In the interests of unity...

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
When I was young and green and the pound in your pocket was still worth 20 shillings in big clumsy coins, I found myself in the middle of a strike.

I was working at the time as a reporter for an evening newspaper in a large northern city. We - the journalists on the paper - thought we were worth more money than we were currently getting. Our employers thought differently.

For three days we sat tight in our office, refusing to work. For another three we were locked out and sat somewhere else instead. Then, given there were no newspapers being produced and hence no profits either, our bosses caved in and gave us what we wanted.

If I am honest, I have to say that I enjoyed the experience enormously. I was single, mortgage-less, unencumbered by hire purchase or life policies. My money worries were confined to the price of beer. The strike was something different, away from the humdrum. There was drama, conflict, solidarity. And we won.

Recently, I found myself back on strike again. But this time around things were a little different.

For a start, none of the strikers, myself included, was exactly in the first flush of youth any more. Youth was banished from further education when incorporation came along in 1993. Now people no longer enter the profession; they only leave it. That was what we were on strike about. The management wanting yet more of us to leave - compulsorily.

But there were lots of other differences, too. Rather than hit our employers' pocket, we only hit our own. In the short term, they actually made money through the salaries they were saving. And there was no product to stop being manufactured either. Instead, we were left with the sour realisation that the people we were keeping from the classroom were the same ones we more normally implored to enter it!

Hitting our own students wasn't the only sourness we had to encounter. Strikes may unite the strikers, but they have the distinct tendency of setting everyone else at one another's throats.

For a start, not every union member goes on strike. Some cross the picket lines. This does not endear them to their colleagues as they stand in the cold and watch them go by.

Given the employment laws the Tories have passed on the subject in recent years, going on strike must be one of the most democratic decisions you can take these days. So to see people you work with giving the proverbial two fingers to that decision (and by implication two fingers to you, too) is not a pretty sight at 8am on a chilly spring morning.

Other members jump ship just as the SS Strike is about to set sail. No matter that they voted in the ballots that have led to the action. Suddenly, they don't want to be one of the gang any more.

Once, managers all the way up to college principals saw a place for themselves in a union of educational professionals. Now "management" seems to start at the level of lance-corporal (should that read petty officer?) And that leads to hard choices of the "them or us" variety.

Then, of course, no strike is ever complete without the ritual of the strikers falling out among themselves (did I mention unity earlier?) What this basically comes down to is the left falling out with the left. Terms such as "betrayal" and "sell-out" fly to and fro.

Agreeing 95 per cent of the time is not enough. It's that other 5 per cent that really matters.

And, of course, you always know when the most vitriolic attack is about to be launched. It invariably begins with the words, "In the interest of unity I " So, win, lose or draw, you find yourself at the end of your dispute returning to the classroom full of sullen resentfulness: fractious with your fellows; scornful of the scabs; mistrustful of your managers. And even though your new resolution to be "Mr Minimum Involvement" from now on lasts for no more than five minutes, there's still a nasty lingering aftertaste that lasts for weeks.

But still you have the feeling that it had to be. That ultimately to save jobs - careers - you have no choice other than to withdraw your labour and that in holding this conviction you are far from alone.

In 1995, more working days were lost to strikes in further education than any other sector of the economy. A glance at the latest edition of The Lecturer, Natfhe's newspaper, shows how little things have changed, with 12 separate stories of strikes either actual or threatened reported in one month alone.

Of course, most other newspapers are not interested in strikes any more. Particularly in hole-and-corner institutions such as FE. They're just not sexy enough. But in colleges up and down the country, strikes are happening all the time. And they will go on happening until the crazy funding policy of "more for less" is junked and a more sane alternative put in its place.

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