Scotland: education workers move towards strike action

Members of the the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) are moving towards industrial action both in schools and in further education, to enforce safe schooling against Covid and to protect workers’ pay and job security. Nick Cimini, an rs21 and EIS member, reports on recent developments.

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The EIS is the largest teaching union in Scotland and the oldest education union in the world, having been founded in 1847.

It sometimes shows its age. It still has a Royal Charter, for example. 

It has also tended to lag behind sister education unions in some respects with regards to handling the Covid crisis. When, for example, the NEU was vocal in calling into question the so-called ‘scientific advice’ coming from the government and campaigning for school closures very early in the crisis, the early response from the EIS more closely echoed government advice and tended to labour under the assumption that the EIS did not have the expertise required to contest the government (despite counting virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, psychologists, and numerous other experts among its membership).

In spite of some of these shortcomings, however, the EIS has in recent years played an increasingly combative role in representing teachers and lecturers across Scotland. These past few months have been particularly busy and disputes have opened up across a number of fronts: in schools, colleges and universities.

Disputes declared in Scottish schools

This week the EIS declared a number of consultative ballot results and subsequently launched official disputes with local authorities (including in West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow, Fife, and Edinburgh, with other ballot results to follow) over Covid-safety and the failure of employers to provide a safe working environment for school teachers.

In West Dunbartonshire 91% of teachers backed the move to a dispute with a turnout of 75%, in Glasgow 93% of teachers voted in favour with a turnout of 63%, 90% of teachers in Fife voted in favour with a turnout of 53%, and 91% of teachers in Edinburgh supported the move with a turnout of 65%. Though these results are merely consultative and not a legally binding mandate for strike action, they do suggest that teachers are angry and willing to act in defence of their own interests and the interests of public health. 

The EIS from November onwards had petitioned local authorities and the Scottish government calling for ‘a move to teaching and learning via remote online platforms for the pre and post-Christmas period, in the interests of minimising infection risk and protecting the health and wellbeing of students, teachers and their families over the festive season.’ 

An extended school closure and move to remote learning was considered but was originally ruled out by the Scottish government. In defiance of EIS members, most local authorities in Scotland are therefore planning to keep schools open right-up until the last minute. The announcement made last night, Saturday 19th, does however mean there will be a staggered return in January.

Each of the EIS regional executive committees are meeting over the next few days to decide how to progress their disputes should local councils fail to engage with their demands.

The FE dispute

At the same time, the EIS Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) this week announced the results of a consultative ballot for both strike action and action short of strike in their dispute with Colleges Scotland (the body that represents employers nationally). From a 72% turnout of eligible members, 86% voted in favour of a strike and 96% backed industrial action short of striking. The result of the consultative ballot gives FELA members a clear mandate to move to a statutory ballot.

The FELA dispute centres around the emergence of so-called ‘instructor’, ‘assessor’ and other such contracts in the college sector, and the impact these contracts are having on the traditional role of the lecturer. Staff employed on the instructor and assessor contracts are paid considerably less than staff on a regular lecturing contract, have less time for preparation and more class contact time. EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said, ‘It is clear that these changes are about cutting costs – no matter the impact on the quality of education. Members across Scotland are concerned that the professional role and status of college lecturers is under threat.’

Lecturers at Forth Valley College are already taking action short of strikes over the issue. They are currently working to contract and may escalate their actions to a refusal to take an accurate student register, a marking boycott, and refusing to cover for absent colleagues. Bosses at the college are attempting to remove 30 lecturing jobs and replace these with support roles. The announcement this week from the EIS-FELA executive means that lecturers at Forth Valley could be joined in action soon by members from across the country.

The emergence of instructor and assessor contracts is part of a deliberate strategy by college bosses to undercut the wages of lecturers and undermine the recently agreed national framework for pay bargaining in the sector. FE colleges were semi-privatised in 1993 when they were removed from the control of local authorities and set up as freestanding bodies under the control of ‘Boards of Management’. A small number of specialist institutions have designated ‘charitable status’ and are regulated accordingly, but many colleges are now run effectively like businesses. 

In the years since 1993, there occurred an ‘explosion in management posts and salaries’ according to Pam Currie, Ex-President of EIS-FELA. At the same time, Pam notes that ‘local bargaining led to huge divergence in lecturer pay and terms and conditions across the sector – the strongest branches holding firm on conditions and increasing pay while the weakest fell further behind.’ The disparities across the sector meant that, prior to implementing the national framework, a lecturer in one college could stand to earn £12,000 more per year than a lecturer in another part of the country.

Over the past four years, however, after a series of strike actions beginning in 2016, EIS-FELA members have become increasingly well organised and militant. Membership has grown and branches are active. FELA have fought and won (both locally and at a national level) over a number of issues – ‘equal pay for lecturers, national terms and conditions, a national transfer to permanence agreement which will drastically reduce the number of staff on zero hours and fixed term contracts, and a cost of living pay rise.’

In conversation with rs21, John Kelly, the EIS-FELA National Salaries Convenor, described the most recent FE dispute in the following terms:

‘Our dispute in FE has 2 elements to it.

  • Defending the quality of FE
  • A fight to force our employers to honour National Collective Agreements.

Lecturers have overwhelmingly committed to fighting for FE, against attacks which would deliver a poorer second rate service and would put intolerable pressures on staff.

Unless Colleges Scotland are willing to engage with FELA, FE in Scotland is heading for another round of industrial action.’

Throughout the recent years of industrial disputes in Scottish FE, one thing that can be counted on as a given is that college bosses have demonstrated an uncanny ability to underestimate the resolve of FELA members.

Ongoing problems in HE

By comparison with school staff and college lecturers in recent years, Higher Education staff have found it arguably more difficult to organise. At least, there are currently no signs of HE unions organising to ballot staff over this year’s 0% pay offer (adding to more than a decade of lost pay), nor over the casualisation of the profession and equalities issues. The USS pensions crisis is also ongoing, but momentum for action has stalled. 

There are several possible reasons for this relative lack of action. It is perhaps because other education workers have more to fight for (in terms of average pay rates, pensions, class contact hours, preparation time, professional autonomy, safety in the classroom, etc.). Arguably HE staff are also more fragmented and stratified than their colleagues elsewhere – with greater divisions between, say, professors and hourly paid staff. Suffice to say, as of yet there are no obvious signs of staff unions making any great headway in the various issues plaguing the marketised university.

Things could change very quickly and there are reasons to be (cautiously) optimistic: HE unions have seen a growth in membership in recent years, debates about union democracy are back on the agenda, and student activism might be a catalyst for change.

The EIS University Lecturers’ Association (EIS-ULA) is proportionally a smaller part of the overall EIS, representing members working in Higher Education. Though the EIS-ULA have not launched any ballots for industrial action since breakdown of talks in the 2019/20 pay round, local representatives have worked tirelessly over the summer and into the new academic year, defending jobs against the threat of redundancy and trying to mitigate against the worst effects of a system that rushed staff and students back on to university campuses and halls of residences despite the serious and well-documented risks of doing so. One EIS-ULA branch representative told rs21:

‘The Covid pandemic has clearly exposed the fragility of the HE sector, particularly the heavy reliance on tuition and accommodation fees paid by overseas students. The other thing it has unfortunately exposed is that the first place University managers look to make savings is by cutting staff, and the most precarious of staff (those on zero hour contracts for example) are most at risk. I found it exhausting spending my only non teaching trimester fighting back over potential redundancies and I worry that even now we’re not out of the woods.’

(Anonymous EIS-ULA rep)

Trade unionism at a crossroads

As the above quote suggests, trade union activism can often seem like a ‘labour of sisyphus’ – endlessly battling it out with management in a highly bureaucratic game of cat-and-mouse, all in a bid to negotiate the conditions in which workers are exploited without fundamentally challenging the roots of that exploitation.

Education unions are at a crossroads. One road leads to trade unionism from above, with a narrow focus on the legal and financial health of the union (often to the detriment of more radical activism) and with officials acting as expert troubleshooters who are parachuted into schools, colleges and universities to service members. The other road, trade unionism from below, is less concerned with servicing teachers and lecturers, and more focused on organising and empowering them to pursue their own interests. With this bottom-up model, the EIS and other unions will be better placed to defend education and shape the type of education system that we need for the twenty-first century.

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