FE fights back!

This week I dusted off my whisking bowl and whipped up some macaroons to take to Bradford College UCU branch picket line. Because, after babies and pooches, baked goods are a staple of any picket. Taking food to a picket line is important, because solidarity is nourishment, and nourishment is needed if we are to sustain each other. Colleagues on strike deserve our support and sustenance, especially comrades at Bradford College, who were on strike for the third time since November!

Today was Day 3 of their industrial action, and the picket was full of staff galvanized in their fight for fair pay. The College had been successfully closed down by the strike, and given HR’s office overlooked our picket, we did our best to be as noisy as possible. Bradford College UCU is a strong, solid, mobilised branch, and that was evident at their picket line today.

Many I spoke to highlighted that their workloads had increased significantly—classrooms that used to have 8 students, are now classrooms of 23. Worse still, intensification of workloads sat alongside a reduction in their real-term pay—which on average is 25% less than it was in 2009, and is approximately £10,000 less than school teachers. Low pay in Further Education is compounded by high rates of casualisation (it is estimated that 30% of teaching staff in FE are on casualised contracts). Casualisation has consequences. I know from my own research that precarity has a detrimental impact on workers; precarity reduces job security, denies staff pay during the holidays, increasing stress and anxiety. This ultimately makes staff even more amenable to low pay.

It is against this backdrop that Bradford College UCU, along with other striking FE branches, have taken action this week. While their pay has been slashed, the pay of senior management has sky-rocketed, and expenditure on vanity building projects has increased. The picket today was in front of a “shiny new building” that, along with other campus refurbishments has cost millions of pounds. All the while wages and conditions of Bradford College staff have suffered. An ex-student on the picket line described the chaos that the new building created to timetabling, which resulted in students being shifted week-to-week to different classrooms. Leading me to ask, who are these building actually for?

Bradford College UCU have tried to talk to their senior management. As though delivering an early joke, Bradford College said they would be unable to meet before 1 April. The joke, however, is on them. The ballot result and activism at Bradford College means this issue is not going away. The wave of recent strikes in FE demonstrate that resistance in the sector is strong, and is growing.

While we were picketing today news reached us that Bridgwater and Taunton College had reached a deal with their management. This follows a positive resolution at New Swindon College, and suspended action at City of Wolverhampton College, Petroc, and Bath College. But Bradford College management have favoured intransigence and obfuscation over dialogue, a decision I believe they will ultimately regret.

The strong local activism demonstrated this week is impressive, but activists are in an even stronger position when they are supported by national bargaining machinery. Something which ideally would be meaningfully re-established in FE, and prevent the further decline of the value of pay for all staff across the sector.

Today’s picket was the final strike day of the week. We attracted attention and support from passers-by, and our speeches reflected on the legacy of funding cuts, the anti-working class agenda of this government’s FE and adult education policies, and the need to stand together for decent pay, secure jobs, and the future of education.

I want to close by sending solidarity to all the FE colleges on strike (Bradford, Croydon, Harlow, South Bank, and West Thames).

You can extend Bradford College UCU your support by donating to their hardship fund.

Dr Jo Grady
University of Sheffield UCU and UCU General Secretary Candidate 2019