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UCU Wales suspends FE strike action after management concessions – but must be ready to fight again

UCU members have recently won some important concessions from management and the WelshGovernment by balloting with a big majority for strike action. If accepted by members via e-ballot lecturers pay will rise by 2 – 3.5% and management has agreed to discuss workload.

Clare Gibbs (UCU Coleg y Cymoedd) explains what has been won and the need to keep the pressure up (in a personal capacity).

“UCU Wales are currently engaged in their most important dispute for a decade.  College lecturers were recently balloted on two industrial action ballots. One on the issue of pay. This is part of a dispute involving all the Further Education (FE)  trade unions – support staff as well as teaching staff. The other on the issue of lecturer workloads. On both issues UCU members voted overwhelmingly by over 90% to support strike action on pay and another on workload. Both ballot results comfortably meet the thresholds set by the 2016 Trade Union Act indicating the strength of feeling amongst lecturing staff over these issues.

“Following UCU Wales’ fantastic ballot result, the Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning, Eluned Morgan, confirmed that an additional £8 million would be allocated to maintain pay parity with teachers in schools and to support an improved pay rise for support staff.

“On Wednesday 28th November UCU Wales Official and lay negotiators met with Colegau Cymru (the body representing College Principals) who submitted a revised pay offer that gave most lecturers 3.5% but divisively only 2% for upper grades; most managementstaff 1.5%; lower paid support staff 4.5%; higher paid support staff 2%

“The settlement also included a commitment from Colegau Cymru to negotiate on workload in January once the pay dispute has been settled. 

“Following the offer the lay negotiators decided to suspend strike action and a lobby of the Senedd on the 4th December. Many rank and file members were angered by this move, especially the abandonment of the lobby, as they felt pressure should be kept on the Welsh Government to provide appropriate funding for changes to the national workload agreement and to maintain pressure on Colegau Cymru to value staff for the vital work they do.

“Delegates across Wales attended the UCU Wales Special Further Education Sector Committee (FESC) on Saturday 8th December. It decided by a majority vote to recommend acceptance of the revised offer to enable lay negotiators to start discussions on workload.  FESC also decided, by an overwhelming majority, although not unanimously, to suspend action on the 13th and 14th December and await the outcomes of the workload discussions with Colegau Cymru.

“These concessions by the Welsh Government and Colegau Cymru (CC) have only been won by the determination of UCU members to take action by a big majority. Management had been attempting to discourage members from taking action including hinting at legal action to challenge the ballot, but were clearly shaken at the resolve of UCU members to take action. Many members believe that further concessions could have been won if the union has kept up the pressure. In my view cancelling the 13th and 14th was a mistake as it took the pressure off the employers.

“Members will have to be ready to show the same solidarity and commitment that achieved the improved pay offer, when it comes to the fight over workloads. This is the only way to ensure that the employers engage seriously with the workload issue.

“It was claimed by the union official and lay negotiators during the meeting that the UCU Wales policy of pay parity on pay scales with school teachers had been in operation since 2006 and had resulted in Welsh members earning more than their English counterparts.  However, UCU has retained collective bargaining rights with Coleg Cymru and should not be tied to the recommendations of the School Teachers Pay Review Body, a forum which has no post 16 representation and is not charged with considering the specific situation of further education. Consequently such a situation would hamstring the UCU in all future pay negotiations. Further discussion of the appropriateness of maintaining pay parity with school teachers will need to be discussed with UCU members.

“It was also claimed that the £8 million from Welsh Government was all that was on offer and was very difficult to achieve considering austerity and other priority areas.  The budget wouldn’t be finalised until the 18th December and there were no guarantees.

“Delegates who supported rejecting the offer felt that members they represented were particularly angered about the below inflation pay rise being offered to lecturers at the top of their pay scale, and that in the post austerity era it is only reasonable that lecturers are compensated for the 20% deterioration in living standards imposed on them over the last decade. This is clearly a divisive offer. Also simply restoring pay parity with teachers will not be enough to compensate for the decline in lecturers’ living standards or the massive increase in workloads since the 2008 financial crisis.

“Other delegates pointed to the industrial campaign which had been effective in achieving a 5% pay increase and a new fractionalisation policy at the Capital City College Group in England.  Their main slogans centredaround ‘the money is there we want our share!’ publishing details of college reserves and senior management pay.  Following eight days of strike action, lively lobbies of the governing body and a new CEO, a much better deal was struck.

“It shouldbe emphasised that the dispute has only been suspended and is far from over.  It must also be clear that these additional funds and revised offer have only happened due to the strength and determination of UCU rank and file members willing to take strike action by a staggering majority.  Whether the revisedoffer is accepted is now down to members.”

The UCU Wales e-ballot has been sent to members’ preferred email addresses this weekand the ballot closes noon Friday 11th January.