UCU union

Further Education: UCU special conference rejects national strike campaign

05 May 2024

By Dara O’Cogaidhin

On April 13th, delegates from nearly 100 UCU college branches in England met for a special conference to discuss whether to support plans by the Further Education Committee (FEC) for strike action to win binding national bargaining and a 10% pay rise. The left-leaning FEC argued that to stop the pay gap with schools growing, it is vitally important to ensure pay decisions are binding and upheld by all employers. Currently the Association of Colleges (AOC) makes recommendations on pay each year, but College bosses routinely ignore them and offer their staff significantly less.

The special conference was called by branches linked to the right-wing of the FEC who wanted to overturn the strategy. Before the special conference, Jo Grady’s supporters on the FEC sent emails to branches warning that plans for strike action ignored legal advice and had no ‘exit strategy’. They argued that the union could ‘influence’ the Labour manifesto without taking action despite Labour recently further pruning its feeble plans to boost workers’ rights.

While conference backed motions for a national campaign on binding sectoral bargaining, a majority of delegates voted against moving to an aggregated national ballot for the next two years. This was the recommendation from UCU HQ so that the union could ‘build and articulate a new strategy’. In the meantime, the union will build a strategy of coordinating branches taking disaggregated action. Previously this has resulted in some branches withdrawing from the national dispute after securing better pay and conditions, while other branches become isolated and are left to carry on fighting alone.

This postponement of action reflects Jo Grady’s adoption of the ‘organising’ model championed by Jane McAlevey: build branches now and take action later. However, the recent victory of FE lecturers in the North of Ireland demonstrates it takes escalating strike action to win our claims and that it’s possible to do so now. They won a pay rise of 11.2% after 16 days of strike action.

UCU Congress in May will be another opportunity for FE delegates to make the case for an aggregated national ballot, but without organising from below to force through the necessary strategy, Congress decisions and internal union processes will continue to be bypassed and ignored by the leadership. A rank and file conference would be an important first step to bring together UCU left activists in a non-sectarian and democratic way to develop a combative network and strategy going forward.


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