When the Bryant and May match girls went on strike in 1888, they were working up to 14-hour days for pitiful wages that were often reduced by punitive fines for minor offences. The toxic yellow phosphorus used caused severe disfigurement, even death. The Times thundered that workers had been egged on by "irresponsible advisers". But no TES reader would criticise their strike.
So, considering the circumstances of colleges today, how appropriate are strikes? The answer is: totally inappropriate. Strikes hurt students and should have no place in relationships between professionals.
The match girls' strike hurt the pockets and reputation of Bryant and May's owners. But a college strike misses the target, failing to hurt the Government, which provides 80 per cent of its funds, and doing nothing to encourage ministers to value our work.
The unions' target is the Government, but they need a more imaginative weapon if they are to influence it to give colleges more funding. I would be happy to join the unions in a well thought-out strategy to influence the Government to value what we do more highly, and back that up with more money so we can help more students and pay our staff better. That is why I am keen to support Vocational Qualifications Day on July 23. We must change attitudes to get the Government to put in more money.
Why would I object to paying staff more? They work hard and do a great job. That is why we paid more than the national pay offer last year, and will probably do so again this year. But we can't just pay what we like.
Colleges face a tough financial settlement this year. It hurts to have to deny 1,000 people places on an English for speakers of other languages course, because helping these people is what we are here for. And other costs are going up fast: our energy bill, for example, is likely to go up by pound;300,000, which is most of the pound;340,000 or so we need to pay a 1 per cent pay rise. Our staff know all this, I'm sure, and expect us to strike a sensible balance.
Frustrated by the failure of the match girls' strikes, the Salvation Army set up a factory, using harmless red phosphorus, and paid girls twice what Bryant and May did. With thinking like that, there must be a better way to settle the annual argy-bargy over pay.
Iain Mackinnon, Chair of Governors, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College.