Another view - Costly strikes are not the right ammunition for lecturers' pay war

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

Why did nearly 4,000 University and College Union (UCU) members in England - more than half of those who participated in its recent ballot - go against the promptings of their leadership and vote "no" to strike action over pay? When it comes to their salary - still lagging roughly 10 per cent behind that of schoolteachers - lecturers in the country's biggest FE union generally say "yes" to calls for action from above.

So why not this time? Perhaps it was because they did the maths. The college employers, in the guise of the Association of Colleges, had offered a measly 1.5 per cent. While the union had asked for 6 per cent, the real target was the 2.3 per cent promised to teachers in schools.

The strike call, first made by a special FE sector conference back in September, was for what was described as "escalating action": a one-day strike, followed, if necessary, by two days, then three, and so on. Most industrial disputes end in some sort of a compromise. So let's say the action ended in week three, with a "split the difference" offer of 2 per cent - half a per cent above the current offer. Lecturers would have lost six days' pay, with deductions by employers no doubt at the usual premium rate of about 1200th of their annual salary.

For a main grade lecturer at the top of the scale, that would mean losing roughly pound;160 per day, or pound;960 in total. To recoup this from the additional 0.5 per cent would take more than five years. If the strikes dragged on for longer - which well they might - payback could take 10 or more years.

Of course, strikes by lecturers come at other costs, too. Students' lives and careers are affected. Once the action ended, most lecturers would do their utmost to make up for the time lost. In other words, they would lose the pay and end up doing most of the work anyway.

Maybe the lecturers who voted against the strikes could read the political runes rather better than those voting in favour. Our dispute is with the employers. But behind them stands the Government, the same one that a year ago handed over billions to bail out the banks.

But that was then and this is now. With an election in the offing, would any government be likely to step in and provide extra money on the back of a strike by college lecturers? You could argue that they would welcome such a strike, as it would give them the chance (because we're not Ford workers or train drivers) to look tough at very little cost to themselves.

Which brings us to another point that may well have passed through the minds of lecturers when deciding which box to cross on their strike ballot papers. For Ford workers and train drivers, the strike weapon gives leverage: cars remain unmade, trains don't run, the country's economy takes an instant hit. A strike by lecturers has no such impact. Students get a holiday and finance directors of colleges get a bonus in unpaid salaries.

The justice of the case for raising the pay of FE lecturers is unanswerable. In addition to the little matter of the 10 per cent gap with schools comes the fact that, in recent years, the pay of college principals has gone up twice as fast as that of the lecturers who work for them.

But couldn't those of us who are UCU members come up with more imaginative ways to apply pressure? If we all stopped marking registers tomorrow, the impact would be immediate and dramatic. Yes, the employers would then move against us, claiming "partial performance" of our duties. But at least they would have to come and get our money, rather than us simply offering it up.

In reality, those of us in the "caring" professions have little enough ammunition in the battle for fair remuneration. So why use up the few bullets we do have by firing them at ourselves?

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