Socialist Alternative Scotland
Workers across Scotland’s 24 Further Education (FE) institutions are locked in disputes over pay, terms and conditions and redundancies. Both the Education Institution Scotland-Further Education Lecturers Association (EIS-FELA) and UNISON support staff, have been in dispute since May.
National disputes were sparked by the employers’ body, Colleges Scotland’s insistence that pay rises even approaching the cost of living (after years of real terms pay cuts) are funded by compulsory redundancies. When strike action began in September, some college bosses had already provoked local disputes by forcing job cuts without any pay increase. At Edinburgh College, EIS members went on strike in support of shop steward, Kevin Scally, declared ‘redundant’ in a clear act of victimisation. At City of Glasgow College (COGC) lecturers have been on strike since June in what became Scotland’s longest-running public sector strike.
Socialist Alternative spoke to Maree Shepherd, UNISON FE Scotland branch committee, and Alex Boys, COGC student, to get the lowdown (speaking in a personal capacity).
‘Graeme Dey MIA’!
The background to these attacks on staff working (and students’ learning) conditions is years of financial mismanagement and virtual privatisation of the sector. When FE Minister Graeme Dey was told the offer breached the SNP government’s ‘no compulsory redundancies’ policy, he let the cat out of the bag by claiming that this pledge only covered the ‘public sector’, not colleges. Dey had to be reminded that his own website described FE as a ‘public service’! In reality, successive Labour and SNP administrations removed colleges from democratic control, becoming personal fiefdoms of unaccountable over-paid principals.
Dey continues this ‘hands-off’ approach, avoiding union representatives for months on end. When he met UNISON a month after strikes began, he blamed them for the lack of progress in talks, insisting no money was on the table to replace the £26m the government had slashed from already frozen FE budgets. Small wonder that workers dub him ‘Graeme Dey MIA’!
Big salary for very little
Whilst responsibility for the unfolding disaster in Scottish FE lies with Ministers’ willingness to implement Westminster austerity policies, management unaccountability only adds to the carnival of chaos engulfing colleges. Nowhere is this more so than at COGC. Principal Dr Paul Little MBE insists that measures including 100+ redundancies, cutting student contact time and slashing support for disabled students are financial ‘necessities’. However, Little himself is paid more (£170k) than both the First Minister and the UK Prime Minister and the college employs his personal chauffeur and executive chef.
Dr. Little spent £27,000 of public money on global travel last year, “procuring, developing and delivering commercial and international partnerships”. £300k was paid to a London consultancy firm for a joint project with the murderous, homophobic and misogynist regime in Saudi Arabia, while 100 staff were being sent down the road. In India, COGC maintained a ‘partnership’ for a full academic year with the ‘Scottish Institute of Hospitality Sciences’, whose only proven existence was a dubious website made up of stock images and lewd, seemingly AI generated, text.
Trade union victimisation
The same cavalier approach operates at Edinburgh College, which attributed cuts to a £6.6m deficit in the 2020-21 academic year. This might have been kept in check, had the Principal not awarded herself three pay increases totalling £30k over the same time. Kevin Scally was not the only union activist targeted for redundancy. EIS branch secretary Penny Gower was initially told the only redeployment available was as a spa-pool cleaner (a job the college knew was totally unsuitable for her as a disabled worker). When Penny’s redundancy was withdrawn she was copied into an HR memo explaining that ‘unfortunately a job has been found for her’!
Cuts and privatisation are not just disastrous for overworked staff; they represent an attack on overwhelmingly working-class students. A student speaking at the EIS/UNISON lobby of Parliament in September explained that politicians from all parties lacked understanding of the learning and lived experience of working-class students. Capitalist politicians mostly graduate from ‘good schools’ to ‘good universities’ to ‘good careers’ without ever experiencing the importance of ‘second chance’ education. This highlights how the fight in our colleges is not just about pay and jobs but a life and death struggle for quality publicly funded education for all, run democratically by staff and students.
United public sector resistance needed
FE workers are not the only group fighting SNP pay restraint in Scotland. On 1 November, school support workers returned to strike after local authority members of UNISON rejected council bosses’ latest pay offer by 89.92%. The ultimate reason these essential front-line workers are not being paid a living wage lies at the feet of budget restraint imposed by Holyrood ministers, so the case for united action is compelling. This is even more so in view of the decision by the two smaller council unions, Unite and the GMB, to accept an offer which UNISON correctly called ‘a real-terms pay cut’. Unite actually instructed members to cross UNISON picket lines in September. As UNISON reported this betrayal led to ‘a surge in membership numbers as thousands of local government workers joined the country’s largest union’ in the last week of September.
A further complication standing in the way of united action is that most groups of FE workers have to re-ballot to continue their action in November. UNISON only has a mandate for action in schools, not all council workplaces, under Tory anti-union laws. Developing a strategy to build unity in action and overcome these undemocratic rules cannot rely on members resigning in frustration at the divisions at the tops of the unions (indeed only a year ago UNISON members in NHS Scotland resigned en-masse to join the GMB in very similar circumstances). We need a democratic fighting rank and file movement in all unions to hold our leaders to account, win a combative leadership across the movement, and plan the way forward.
The Scottish working-class movement has a rich tradition which we can draw on in building this. The Clyde Workers Committee in the First World War united dozens of small craft unions into a united front against the bosses. Other examples include the ‘minority movement’ in the 1920s and the AntiPoll-Tax Unions in the 1990s. We urgently need conferences of resistance uniting organised and unorganised workers in localities across Scotland to coordinate our struggles and lay the basis for a mass party of working-class struggle.