Jessica Redman, a Unison member at a college in London, reports from Wednesday’s FE strike
Wednesday 24 February saw Unison and UCU members in Further Education colleges across England strike together over pay for the first time in a decade.
The strike was over an ongoing dispute with the Association of Colleges (AoC). The FE Joint Trade Unions’ pay claim was for a £1 per hour increase in pay for all staff, along with a recommendation that all colleges pay the Living Wage. The AoC responded with an atrocious 0% offer. Staff working in Further Education have had very low pay rises for several years, resulting in a real terms pay cut for some of up to 17%. As a result, Unison and UCU balloted, and members decided, together, that enough is enough.
The day saw thousands of staff across England, including lecturers, cleaners and librarians, join the strike. Many were on the picket lines with frozen fingers clutching placards from 7:30am until 10am, before heading on to national rallies in London, Manchester and Birmingham. It was a historic day as support staff and lecturers united for a show of real solidarity in the face of savage cuts to the sector as a whole.
Since 2010, FE funding has been cut by 27%. This has impacted courses, specifically ESOL (English for speakers of other language), which disproportionately affected ethnic minority women and saw the entry level courses that are integral for migrant workers, hugely cut. Further to course cuts, many jobs have been lost and workloads have increased to unsustainable levels. Year on year, waves of redundancies have hit the sector and this loss of experienced and important staff members has harmed the sector as a whole, along with the learning experience of the overwhelmingly working class student population that make up Further Education. On top of this, mergers loom large over FE as the government pushes for less, bigger colleges throughout the country, which will no doubt mean more redundancies and less attainable educational options for local communities.
Wednesday’s strike felt like a big moment for FE staff, but also the sector as a whole, as Unison and UCU united in a strike over pay for the first time in over a decade. Thousands of people showed their determination to fight for a reasonable offer from the AoC and the mood was one of determination and defiance. It was a show of strength and hopefully the AoC will see sense and negotiate seriously with trade unions about pay.