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More strikes loom as pay talks falter

Latest deal would only help minority of staff, say unions. Steve Hook reports

UNIONS have turned their backs on a double-figure increase for the lowest-paid lecturers, and a fresh round of strikes looms in colleges. Plans will be discussed next week by Natfhe, the lecturers' union, and Unison, representing college support staff.

Industrial action was suspended when Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, announced more money for FE last month.

Another meeting is planned for January 13 but, with little prospect of a deal which will satisfy Natfhe, a New Year of strife looks likely.

No formal pay offer was put by the Association of Colleges at a meeting with the unions on Monday, although it is understood a deal weighted towards low-paid lecturers and support staff was discussed informally and rejected by Natfhe.

Paul Mackney, the union's general secretary, said: "We have rejected nothing because no offer has been made." He said a deal focusing simply on the low paid, involving a reduction in the number of points in the lecturers' pay scale, would have benefited "very few people".

He said: "We cannot expect our members to vote for an offer which doesn't include some sort of catch-up element with schoolteachers."

Lecturers currently earn about pound;21,500 on average compared with pound;25,875 for teachers, he says.

A spokesperson for the AoC said: "Negotiations are seeking to reach a settlement acceptable to all. We are looking for stable industrial relations, but one union is not on board on these negotiations."

Peter Pendle, general secretary of the Association for College Management, said: "It seems that some of the parties involved in the negotiations are more interested in focusing on old battles rather than addressing the real issue, which is how the additional funding from Charles Clarke for modernising pay arrangements should be distributed to staff to bring FE salaries back in line with other parts of the public sector.

"If the dispute cannot be resolved at the meeting on January 13, I fear that the national negotiating machinery will not survive."

There is growing agreement between unions that the talks need to be given fresh impetus. Natfhe and Unison support a working party with an independent chair where all the parties in the dispute can thrash out a settlement.

Mr Mackney admitted: "We need someone to bang our heads together." He said he would even accept the chair using shuttle diplomacy, seeing the employers and unions in separate meetings to identify common ground.

The working party could simultaneously look at working practices and the possibillity of colleges agreeing to binding national pay negotiations.

Already, the Government has made it clear that binding agreements could only be entered into if accepted by the colleges. Intervention in this area has already been ruled out by Mr Clarke.

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