EDINBURGH COLLEGE STRIKE – AN EXCEPTION THAT COULD BE THE RULE!

The recent strike of further education lecturers at Edinburgh College has been described as ‘a classic example of how to conduct a strike’ by the EIS Executive. The bare outlines of what happened make impressive reading.
After three years of no pay rises, lecturers were offered a small pay rise with draconian conditions in tow. Management’s key aim was abolition of a fundamental condition for any teacher – the weekly
class contact maximum in front of students. With national bargaining in Scottish FE about to resume
after a break of 20 years, allowing such major
deterioration in conditions at one of the largest
colleges in the UK could have had wide
consequences. However, three days of strike action ended in
victory. Not only were existing conditions defended,
major improvements were won, including a cut in
weekly class contact of 8% for the most overworked.
By August this year a salary rise will be in place
amounting to 7% for most lecturers, and 22% for the
lowest earners,. During the strike, EIS membership
rose from 453 to 500, with the union HQ having to
stay open late to process applications in time for the
fi!rst day of action. Such experiences are all too rare these days, and it
is worth asking whether Edinburgh College has
relevance generally. Many features of our story are
all too typical. For years, lecturers have suffered
from the effects of austerity, and watched our
s!tudents suffer even more. When, in October 2012, Edinburgh’s three FE
colleges merged, the new bullying management
generated rising levels of stress. It did everything it
could to marginalise the teachers’ union and sought
to play lecturers off against support staff and
students. Restructuring removed a middle layer so
that more and more administration fell on to
lecturers’ shoulders. The more for less agenda was
writ large in every corridor and classroom. Within a
short time, more than 240 staff (both lecturers and
support) out of the College’s 1500 left, through a
combination of voluntary severance and sheer
despair. From the point of the teachers’ union, the
Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) the situation
looked grim. The merged college straddled several
geographically distant campuses, and facility time
was slashed by half (in spite of TUPE protection) so
it was difficult to support members. Like so many
others, Edinburgh College lecturers felt angry but
lacked the confidence to fight back.
We began with showing people that others shared
their anger and frustration. One of the first steps in
this direction was a union stress survey. It found half
of lecturers experienced bullying. Management
could not believe this and brought in a private
company to conduct a survey. The results were
identical, and when compared to the company’s
database of all surveys, our results were off the
scale. Another important tool was the union
moderated blog. (edincol-eisfela.blogspot.com)!
This was a fantastic aid. It gave a safe space for
lecturers to express thoughts and feelings
suppressed by intimidation in the workplace. And in
sharing these, others realised the common situation
of all. The blog gives a real feel for the dispute in all
its stages. The road to the strike was long, however. At first EIS
officials attempted to alert the Board of Management
to the problem of stress. Its refusal to even hear a
delegation deepened the anger. This turned into
farce when, in one of the very few concessions
management agreed to, de-stressing workshops
were run for staff. A mountain of flip charts with
proposed solutions was generated, but it
disappeared late one Sunday night. The video
evidence showed it being dragged away by a
mysterious ‘cleaner’. Like Lord Lucan, it never
surfaced again. Late in 2013, the branch took the problems out of
the College and went to the press and politicians. A
dossier detailing the impact on staff and students of
college-wide failings was presented to the Scottish
Education Minister. The sort of evidence provided,
included examples of students evicted because their
funding had been mismanaged. An enquiry by the
Scottish (FE and HE) Funding Council ensued.
Although the result was a whitewash, the very fact
of ministerial intervention and the publicity
generated, further confirmed to lecturers that their
shared concerns were legitimate and needed to be
a!ddressed. Parallel to the campaign over stress and systems
failures, the union put in a pay claim. The stock
reply came back. There was no money. When a
consultative EIS ballot produced a strong vote in
favour of potential industrial action, hey presto, the
money appeared, but tied to the draconian strings
mentioned above. There now followed an intense discussion of the
management offer. Meetings across all the
campuses, regular bulletins – four lengthy ones
explaining the management proposals alone – plus
full discussion on the blog led to a unified view.
Management’s insistence on increasing workload
through abolishing the weekly class contact
maximum would mean more stress, a heavier
teaching load for lecturers, fewer jobs, and would
harm the students’ education. The motto of the
dispute was born: ‘the conditions lecturers teach in,
are the conditions students learn in.’ An increased
workload was unacceptable, whatever money was
on the table. It was this political/moral high ground that gave the
confidence to turn the anger into action. A campaign
focussed exclusively on pay might not have
produced such a definite response. When an official
postal ballot was held, the result was a 92% vote to
strike on a 64% return. This was the strongest
mandate in Scottish FE history. Now a word about the 6 lay EIS branch officials.
They come from a variety of backgrounds (Labour
Party, Socialist Workers’ Party, and no party) but
share a commitment to rank and file democracy and
active trade unionism. One of the merged colleges
had come through two successful strikes. There was
also considerable experience at national level; eg
the branch secretary was also the current President
of the EIS Further Education section. Together the
branch reps were a cohesive body that would refer
everything to the rank and file, and would not be
browbeaten. The anti-union laws aim to transfer power from the
rank and file to full-time officials, and the EIS
constitution puts the Area Official formally in charge
of the dispute. However, the EIS had recently
acquired a new, left-wing general secretary and the
heavy-handed bureaucratic practices of the past no
longer applied. This would prove important. When, prior to the strike ballot, the management had tried to hold separate talks with the Area
Official, the branch reps made it clear that this would
not happen. The Area Official agreed. This view
must have been strengthened when management
then tried to bully him as it had the branch reps.
Such was the strength of the ballot that the EIS
nationally agreed to back strike action, beginning
with one day in the first week, two in the next, and
then three days a week indefinitely.

Day 1. The first day of strike brought all the
elements of anger, confidence and unity together.
Eight large picket lines across all campuses and all
entrances, were bolstered by the presence of the
EIS General Secretary, Assistant Secretary and
students. Management attempts to split the latter
from us came to nothing, as, in the space of a few
d!ays, 2,500 of them had signed an EIS petition. Understanding the political dimension of the dispute, the branch proceeded to the Scottish Parliament
where over 200 heard from branch officials, MSPs,
students, striking HE lecturers, the EIS President
and others. The blog, our online organiser, carried
full reports and was receiving up to 3,000 hits each
day. Messages of support were posted on it and
they began flooding in. There was financial backing
too, with delegation work to other FE colleges,
teachers’ meetings, a PCS section AGM, and so on.The atmosphere on the picket line was ably expressed by this blogger:

“COLD HANDS, WARM HEART
It was cold on the picket line today. Blooming cold
and I wasn’t even on the dawn patrol. Hats, scarf
and gloves off (briefly!) to those brave souls. Well
done! Yes, the fingers and toes nipped a wee bit but
even the wind couldn’t penetrate to the core or chill
the lovely warm feeling inside. So where did all this
warmth come from? Finally getting to do something positive after
months on the receiving end.
• The very real backing from our support staff and
students.
• The waves and toots from passing traffic.
• The student who brought her 2 year old daughter
along and the wee lassie proudly holding up a
placard that was bigger than she was.
• Above all the strength, spirit and solidarity of
colleagues and students which reminded me why I
chose education as a career and why there is none
better in the world”.

So management tried a new tactic – a two year deal
worth 7% in total, plus a less comprehensive attack
on conditions. But they had misjudged their
audience. The new offer was put forward with the
request that the union suspend strike action while
talks continued. Our answer was a flat ‘no’, to which
management responded: ‘that’s not what they did
Grangemouth!’ Hardly the most convincing of
a!rguments, perhaps. Our dispute happened in the shadow of
Grangemouth. Before the defeat, Grangemouth had
a mass demonstration outside the refinery gates
after the workers had voted for action and withstood
the attempt to impose a new contract. Only one
speaker on the platform talked about the potential of
strike action for gaining solidarity and winning – the
branch secretary at Edinburgh College, there as
President of EIS FE. The new Edinburgh College offer was presented to
members in campus meetings whose attendance
exceeded those voting in the postal ballot. Some
lecturers had to leave classes to attend, and did so
despite management orders to the contrary. ‘Dual
power’ was developing. It quickly became clear the new offer would not go
down well. Not only had the success of the first day
and outside support strengthened resolve, the idea
that we were seen as willing to sell our principled
defence of jobs, conditions and education, enraged
people. We would not be bought and management
putting more money on the table just exaggerated
t!he insult.

Day 2. Having cancelled all classes for the first
strike day, management attempted to put them on;
but 92% of classes failed to run, and at lunchtime
Unison support staff, who had been threatened with
discipline if they did not attend or phoned in sick,
came out to our picket lines to show solidarity.

Day 3. With still fewer classes running, our plan
was, once again, to take the strike to the streets of
Edinburgh. This time the target was the Scottish
Funding Council. When the branch officials arrived
at the allotted meeting point outside Haymarket
Station rain was pouring and the space was
deserted. Had the nerve of the members failed? No.
The automatic doors of the station opened to reveal
a flashmob of lecturers (now the collective term)
inside. An impromptu mass meeting followed, much
to the consternation of the station management. We
then marched went to the Funding Council. Its
earlier refusal to hear from us melted away in about
three minutes, and two leading officers came down
to hear our concerns. With more strike action to follow, a new round of
talks began. The negotiations began with a
statement from the EIS reps:

“We want to make you aware of the current situation.
Membership of EIS was 453 before dispute. At the
last count it was 500. Picket lines are larger each
day and the number of classes the College is able to
run on strike days is falling. The Principal suggested
going to ACAS. That is not going to happen. The
dispute needs to be solved in this room. Why is there such strength of feeling? The way
management offers have been framed would
suggest that our primary motivation is money. That
is far from the truth. Management’s approach has
been to antagonise staff instead of bringing them
along. The results have come out in the stress
surveys and now in the sickness figures. We are
here as educators and will not accept a reduction in
the service we provide the students. Our hands are
tied therefore. The issue of no further deterioration
in conditions is not a pose, it is the bottom line”.

That day ended in victory. What are the lessons of the Edinburgh College
strike for others? Firstly, the rank and file were at the
centre, and once the anger gained collective
expression anything was possible. Confidence was
the other issue. This developed through an
interaction between the rank and file, the branch
leadership, and the national union. Without rank and
file organisation the dispute could easily have gone
the way of so many others in recent times. Indeed, a
move to strike over workload by EIS members in
schools had recently been sidelined. The fact that branch officials held lay positions
within the national union helped us gain national
backing. Members knew the union was fully behind
them and yet kept control of their own fight. Finally,
the strike was not a token one but quickly escalating
to three days a week indefinitely. This showed how
the working class is powerful when it is united and
a!ctive.

Drivers approaching Edinburgh pass signs with the
city’s logo – ‘Inspiring capital’. The creators of these
ambiguous words hope to attract corporate
investment and tourists. After recent events, they
may invite a different interpretation.!