in the strategy gave Fela members the assurance they were not losing money just for show.
Added to that was political trade unionism in four senses. First, being part of the public sector means grasping the big picture. Principals were prepared to see our students thrown to the wolves to win their point but our employers are indirectly the government and it is vulnerable to public campaigning.
Secondly, after years of propaganda that “there is no alternative”, it would be easy to fall for the lie that taking on cheaper staff was either inevitable.Consistently countering that with the class position—that the money was there, that the bosses did not have the interests of any lecturers’ or students at heart, that workers have the power to win—was vital.
Thirdly, taking a stand on matters such as anti-racism, Palestine, climate change, and supporting struggles in other unions means the membership could see the union’s role as more than individual case handling. The battle for social justice and solidarity does not begin or end with the occasional parliamentary election. The union is a place where it can be fought for.
Fourthly, building a culture of “yes we can” class confidence among members is vital. That culture has to be based on identifying issues which matter to members, listening to their proposed solutions and persuading others that victory can be had on these issues. The overturning of fire and rehire shows FELA members that they can reverse the worst possible attacks through solidarity and organisation.
Why was this approach so relevant? Instructor grades were only found in a minority of colleges. Though we knew that if unchecked these would spread despite vociferous denials by the employers. So members from Shetland to Galashiels had to see Forth Valley’s fight as theirs. Political trade unionism meant the call to take action for others fell on fertile ground.
The majority of Scottish lecturers are not “wild militants”—though some of us probably are. Members have fought year after year because there was no choice. We face a dysfunctional management side out to wreck national bargaining so that they can regain local control and dominate. We long for a time when the legitimate interests of staff and the needs of students are recognised without the need to strike.
But being battle weary is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Each time we have struck our membership has risen. With a high union density already it would seem hard to gain more members and yet five national strikes in six years has increased membership by 10 percent and we are running out of people to recruit.
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