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Strikers dig in for bitter winter

Amid growing anger across the country over low pay for support staff, the action by Huddersfield caretakers may not be the last. Joseph Lee reports

The day begins at 4.30am at Huddersfield technical college. This is when Dave Ellis, caretaker and shop steward, takes up his post at the picket line.

A short time later, he waves hello to Chris Sadler, the college principal.

Mr Sadler is one of several senior managers making a pre-dawn start to open the college, clear up litter and prepare for the influx of students as the caretakers' strike enters its sixth week.

These scenes could soon be repeated across the county, with many colleges paying their caretakers even less than the 17 striking Huddersfield staff.

Unison, the public-sector union, says support staff, in addition to being the lowest-paid, are second only to local authority chief executives in the amount of unpaid overtime they do. A Unison spokesman said 38 per cent of colleges had still not implemented an agreement from 2003 to bring caretakers' pay up to a minimum of pound;11,000 a year.

He said: "There are legitimate grounds there to ballot for industrial action, and we would support any institutions that go down that route. FE support staff are some of the most underpaid and undervalued people out there."

At Huddersfield, the union is calling for an end to pay scales which mean that those who joined after 1993, when colleges became independent of local education authorities, earn pound;14,000 instead of pound;16,000. It says even pound;16,000 is not enough.

The college has insisted any pay increase will only come as part of an overall job evaluation exercise, which had previously been agreed by the unions.

But the caretakers say the process will take too long and offers no guarantees. Mr Ellis said: "I've got drawers full of broken promises from bosses. What we are paid is not a living wage."

An indefinite strike was chosen as the quickest way to victory but he admitted that the college believes it can keep the strikers out until well into the new year if necessary.

"I am going to eat my Christmas dinner on the front steps of the college,"

the 60-year-old vowed. "I'm an old man now. I'm a veteran of at least a dozen strikes. I've never ever lost one."

Roger Grigg, assistant branch secretary of Kirklees Unison, said the dispute reflected a growing feeling among support staff in many colleges that they were getting a poor deal compared to those in schools who are paid 10 or 20 per cent more.

"Just like teaching staff, who get lower pay in further education colleges than schools, it's the same for support staff," he said. "These caretakers are the first group to say, we have had enough, we can't take it any more."

Each caretaker is living off pound;15 a week strike pay from their union, although there is more for families as well as a hardship fund. "No one will be starved back to work," Mr Grigg said.

As Mr Sadler walks through the college, he picks up a steady supply of crisp packets.

He said: "The unions are making out that there is some sort of battle. We are not fighting a battle.

"We have said we will put their claim about low pay into the mix.

"We are so disappointed to have this at a time when the college is moving forward in so many ways."

The college's principal and three vice-principals were given pay rises totalling pound;50,000 between them last year. Mr Sadler stressed the pay award was determined by an independent committee which decided senior staff were not being paid the market rate. This year their pay rise was in line with inflation. School caretakers have extra responsibilities for maintenance, the college argues, so a direct comparison with their FE counterparts is not possible.

"If they are prepared to go through the process like every other member of staff, we think we can find a way of addressing their concerns and at the same time find out what the job is really worth," Mr Sadler said.

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