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Even lapdogs and poodles can bite back

What's the point of strikes? What's more to the point (if you get the point) is what's the point of lecturers going on strike?

These were the thoughts - some of them at least - that passed through my mind when, early last month, my union ballot paper landed on my breakfast table.

Two questions were being asked of me, as of all those in the largest lecturers' union, NATFHE. With a derisory 1.5 per cent pay increase on offer, would I be prepared to vote for a strike, andor take action short of a strike?

Our national leaders for once were speaking with one voice. "Go for it" was the clear message emerging from the bumpf accompanying the voting slip. That in itself was unusual. Despite what some may think, being called out on a national strike is a rarity for Natfhe members.

In the old days, the leadership used to spend more time fighting each other (Trots in the red corner, Soft Labourites in the pink) than confronting the bosses. And then for most of the past five years (that is, since New Labour came in), they have been firmly in their "constructive engagement" phase.

The essence of this tactic was that if we were nice to them, then they would be nice to us. That worked very well: at least it worked one way. We were nice to them. For all those years we really were such good doggies: licking hands rather than biting them; fetching sticks, not wielding them; sitting up and begging rather than snarling and yapping.

The problem was that when we looked for our reward, for our bone, it was nowhere to be found. As our workloads grew, so our salaries shrank. And while our political masters continually talked about the millions they were pumping into FE, none of it ever found its way to us.

Well, not quite none. There was always the Teachers' Pay Initiative, or Total Pay Insult as it has come to be known. In schools, TPI meant pound;2,000 in the pay packet for those who cared to spend a dozen or so hours of their life doing the paperwork. In colleges, surprise, surprise, there has been rather less; anything from an unconsolidated pound;1,000 down to nothing, depending on whether your face fits.

Of course, in recent years it is those school teachers that we have come to measure ourselves against on the pay front. Once, long ago, we were ahead; now we're anything up to 12 per cent behind. Our colleagues in schools are very good about it, though, when you meet them socially. They are always ready to promise, once they have stopped laughing, to have a staff room whip-round or collect up their cast-offs to help clothe your children.

But to return to that ballot dilemma: to strike or not to strike. Despite the enthusiasm of the leadership, no lecturer lightly chooses to withdraw their labour. For one thing, it's damned expensive. This was a two-day strike, and with many colleges having elected to stop pay at a punitive two-hundredth of yearly salary for each day lost, that quickly runs into the hundreds. (Ironic, isn't it, the way colleges pile on the tasks so that weekend and holiday work is unavoidable, then turn round at strike time and declare such work "voluntary"?) By striking, it could be argued, we in effect offer up our pay as a sort of sacrifice. Those in management suffer little by the loss of two days'

teaching. Their lifeblood of statistics and paperwork will continue to flow once it is over. Students, too, will shed few tears. Two days off, particularly now exams have started, will be widely viewed as some sort of bonus.

Arguably the ones who suffer most are us, the strikers. Having struggled all year to get students to attend classes and hand in work, we find ourselves sabotaging our own efforts just as the finish line is in view.

So what do we do? Irony of ironies, we find ourselves inventing all sorts of dodges - work set, moved classes, covert extra sessions - to undermine our own actions. Our business is a people business, and students untaught are simply not the same as cars unmade or trains not driven.

Aren't there other ways, some of us wonder, of making an impact? Couldn't those actions "short of a strike" be a better directed (and cheaper) way of promoting our cause? Possibly, but then there's another angle to be considered. Our leaders have asked, publicly, that we back them. In the Machiavellian chess game of unions versus employers (not to mention the employers' employers, who make the real decisions and are the real targets of our action), for us to say no to a strike call would inevitably signal a lack of resolve, maybe even a lack of concern.

Practically, then, our choice is limited. What else could we do (as indeed in the end two-thirds of us did) other than put our crosses where our leaders proposed? Because if we're not going to roll over and play dead, haven't we got to show them we've still got a bit of bite?

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