The move by the Association of Scottish Colleges affects 5,000 administrative, technical and manual employees of the 43 incorporated colleges and was made almost inevitable after the national negotiating machinery for lecturers broke down.
Allan Wilson, further education officer for Unison, which represents the majority of support staff, said legal and industrial action could not be ruled out. "To determine unilaterally that national bargaining should cease demonstrates a cavalier disregard for employee welfare," Mr Wilson said. Changes to the existing procedure could only be made with the consent of all the signatories, he pointed out.
Colleges maintain, however, that either side can withdraw from the national agreement provided six months' notice is given. Unions have been notified that the employers will pull out on August 29.
John Sellars of the ASC said: "Now that local bargaining exists for lecturers and funding is increasingly related to colleges' ability to attract students local negotiations are the only pragmatic way forward. We have to take account of the pressures colleges are under to make efficiency gains and the rewards for staff have to be related to colleges' ability to pay."
Mr Wilson said this was simply an excuse to depress salaries and make other cuts because colleges were short of cash.
Negotiations for support staff are partly conducted at college level with a set of core conditions and salary levels established through national bargaining. The ASC says 87 per cent of colleges have reached agreement on harmonised conditions for support staff (such as holiday arrangements and paying manual workers by the month instead of weekly).
A further 11 per cent hope to strike deals by the end of March.