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Taking action in higher education

Winning better jobs for workers in adult education

2 October 2015 | last updated: 22 January 2016

These are difficult times in further and adult education. Swingeing cuts to the adult skills budget, to ESOL funding and the government's area reviews of FE college provision are creating uncertainty and a level of mayhem in the sector. And that brings with it massive demands on branch officers.

It can be a challenge to keep proactive campaigning and negotiating on the agenda. Yet casualisation in further and adult education remains a massive and growing issue. According to our estimates almost one in three teachers in our colleges and adult education services is paid by the hour. Zero-hours contracts are rife and as our 'making ends meet' survey revealed, precarious work is creating real material hardship.

In spite of this, with sufficient organisation and determination, it is possible to win collective successes that increase job security, even in the most casualised workplaces. UCU members at Hackney Learning Trust, an adult and community education service in East London, have just managed to win the case for proper fractional contracts. What makes this more inspiring is that they had to build a branch and win recognition rights to do it.

As Amy Jowett, one of the leading UCU reps at Hackney Learning Trust recalls, 'in 2012, we were all on hourly-paid fixed-term contracts. There was no recognised UCU branch, only a collection of members in the ESOL department who had had consistent hours of work and who had just helped the department get a 2 in an Ofsted review'. That year, the ESOL tutors got together to compose a case for moving staff onto fractional contracts, initially within the ESOL team.

After some initially positive meetings, senior managers at the service announced that fractional contracts were 'going against the grain nationally' and discussions stopped. At this point, the UCU members realised they needed to build a proper branch and win the right to be recognised for negotiations. Using the fight for fractional part-time contracts as their mobilising issue, an informal committee recruited more members and mapped the use of contracts across the adult education department. This work won them partial recognition and set them up for the next stage, a push to be recognised to negotiate.

In 2013, the branch sent a letter to management, signed by all the teaching staff, stating that they wanted UCU to be able to negotiate for them, including around the issue of better part-time contracts. In the face of this unity, full recognition was finally granted, but senior manager still refused to move on the issue of better contracts. The branch had to up the ante using all possible means. As Amy recalls, 'We raised our campaign at every possible opportunity. We went to offices, sat on desks, talked to people who could influence our SMT and explained that we'd reached an impasse. Eventually, the head of HR agreed to come to negotiations and they said they were considering fractional contracts on a fixed-term basis.' In doing this, the reps were able to have confidence in the support of an active and growing branch.

In 2015 following talks supported by the London UCU regional office, the service confirmed that it would be offering fractional contracts to all staff.

All collective agreements are messy affairs, reflecting that which both sides can agree on after a power struggle, and this one is no different. There are plenty of problems to be ironed out with the way this agreement functions. In addition, the branch see it as simply the end of one phase in the struggle for job security and the beginning of another. Nonetheless, Hackney ACE branch are rightly proud of what they've achieved.

In spite of the toughest funding environment, a determined membership focused on a long-term strategic goal was able to organise and demonstrate its collective strength so as to successfully put the argument that high quality provision depends on tackling precarious contracts.