Some may say that there is nothing unusual about that when lecturers in this sector have probably taken more one-day strikes over the past 15 years than most workers. However, this time it is different.
We are used to getting insulting pay deals, but like other public sector workers this year we face a pay cut. Lecturers have seen principals’ pay rise 50 percent faster than theirs since 2002. Last year we were offered 2.5 percent. On average, principals awarded themselves 4.5 percent on an average salary of £100,000.
As any lecturer will tell you, this dispute is more than just about pay. It is about 15 years of marketisation of further and adult education – 82 percent of staff report rising workloads and stress.
The government’s emphasis on skills has led, according to James Rees, the head of education and training of the shop workers’ union Usdaw, to the “opening up of the social divide”.
The government’s narrow educational agenda has led to 1.5 million students’ places disappearing over the last two years in adult education.
The government’s slavish devotion to the market and competition is at the heart of the bitterness lecturers feel. In the past many public sectors workers mistakenly believed that, because they were professionals, it was wrong to go on strike to defend their services. With a quarter of a century of Tory and Labour governments ferociously imposing market mechanisms on public services, it has forced this generation of public sector workers to start to rebuild their organisations of resistance at the workplace.
Professionalism is no longer the rallying call of the right. The opening up of the public services to the market has meant that teachers can’t teach, nurses can’t heal and social workers can’t care.
Eight months ago a Unicef survey on children’s well-being of the 21 richest countries showed that Britain came bottom – we have the unhappiest children. The US came second to last. Britain has more of its citizens in prison than any other country in Western Europe.
We are heading for a society like the US where more than one in 100 adults are in prison and one in nine black people between the ages of 20 and 34 are also in prison. Already in Britain there are more black people in prison than in university.
The government talk a lot about the central role of further and adult education in creating social cohesion within our communities but at the same time they speak of rolling out the very mechanism that has created so much discord and fragmentation in our communities – the market.
This is why UCU has framed this year’s pay campaign around the slogan Our Schools, Our Colleges, Our Communities. This has become a joint campaign with the NUT teachers’ union, which is the final reason why this year’s pay campaign is different to other years.
One of the central impacts of imposing the market in the public sector is that it encourages competition among workers, reinforcing sectionalism and undermining workers’ most powerful weapon – unity.
The desire for unity among ordinary working people has been with us for some time. The millions who have demonstrated against war revealed how deep the internationalist instincts of the British working class are.
This is why it is so important to see some of our trade union leaders actively reflecting this desire by calling for and encouraging joint action over pay and in defence of education.
The 24 April strike alongside teachers could provide the opportunity for activists in the workplaces to turn that call into the biggest and most powerful expression of unity between the organised working class that has been seen for many years.
Sean Vernell is a national executive member of UCU and the vice-chair of the Further Education Committee. He writes in a personal capacity
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