NO SINGLE DISPUTE can provide a blueprint for trade unionists immersed in their own often unique campaigns. Continuities do however emerge. On occasion, a single dispute can provide insights and approaches which might usefully equip the movement at large for the successful prosecution of other, perhaps very different, campaigns.
The recent dispute between EIS FELA (the Scottish Further Education Lecturers’ Association) and Scotland’s colleges offers one such example. Background: The SNP government’s plans for further education were confirmed around six years ago. A ‘merger’ process would amalgamate previously autonomous colleges with others in their areas and the service would be returned to the public sector. Though our members were sceptical of the merits of a policy which seemed to be informed less by educational than by fiscal rationales, a return to national bargaining provided a powerful sweetener to the proposition. In addition, promises were made (yet to be fulfilled) of a democratising of college management structures.
The legislation invited logical and straightforward expectations: no lecturer (‘From Galashiels to Stornaway!’) should have to work for significantly less wages, or in poorer conditions, simply by falling foul of a postcode lottery. The balkanisation of our sector’s terms and conditions must be brought to an end. When our employers reneged on a March 2016 agreement which conceded just that (a deal which was itself an outcome of national industrial action), lecturers voted by an overwhelming majority to hit the cobbles once again. Strategy: EIS FELA presented our employers with potential strike days stretching months into the future.
This tactic - patiently explained to members - sent shock waves rippling through boards of management. The prospect of fielding weeks of disruption placed them on the back foot, demonstrating to even the most stubborn of principals that our members meant business. Local officials carefully fostered the energies of colleagues.
Regular branch meetings, often with supportive national officials in attendance, kept everyone informed at every stage of negotiations. In addition, lecturers drew strength from a conviction that they were fighting not only for a full and fair harmonisation of pay and conditions across the sector, but for a public good, a decommodified service they attached a strong vocational pride to. Seeking out student and parent support, we were ready to defend that service come what may. Lessons: Members were faced by a Scottish government mostly bereft of any natural affinity with labour movement priorities, an aggressive employer's organisation and of course their own anxieties as industrial action escalated.
But this summer, Scotland's colleges finally relented. Confronted by a determined workforce committed to achieving equality across the sector, employers - having given up their attempts at divide and rule - were compelled to accept the justice of our case.
We might ask why it took prolonged industrial action to bring our employers to their senses. We might query why the SNP government insisted on a bystander role which often demanded concessions from our union while compelling nothing of our employers. Despite these obstacles, members voted in huge numbers for a package which, on the basis of agreed increments, will lead to full harmonisation across the board by 2019.
Despite new anti-unions laws coming into effect during the dispute, our members can look back on a pre-summer victory secured in the teeth of fierce resistance.
A prioritising of authentic, rather than managed, democratic involvement of members was key. Were it not for their confidence, desire and belief in the merits of the system they were defending, we might now be looking at a very different further education scene. The involvement of politicians, mainly from the Labour Party, helped exert leverage on the relevant ministers.
As it is, and though some of these experiences might be particular to our field, our national committee steered us to a victory which should offer workers around Scotland and the UK the confidence to take the fight for dignified workplaces to employers everywhere.
- Mike Cowley is a member of the EIS FELA Executive Committee and a member of Edinburgh North and Leith CLP.
- Dan Holland is an EIS FELA lay official and member of Edinburgh South CLP.
- Alan Holligan is an EIS FELA lay official and member of Edinburgh East CLP.