What a Difference a Dispute Makes

By Mike Cowley, EIS Branch Convenor and EIS-FELA National Committee.

A few short months ago, EIS-FELA Branch officials at Edinburgh College were confronted by a management determined to diminish our terms, conditions and working patterns while increasing both our weekly FT and class contact hours. College policies we were told, were a matter for consultation only. Our role would be as passive observers, our presence only necessary during discussions as a means of conferring on the outcomes a spurious legitimacy. A Recognition and Procedures agreement worthy of the name appeared a prospect so distant as to oblige officials to reconcile themselves to a protracted and increasingly difficult schedule of negotiations.

Then came our ballot. On a 64% turnout and with almost 92% of members voting for strike action, even officials, both local and national, were taken aback by the extent of the anger articulated by this almost unprecedented result. It was a result that immediately shifted the terrain we would now be fighting on.

Members understood with absolute clarity precisely what we were fighting for. Following our first day, management tabled an offer which, though marginally improving on their initial gambit, failed to decouple pay from conditions and persisted with the misapprehension that pay was our primary concern. ‘But they called off the action at Grangemouth once negotiations begun!’ they opined.

With respect to the beleaguered UNITE members of Grangemouth, this was not an appeal likely to curry favour with officials.

As our action progressed, so the mood became more expansive, confidence escalated and the picket lines grew. We received scores of messages expressing solidarity from around the country.

Sterling support was also provided by our national officers. General Secretary Larry Flanagan attended packed out meetings, legitimising our concerns and linking our demands to the future of FE provision in Scotland as national bargaining approaches. Student reps were vocal in their support. They perhaps better than anyone understood the implications for quality of the data on staff absences which emerged from our Board in the midst of the dispute. According to these figures stress, fatigue, depression and anxiety amounts to well over half of all absences amongst academic and support staff at the College. While this may well compare favourably with other workplaces, the Board’s relativist comparisons served only to enrage staff further. UNISON support staff were also vocal in their solidarity.

On our initial strike day we lobbied the Scottish parliament. A number of Green and Labour MSPs, including CFS Convenor Elaine Smith and supporter and Red Paper Collective contributer Neil Findlay emerged to express their support. No sign of the SNP or Con-Dems, but in regards to the Tories, there’s more chance of sightseeing a Panda than bumping into one of Bevan’s lesser spotted ‘vermin’ up here.

The union’s numbers grew also; rather than be unsettled by the dispute or by the early e-mail missives from management condemning our action, staff increasingly gravitated towards us. Our numbers now stand at 501, a rise over a few short weeks from 453.

Our armoury was broad and adaptable to a fluid situation. An on-line campaign, including a members’ blog, provided a receptacle for catharsis, debate and discussion. On line petitions, films and photos recorded our action, archiving our dispute for posterity, and in the heat of struggle allowing members to visit sources of trusted and alternative narratives as the dispute developed.

This alliance – of staff and students, EIS FELA colleagues from around the country and our national officials, support colleagues and politicians – ultimately secured us a famous victory. Conditions have   not only been protected but enhanced.

We spoke to our members patiently, communicating with humour and determination in terms we were all comfortable with. Most critically, officials circulated the campuses to listen to their anxieties, channelling their ideas and building confidence not only in their potential to assert agency, but in the commitment of officials to be mandated solely by their demands. Ultimately this is what most effectively disarmed the Board’s negotiators; we were representatives only, spokespersons for a membership whose belief had been amplified by the confidence that comes from the pursuit of justice, and for whom only one outcome mattered – that the modest expectations of members were met, and met fully. 

Determined trade union fight backs can and do win disputes. Building the kind of non-sectarian alliances capable of facing down apparently intransigent employers presents us with mountains to climb, but it can be done. Sect-building, dictating strategy to members, detached FT officials, all of these undermine the essential task of establishing a belief amongst members that victories can be hewn from the most unlikely of circumstances. It’s a small example of what can be achieved, but FE staff at Edinburgh College have demonstrated what ground can be won back even in the face of a management operating against a backdrop of anti-union laws, austerity fears and high unemployment.