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New government faces strike threats

Colleges are being hit by a wave of discontent which threatens to form an early test of the next government's resolve, writes Ben Russell.

Lecturers' union NATFHE has called strikes or launched strike ballots at 12 colleges in the past three months as staff express anger at widespread redundancies.

Labour has pledged a new national bargaining framework to "put an end to conflict, localised fragmentation and disruption" and a review of college staffing.

But NATFHE leaders are still waiting for the details of policy. And they warn that a continued squeeze on funding will lead to continued disruption at the grassroots.

Sue Berryman, NATFHE negotiating secretary, said the wave of disputes over contracts had largely evaporated, but there was anger at redundancies and restructuring plans - a trend which is likely to continue under the tight settlement imposed in the FEFC funding round earlier this month.

Some 86 per cent of colleges face cash cuts and the need to make large savings in real terms from September. Principals and union leaders have warned of possible job cuts and course closures.

Ms Berryman said: "As long as there is a squeeze on funding - and there is a funding crisis - inevitably there will be incidents of industrial action.

"It's not what we want for staff and not what we want for students, but neither do we want a system so crippled by lack of funding that quality suffers, something you can see in inspection reports."

NATFHE is also concerned that national recommended pay rates are not followed through on the ground, with principals claiming they simply cannot afford the nationally-negotiated rate.

In the latest NATFHE action, lecturers walked out indefinitely at Southwark College in south London this week over a Pounds 1.5 million cuts package. Local NATFHE leaders warned that the cut could mean 50 full-time posts being lost.

Union leaders, anticipating a Labour victory at the polls, have warned the party leadership of the potentially damaging strikes, counselling for the 1997-98 funding settlement to be softened.

For its part, Labour so far has promised only a share of windfall tax funding through its Welfare to Work programme and the possibility of contracts handed out by the new University for Industry.

Roger Ward, Association of Colleges chief executive, said: "Strikes have not saved any jobs, gained any pay rises or changes in contracts, and the lecturers' union will realise that."

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