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Barry Lovejoy, UCU head of further education

29 May 2011

Report to FE Sector conference, 28 May 2011

Hello conference and its good to see increased numbers attending - even a number of observers.

Many more seasoned delegates will no doubt have noticed there are fewer motions and that none generally address the normal big issues of pay, jobs workloads, etc, and that there is no motion from the FEC with a focus on immediate future. I want to reassure delegates and press reps here that this does not mean there is little concern or indeed a lack of enthusiasm to address these issues - rather its my view that there is consensus now on what we have to do and actually we have been rather busy doing it!

I am in no doubt that our sector, like the whole of the public sector, is facing the most serious attack in nearly 20 years; but an attack, in fact, of deeper significance and with possible drastic consequences. This Tory-led government is fighting for its class interests in a manner far more radical than Thatcher. Building of course on the sorry policies of new labour - the attack on public services, yes, is a means of making workers and claimants pay rather than bankers and leaders of business. But more than that is a total reconfiguration of state involvement - a smaller welfare state leaving opportunities for private capital to profit and the ever increasing use of market mechanisms.

Every lost job, every lost student because they cannot pay fees, is another nail in  the coffin of FE and AE [adult education] as an engine of mobility. And so too is every increase in the workload of college or adult ed institution  staff, cuts to  pay and attacks on  pensions. Our fight on these issues is part of our defence both of educational provision and the general defence of the welfare state and for an alternative to the austerity policies of the government. That is why so many of our members joined the 26 March demo and are active in anti-cuts alliances up and down the country.

So we are absolutely right when addressing and campaigning on employment issues whether job cuts, pay  or contractual changes that we stress this link with educational issues and wider struggles. This has a resonance amongst our membership and enables us to build broader alliances with students, other unions and political allies

And this is essential in my view if are to have any chance of success - demonstrated brilliantly by the campaign on EMA. How good was that campaign, which had UCU playing the central coordinating role providing campaigning and parliamentary resources? Right from the start UCU members and students campaigning together not only to ensure the FE message was raised loudly  in the magnificent mobilisations on tuition fees, but also whilst not total victory and with much to go, a significant win nevertheless to force a u-turn on the issue. We should be proud of this and apply the same approaches where we can to the scandalous fee remission policies of this government for example.

In my 11 years of doing this job I have not witnessed before  the level of demands placed on union staff and local reps that we are experiencing at present. I am sure you will want to kick off this conference then giving your appreciation first for the staff... and reps ... (even if it is yourselves!)

The simple fact is that I must be clear with colleagues that we cannot continue to work at the level of recent months - the struggle we are engaged with is going to be long and hard and we have to therefore prioritise and focus our activity if we are to avoid burn out. It is going to mean on a day-to-day level that the regional office will increasingly, although providing advice, may not be able to take over individual cases previously undertaken but it also has implications on what and how we campaign on. It is possible and indeed as I have said important to make links with a range of issues confronting our members but  frankly we cannot  enter a dispute, ballot and take action on every single issue that confronts us - its risky and runs danger of us losing the loyalty of our members. Rather than a blunder buss approach a more rifle attack?  Less carpet-bombing and more precision with supporting back up.

And I think that, actually, in action and words  members and reps have clearly spoken. They want to focus in the next period on joint action in defence of pensions and where necessary action to oppose compulsory job losses and threats to contractual conditions of service.

First, on the latter. Job threats now total some [to follow] across our sector and whilst not at the level of this time last year have, increasingly, the double or triple whammy of being linked to attempts to increase student contact time, cuts in holidays and increasingly freezes in pay whether increments or cost of living awards.

But colleagues, just as last year our branches and members refuse to accept this situation and are engaging again in a fight to resist and mitigate such moves.

Some  12  branches are now in formal dispute and are either balloting for action, planning or already taken action -  and some like Chesterfield and Sheffield colleges have already achieved acceptable results or like at Belfast Met have brought employers to negotiate seriously and meaningfully to avoid compulsory job loses.

The lessons are clear - that where action is clearly focused on objectives agreed by the members, linked to the negotiating process with members fully involved in decisions throughout, it can and does produce results. There is no silver bullet form of action - we have seen instances of threats and use of continuous indefinite action, but also  successful action as we have seen in Sheffield College can take innovative forms such as selective days for particular sections to maximise impact and minimise financial loss.
Lets congratulate those branches such as Sheffield and Chesterfield on their success and those balloting or in dispute to give them solidarity and support.

In particular, although there is welcome emergency motion, I want this conference to give a massive show of support for colleagues in Newcastle who yet again are being forced to resist outrageous and totally unnecessary attacks on their jobs and up to £10,000 pay cuts by a management sitting on millions of reserves, paying its principal £260,000. A vindictive management which seeks to victimise and silence our elected representative and NEC member David O Toole, and refuses the union meeting facilities.

Well our message is that  the national union stands full square behind  our  members. The branch, at a packed  meeting off premises, overwhelmingly decided to escalate to a rolling programme of selective strike action. They will get the maximum level of support we can. Our members will not be silenced accept attempts to prevent them from meeting and will fight to safeguard union rights, decent pay and conditions for members and educational opportunities.

Collective action whatever its form  in the end, colleagues, is our key to making progress and what another good example we have to illustrate this in the rank and file driven stand against the  attempt to make our members pay  an outrageous sum to an organisation that at present they have little confidence or respect. Our firm stand which recognises the necessity of a fully professional workforce but against the sudden imposition of unacceptable fees has forced the government into action and the parties to negotiate.

These talks are reaching their final stages and under the terms of our discussions I cannot give details. There will be full consultation with members over any outcome but what I will say though is that I am optimistic that we will achieve a substantial decrease in the level of fees and our position considerably strengthened to ensure the professional body becomes more relevant and accountable and that employers play their part in supporting our members participation in continuous development of their skills.

Unfortunately I am unable to give any optimistic report to you on the issue of pay negotiations this year. We met the employers last week who, despite having our claim for some two months, were unable to make any firm offer in response to our claim for 4% and their response on non-monetary elements of the claim was to say the least luke warm. But more serious is their attempt to make any offer they might make conditional on some position of support for increased flexibility and an productivity at local level and a weakening of the national agreement on sick pay.

As you would expect all trade unions rejected any such preconditions to an offer which may seriously undermine the increasing number of local battles over attempts to worsen conditions or pay. We meet again a week Monday.

Finally chair, and certainly not least as I think this and members see this as the major priority,  I turn to  issue of pensions, and as chair indicated we are allowing time for a more extended discussion.

There cannot be any doubt that government proposals towards public sector pensions including TPS are the biggest ideological and political assault on the state sector for years.

Colleagues you really should test out what it would mean for you on our online tool - if you get the time go to the stall and encourage your members.

I need not here go through the details. It is very simple - you work longer pay more for less pension.  So at a stroke  it removes what is perhaps the one compensation for working in a relatively low paid sector.
The defence of pensions is unquestionably becoming the focus of industrial struggle against the Tory-led government. It is brilliant that the NUT and ATL are now balloting for action and provides the opportunity together with PCS members for a massive show of strength at the end of June with nearly a million trade unionists possibly taking action.

Ensuring we get our members out on the first day of joint action  must be our main national priority for the next period we must not get diverted or give mixed messages.

This is a genuine joint campaign rapidly growing in strength and commitment. The key immediate tasks for activists.

Get out the posters around your workplace

Contact ATL and invite to joint meetings

Run a stall with the pension calculator.

Unless there is any ambiguity UCU will be taking action with  the schoolteachers. Yes it is likely to be the 30th [June] and there will be regional and local rallies and demonstrations. This, colleagues, in my view is the start of something historically significant - a joint campaign that will unite the movement in opposing this odious government.

Get out and organise! Thank you


Last updated: 29 May 2011