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We’re ready to strike until fair pay wins

It is time for the Scottish government to step in to the long-running college pay dispute, writes LARRY FLANAGAN

THE Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) college lecturers are currently involved in a long-running and increasingly frustrating dispute with college management on the issue of pay. If this sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that — this is the third dispute in the college sector over the past four years as lecturers continue to stand up for fair pay across the sector.

The roots of this dispute are grounded in the EIS campaign for equal pay for equal work in Further Education colleges across Scotland. For decades, Scotland’s colleges set pay and conditions through plant bargaining rather than through a single national bargaining process.

Under this system, individual college principals held tremendous power over the salaries and working conditions of their staff. This was not something they were keen to surrender and, despite a commitment from the Scottish government to move to national bargaining, college principals seemed determined to protect their fiefdoms and their power over employees.

This led to a long-running campaign by members of the EIS Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) calling on colleges to deliver the promise of national bargaining, including the introduction of national pay scales which would deliver harmonised pay in colleges across Scotland. A programme of industrial action placed pressure on both colleges and the Scottish government to meet their commitments.

Highlighting the unfairness of lecturers in one college being paid thousands of pounds less than those working in another college was key to the EIS campaign.

Eventually, success in the campaign for equal pay was delivered when the Scottish government — perhaps fearful of the potential impact of the dispute on their campaign for re-election in the Scottish Parliament elections — intervened to compel college management to deliver an agreement. The resulting March 2016 deal, which would deliver salaries of £40,026 a year for unpromoted lecturers at the top of the scale, over a three-year implementation period, was seen by many observers as a strong win for EIS-FELA.

Clearly, however, college management were not happy with losing their grip on pay and conditions in individual colleges. This came to a head the following year when college management attempted to tear-up elements of the March 2016 Agreement and to renege on many of the commitments they had made to lecturers. Again, this forced EIS-FELA members into a programme of industrial action in which they called for colleges to “Honour the Deal” which had already been agreed.

As with the Equal Pay campaign, support for the Honour the Deal action was strong in colleges right across Scotland. Eventually, after a substantial programme of strike action, agreement was secured to deliver the agreed national pay scales and to work on the delivery of an agreed set of terms and conditions for FE lecturers across Scotland.

So why are Scotland’s college lecturers once again engaging in industrial action this year? The simple answer is the refusal of college management, and its representative body Colleges Scotland, to offer a fair cost of living pay rise to college lecturers. While the harmonisation agreement delivered improved salaries for many lecturers — who had been underpaid compared to their peers for many years — many other lecturers in the higher paid colleges received little or nothing as part of the deal.

Scotland’s FE lecturers have not been paid a cost-of-living salary increase for three years — since April 2016.  The EIS-FELA pay claim seeks a fair cost-of-living increase for members, based on similar settlements to that already delivered to other public sector workers — including college support staff.

The response from management, through Colleges Scotland, has been to label college lecturers “greedy” and “unreasonable” and to claim that the cost of giving lecturers a fair pay increase would cripple colleges, lead to cuts to provision and negatively impact on the learning experience of students.

Management sought to justify their position by producing figures, which they presented to government, stating that the cost of settling the lecturers’ pay claim was double that of the agreement they had reached with support staff.

When the EIS queried these figures, which had been verified by the Scottish Funding Council for Further and Higher Education, it quickly became apparent that college management had used different methods of calculating the pay claims of lecturers and support staff. When costed on the same basis, it emerged that the cost of the lecturers’ claim was not double that of the support staff claim — in fact the cost of the two claims was virtually identical.

This is the type of duplicity that Colleges Scotland has stooped to.
Despite this, EIS-FELA continues to attempt to engage in constructive talks with management in the hope of reaching an agreement but the response from management has been an unwillingness to engage in meaningful discussions towards a solution.

Consequently, lecturers have been reluctantly forced into a programme of strike action in pursuit of a fair agreement with colleges. So far, four days of strike action have taken place in colleges across Scotland, with three more strike days planned for May. Support for the strikes has been solid amongst lecturers, and strong support has also been received from students right across the country.

With Colleges Scotland displaying increasingly erratic behaviour, and continuing to make ever more inflammatory public statements about college lecturers, the EIS has recently authorised an escalation of industrial action in the dispute.

In addition to the ongoing strike action, members will also withdraw “goodwill” and implement a boycott of inputting assessment results into management systems. These are not actions that lecturers wish to take, but they have been forced into this escalation by the intransigence of a management group that seems to prefer to attempt to “union-bust” rather than work constructively to reach a fair solution.

Lecturers and students want this dispute resolved, yet college management and Colleges Scotland continue to show few signs of a willingness to settle. The EIS is now calling on the Scottish government to intervene to help resolve the dispute.

This is unfinished business from the return to national collective bargaining which the Scottish government was happy to claim credit for — it cannot simply stand by and watch the dispute deepen even further. If Colleges Scotland are unwilling to work constructively with the union to allow lecturers to return to working normally, the Scottish government must act to ensure a fair deal for Scotland’s FE teaching professionals.

The EIS has submitted an emergency motion to Congress on this dispute and would welcome messages of support for EIS FELA as the campaign intensifies.

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