Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Sunday, February 16, 2014

You said you were lied to, and that's not hard to see

Further to my post last week about the strike at my workplace, I can report that although negotiations have resumed and the management have made some key concessions, the strike was still escalated from one day a week to two, with three days per week planned for the future (which will be in two weeks, as there are no students in next week). That last fact in itself tells you something: if the purpose of the strike was to inconvenience management, the absence of the students would make no difference (staff will be in from Monday to Wednesday, doing various training and team-building things). No, the whole point of this strike has become clear: it's to cause maximum inconvenience to the students in the hope that this will cause them (and their parents) to put pressure on the College management. (Which just shows how little the strike organisers understand about either students or their parents, who are probably emailing their MPs and MSPs now demanding further legal restrictions on the right to strike.) Further confirmation of this came from the picket line at the Milton Road campus last Tuesday (the one at my workplace was fairly low-key and wholly peaceful), where in addition to lying in the road in front of cars to stop them crossing the picket line, and bouncing on the car bonnets, the pickets were harassing students entering the college, demanding to know why they were going in, who their lecturers were, and bringing some of the more sensitive ones (remember some of these students are no more than fifteen) to the verge of tears. The police were called, though for what precisely I'm unsure.

In the event, a lot of lecturers were out on Tuesday so most lectures were cancelled. I turned up for mine in case anyone wanted a lesson but mainly got on with my admin. Wednesday was pretty similar, and the pickets were peaceful when I went in, though apparently some of the crowd form the Milton Road picket line had transferred their attention to Sighthill by later in the day, where they were bouncing on cars again, and apparently attempting to photograph anyone entering. I think if they try that one with me I'll take a selfie with the pickets in the background and post it on Facebook: I don't intimidate easily.

A number of lecturers who had been out the previous week felt like me that escalation of the action was inappropriate (some felt it should have been suspended: I'd have been happy if they'd just kept it to one day, which seems to chime with the view of most of the students I spoke to later). Some were also pissed off by a piece of lying from the EIS-FELA Branch Secretary, which was as brazen a piece pf work as any of Bonni's over at BareNakedIslam. Let me explain.

The strike was called because of worries about various proposed changes to terms and conditions, and about the management's insistence on linking any pay deal to these changes. Foremost among the concerns was the introduction of annualised hours with no weekly ceiling on class contact time. In other words, your current full-time contract might specify 22 hours a week of class contact, but the new one would just say 800 hours per year. That's a very slight rise (less than half an hour a week) on average, but the new system would permit management to ask staff to teach extra classes so they might have to be in front of a class for 35 hours in a week. This was felt to be a risk, and I can understand that. So when negotiations began, and management asked what the union were still wanting, a weekly cap on class contact was first on the shopping list. And the management duly provided it: realising that they'd made a mistake, they fixed a cap of 24 hours per week. So now you could only be asked to teach up to 24 hours per week (and staff on some current contracts already teach that). Moreover, staff on those 24-hour contracts would be harmonised down to 22 hours per week in line with everyone else. So: the union asked for a cap, and were given it. In addition, staff currently teaching at that capped level would have their normal contract requirement cut so that 24 hours would be an exceptional maximum for all staff. The union negotiators considered these proposals and welcomed them. They still rejected the overall package on offer because of other small points they still wanted improving, and mainly because of the link between the (now improved) pay offer and the contract changes, which remains in place. All of which seems very reasonable on both sides.

An email was circulated by the union's negotiating team explaining how the negotiations had gone and why the strike would be continuing. I received it, but a number of my colleagues (good union members who indeed continued to strike after the escalation) did not. Which at the time seemed like an oversight, but which may have had more sinister motives (though I don't want to make to read too much into it: history is usually far more cock-up than conspiracy). About half an hour later the Branch Secretary, Penny Gower, circulated a second email which complained stridently that the management's response had been disgraceful. Under the proposed changes, lecturers would be expected to work 24 class contact hours a week instead of their current 22, and this might lead to the loss of up to 50 jobs. Yes, she really did write that. Yes, she really does think her members are that stupid (or perhaps that she had successfully suppressed the actual report from the union). And to judge from some reactions, she may be right in some cases: but not mine, thank you. If I had been intending to strike last week that email would have given me second thoughts, showing Ms Gower to be not only a liability to the EIS but a disgrace to the trade union movement. It shows that Penny Gower has so little confidence in the union's case for the strike that she feels the need to lie about it to her own members, which just seems sad. Because the case isn't a bad one: if the strike had stayed at one day a week I'd have been happy to stay out purely for the principle of separation on the contract negotiations from the pay offer.

(Ms Gower, as well as being Branch Secretary of EIS-FELA, is currently its President, which I have just realised makes my title singularly apt, coming as it does from Arlo Guthrie's Watergate song "Presidential Rag". Hah.)

UPDATE: after the second week of strike action the union accepted a very slightly slightly revised offer from management and is recommending the deal to its members for approval. Meanwhile, the strike is suspended.

FURTHER UPDATE: Penny Gower did eventually respond to my email, explaining that the original offer had turned out (after further questioning of the management) to be intended to be "self-funding", by way of reducing the number of temporary lecturers to make savings to pay for the hours cap. I'm grateful for the response, even if it does seem too convenient to be true that her comment about jobs was precisely - and solely - about people in my situation. I think I spy someone trying too hard to give out the message(s) she thinks people want to hear, and making up the detail as she goes along. Still, I may revise my "disgrace to the trade union movement" description, even if "liability to the EIS" still fits.


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