Get ready for local unrest, warns UCU

16th January 2015 at 00:00
Union rules out national strikes but insists fight will continue

Colleges across the country could face escalating local strike action, the University and College Union has warned.

Despite ruling out national strikes in its dispute over this year's pay claim for college staff, the UCU denied that it was shying away from industrial action and said it would instead be targeting local disputes.

At a conference held before Christmas, delegates decided "for tactical reasons" not to call for industrial action over the current offer from the Association of Colleges.

The move came after a planned national strike, due to take place in October, was blocked when the AoC and Westminster Kingsway College won a High Court injunction against it.

But Michael MacNeil, the UCU's national head of bargaining and negotiations, insisted that the union was not on the defensive.

"We are not backing down; this is not a defensive agenda," he told TES. "The truth is the approach is changing. It doesn't mean we are no longer going to be taking action where necessary to protect our claim. It's clear that industrial action remains part of our armoury, which if necessary we would use."

The union said it was developing a nationally coordinated approach to negotiations with individual colleges in order to improve pay and working conditions.

Mr MacNeil said the national framework had become "discredited" because colleges were under no obligation to implement pay recommendations, which had led to a wide divergence in pay across the sector. He said UCU members wanted "the ability to identify and target individual institutions", and admitted this could "possibly mean more strikes at a local level".

"We are aware there are other issues affecting members in their workplaces and our members have repeatedly asked us to get involved in negotiations on a number of issues, [including] workload, lesson observation, casualisation and job security," Mr MacNeil added.

The UCU has been involved in a number of local disputes in the past year, including ongoing action at Lambeth College in London over changes to staff contracts. Last week, its members at Sheffield College backed strike action over proposed job losses.

Andy Wilson, principal of Westminster Kingsway College in London, said the UCU's approach to national bargaining had made a "mockery" of the system, because the union accepted the agreements that had been drawn up but then failed to explain their benefits to members.

"Of course I recognise the rights of trade unions to take strike action," Mr Wilson said. "I just don't think it's particularly effective within the FE context."

Marc Whitworth, the AoC's director of employment policy, called the UCU's decision "positive".

"It shows there isn't an appetite for industrial action over pay at a national level," he said. "Strikes are a complete distraction from the core focus of business for colleges, which is delivery of high-quality education for students."

The AoC wanted to see more detail from the UCU on its plan for targeted local action, Mr Whitworth said, adding that he was concerned it could distract from or even undermine the national framework.

Despite the UCU's stance, Mr Whitworth argued that national bargaining was "useful" for the sector, especially as it moved towards a more "stringent" financial climate. He said that some 85 per cent of colleges supported annual pay recommendations, even if they could not afford to implement them.

"There needs to be some recognition from trade unions that, while we don't have much room to negotiate on pay, it's important to have a dialogue at national level with our trade union colleagues," he added.

This week the AoC held the first of a number of planned "alternative" discussions with national bodies over important issues away from the bargaining table. Representatives from about a dozen colleges met members of trade union Unison and the Living Wage Foundation to talk about the living wage in FE.

Mr Whitworth said: "The meetings might not result in recommendations or agreements but they reinforce the importance of having national dialogue, which supports general industrial relations."

`When there's action we get hit badly'

Andy Wilson, principal of Westminster Kingsway College in London, says the college decided to lead the High Court action against the UCU's planned national strike in October because it had been "disproportionately hit" by industrial action in the past.

"We have paid the recommended salary increase every year," says Mr Wilson. "Not only have we followed the recommendations that come out of negotiations, we have paid a small bonus to all staff as well for the past four years. Yet when there's strike action we get hit quite badly by it."

Mr Wilson says that two-thirds of the college's 220 lecturing staff are UCU members, with the vast majority adhering to strike decisions made by the branch even if these do not relate to a specific dispute with the college.

In the past, this has led to disruption at two of Westminster Kingsway's main centres and classes being cancelled for some 3,000 students.

"I welcome them [UCU] not taking industrial action," Mr Wilson says. "I believe in the system by which we have national negotiations that make recommendations, and I fully support that approach.

"We have a generally good relationship with our branch and I would prefer to work on that relationship rather than be held back by less productive relations nationally."

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