The education secretary has urged Scottish college lecturers to suspend planned strike action, as he revealed the government is bringing a mediator into talks between the EIS teaching union and college management.
Lecturers have been on strike this month and are planing more walkouts over what the union says is a reneging by management on a deal agreed last year. But managers say a pay deal has to be tied to changes in terms and conditions.
Speaking in the Scottish parliament today, education secretary John Swinney said the sides have made some welcome progress over the past few weeks, but a settlement has not yet been reached.
'Detrimental and disruptive impact'
Escalation of the strike action would see “the impact on students deepen and harden, with some at real risk in this crucial end-of-year period of not being able to progress to future years’ study or, indeed, qualify," he said.
“That is not acceptable. I therefore decided, alongside the minister for further education, higher education and science, to formally intervene, and we met with both sides separately on Sunday evening to this effect."
He said he had emphasised in both meetings his serious concerns about the “detrimental and disruptive impact of the current dispute on students", and said the issue "should be to the fore of all our thinking”.
He told parliament he had also insisted that “a robust evidence base was needed to establish baselines on the issues of key importance: the sector norm for class contact time and for annual leave so that competing bids could be fairly assessed”.
He added: “I know there is a concern on the part of unions that the employers are not committed to national bargaining – I therefore made it crystal clear to the Employers’ Association my firm expectation that they would act collectively to deliver national bargaining.”
A significant change would be made to the way talks were conducted from now on, he said, with QC John Sturrock, a Scottish Government-appointed mediator placed in the talks, charged with seeking to help parties break the deadlock.
“Finally, to assist this process, I asked the EIS to suspend the planned strikes due to take place this week and going forward while this process of active dispute resolution is in progress. I asked that the union give this careful consideration following our meeting and I reiterate that request today.”
Strike will continue
However, the EIS union has confirmed that strike action will continue until college managers honour their commitments on equal pay.
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “We welcome the intervention of John Swinney and the interest of both the Scottish government and Scottish Parliament. We are disappointed that the deputy first minister did not press Colleges Scotland to implement the agreed April pay settlement, as this could have led to an immediate suspension of the strike action."
The EIS emergency committee, which met earlier this afternoon, has now agreed that strike pay will be payable to support FE lecturers on strike, from tomorrow’s action onwards.
Mr Flanagan said: "This represents a substantial financial commitment from the EIS to supporting its members and highlights our ongoing determination to continue this action for as long as necessary until colleges honour the deal that they signed last year. The emergency committee has also agreed a programme of new strike dates in addition to those previously announced, and these will be communicated to members shortly.”
Shona Struthers, chief executive of the Colleges Scotland Employers’ Association, which represents college management in the negotiations, said: “We welcome the decision by the Scottish government to appoint John Sturrock QC as an independent mediator to facilitate the ongoing talks. We would also reiterate the deputy first minister’s reasonable request for the EIS to suspend further strikes while these talks continue.”