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Further education - Wales pay agreement:
Victory for trade union militancy
FOR NEARLY 13 years, further education (FE) in England and Wales has been market-driven, given the effective privatisation of the sector.
Andrew Price, Wales pay negotiator
Contrary to the views of the Tory and New Labour supporters of privatisation, this has neither enhanced the quality of post-school education nor protected the pay and conditions of those who work in the sector (who are organised mainly by NATFHE and UNISON).
Privatisation opened up a considerable pay gap between schoolteachers and FE college lecturers who do virtually the same job - hence NATFHE's long-running campaign to establish pay parity. In 2002, following strike action by NATFHE members, the union in Wales was approached by the Wales Assembly with the offer of funding to establish pay parity.
Following the acceptance of this offer by NATFHE members in branch meetings, the union established a negotiating team to attempt agreement with the Wales FE employers' body (Fforwm). All three of the NATFHE lay negotiators were committed left-wingers.
The anarchy of the free market system in FE in England and Wales has meant that national agreements on pay are reached in London with NATFHE and UNISON. Then the employers decide to spend the money on anything but staff pay!
From the outset in the Welsh negotiations, the trade union side insisted that any funding from the Assembly for the deal would be ring-fenced and only spent on staff pay.
Few, if any FE college principals in Wales are paid less than £100,000 a year. But this did not stop their negotiators trying to prevent those who do the only really important work in colleges improving their pay.
Despite this, agreement was eventually reached on pay, giving proportionately more to the lower-paid and establishing decent pay and conditions for the (overwhelmingly female) part-time teaching staff. Finally, agreement was reached on a scheme of pay parity with schoolteachers.
To some this agreement represents the triumph of devolution, or even more falsely, that New Labour in Cardiff is better than New Labour in Westminster.
But from the very start, NATFHE in Wales made the employers understand that failure to reach agreement would led to members being balloted for a three-day strike, to be escalated if necessary to indefinite action.
This was in fact the most extensive programme of strike action proposed by NATFHE anywhere in the United Kingdom and was the decisive factor in this victory for our members.
Their brothers and sisters in England will be keen to draw the vital lessons from this, as will trade unionists everywhere.
In The Socialist 9 February 2006: