Contentious plans to overhaul their pensions have driven teachers in the FE and school sectors into varying degrees of fury. A mass lobby of Parliament next Wednesday will be followed a month later by a day of unspecified industrial action on 30 November. More strikes are on the cards.
But this apparent spread of militancy throughout the country's staffrooms has had one surprising winner: FE colleges. While murmurs of discontent about this year's pay offer - worth just #163;125 a year for lecturers on #163;21,000 or more - are rife, union voices of dissent are barely audible. With their attentions focused on the pensions war, it appears that the unions are willing to let the battle for this year's pay settlement slide.
Only Unite has come out and rejected the deal on the table from the Association of Colleges (AoC). The response by the University and College Union (UCU) - the largest union among lecturers - expresses disappointment with the offer, but rules out taking industrial action. The other unions involved in negotiations - ATL, the Association of Managers in Education, Unison and GMB - have all grudgingly decided to go along with the tiny increase.
"We are reluctantly accepting the offer," said Steven Crane, the ATL's national officer for FE. "The economic situation is serious and we have got a pensions campaign going on.
"Our position was that it would be odd to reject an offer that was higher than the one we accepted last year. There wasn't great enthusiasm for it, but neither was there great indignation and a desire for taking action."
While the union was keen to support its members on both issues, the pay wrangle would be "distracting" from the pensions campaign, he added. In contrast with the small increase on offer for FE lecturers, school teachers are currently in the middle of a two-year pay freeze, while the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum has also told the unions it will not be offering a pay rise this year.
In last year's FE negotiations, no pay rise was offered. This was rejected by Unite and UCU but, as the other unions accepted the offer, the AoC accepted the majority view. No industrial action was forthcoming. The added complication is that the national deal is not automatically applied in all colleges: the details are first circulated to principals, and individual decisions are then made on an institution-by-institution basis.
Chris Fabby, Unison's national officer for FE, said its members were "rightly unhappy that the offer is significantly below the rate of inflation", and were "only prepared to reluctantly accept the deal because of the weighting for the lower paid".
Mike Robinson, Unite's national officer for FE, said that while his members had voted "overwhelmingly" to reject the deal, he expected that it would be forced through. "If others accept, then I suspect we will follow the pattern laid out last year where AoC took the majority view and imposed the deal," he added.
Pay and pensions have long been the unions' causes celebres. It seems ironic that their combative stance on the latter has led to reluctant acquiescence on the former. Union leaders seem to have learnt a lesson from history: if you attempt to fight a war on two fronts, you risk winning neither. But should the pensions issue prove to be a battle too far, they may come to rue having given up the fight for better pay.
THE AOC'S OFFER FOR 201112
#163;125 a year pay rise for staff earning #163;21,000 or more. Equivalent of #163;2.40 a week before tax
0.42% pay rise for a college employee earning #163;30,000 a year
#163;200 annual rise for lecturers earning below #163;21,000
2.3% pay rise for staff on the lowest rung of the AoC pay scale, payable from 1 August.