Picture a typical further education rally. Staff standing outside their college, holding placards, chanting and cheering as union and college staff take to the stage. Rallies are loud, busy and, crucially, visible to all that pass them.
Today's rally, held by the EIS-FELA union at Forth Valley College, was rather different. With no part of life and work unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic and government guidelines to prevent it spreading, learning has moved online, meetings happen virtually and evenings and weekends are spent inside. And today, for perhaps the first time ever, teachers and union leaders took part in a virtual rally via Zoom in protest against the college's move to change staffing structures.
The union says plans to replace some lecturers with "instructors" show low regard for teaching staff. The college, which has campuses in Alloa, Falkirk and Stirling, says it is preparing its workforce for the future.
Background: Union protests against college plans via Zoom
Forth Valley College: 'We're developing the workforce for the future'
More than 200 joined today's virtual rally. Were they holding banners? Wearing hi-vis vests? Cheering along with the speakers? With participants unable to see each other and only able to observe the speakers, it is impossible to tell. As the nine panellists clapped and waved to each other, it was the chat function on Zoom that allowed lecturers to make their voices heard.
Online protest against Forth Valley College restructuring
“Solidarity with all our colleagues at Forth Valley College! Let's ensure FV managers cannot exploit the Coronavirus crisis to slip redundancies in through the back door. An injury to one college is an injury to us all," one said.
“Coming to a college near you. FVC cannot and will not get away with this attack on students and lecturers,” said another.
Another observer commented: “Heard this is already happening at other colleges. Well done FV for outing this issue. SOLIDARITY.
“Students at colleges deserve the best! And trying to push this through at this time is beyond disgraceful!”
In many ways, today's unique online rally took the same format as many protest rallies outside college campuses: five speakers, each given four minutes to address their audience.
But while at a normal rally it can be a struggle to cut off speakers if they go over their allotted time, on Zoom, that is not a problem. EIS-FELA 2019-20 president Pam Currie told the speakers that if they were to go over their allocated four minutes, she’d simply mute them.
After the speakers, it was time for audience participation. The union encouraged everyone to download a virtual banner – after all, these are a staple at rallies – take a picture of them holding it up on a phone or computer and tweet it to Forth Valley College and Scotland’s FE minister, Richard Lochhead, using the hashtag #StayHomeStopRedundancies. Participants were also shown how to send a letter to Mr Lochhead about what was happening at the college.
Been on the EIS online Demo against the current redundancies being processed in such bad taste at this time by Forth Valley College. @richardlochhead @FVCollege @EISFela @EISUnion @JohnSwinney #StayHomeStopRedundancies the whole proposal is wrong, its even more wrong just now. pic.twitter.com/1ffZ0mBHRt— Ruth Winters (@Spookywinters50) April 1, 2020
Unacceptable for @FVCollege to pursue rendundancies at this time!— Liam McCabe (@_liammccabe_) April 1, 2020
We fully expect @RichardLochhead to get involved, support @EISFela's campaign and ensure all students are receiving a high quality education from qualified educators ✊#StayHomeStopRedundancies pic.twitter.com/E4eAOc4qcq
The demonstration suffered – as so many online meetings do – from a few technical issues. There were plenty of “can you all hear me?” moments and “you need to un-mute yourself" comments, synonymous with Zoom meetings everywhere.
The union also had to deal with interruptions from a couple of hackers, spamming the chat function with racist comments – something that was tackled by the further education teachers with replies aiming to get the hackers to see the unacceptable nature of their behaviour.
You can watch the rally in full here: