In mid-June 2021 EIS-FELA overturned fire and re-hire at Forth Valley College and won a national agreement to ensure all who lecture in Scottish FE are on lecturers’ terms and conditions.
The threat of replacement by so-called ‘instructors’ was not new but the situation changed when Forth Valley College management, using Covid as cover, fired and re-hired a large group of existing lecturers. Acting on the principle that ‘injury to one is an injury to all’ FELA declared a national dispute.
Scotland-wide online rallies were organised. Campaigning material was issued online to all with WhatsApp, Twitter, Tik Tok employed to get the message across that ‘yes we can’ protect education and win justice – hashtag #collegesneedlecturers.
Winning ballots under pandemic conditions relied on a ‘get the vote out’ system. Activists wrote individually to all members asking them to report if they had voted. Everyone was checked off against the list so efforts could focus on the dwindling minority yet to vote. Solid votes were the result.
The strike itself was all out, escalating (one day per week rising to 3 per week indefinitely). This sent a clear sign. We would not stop until we had won. Our schedule was designed to peak for 6 May’s Holyrood election.
This political strategy, using action to connect with the public and pressure politicians worked. The press did its best to ignore us but we bombarded politicians with the simple question ‘do you support fire and re-hire?’ Opposition parties agreed and Nicola Sturgeon was eventually cornered at an NUS hustings and had to say she disapproved. On 4 May we won an agreement.
Even then the battle was not fully over as the employers held back implementing it. It required a further threat of strike action for that to happen, but it did. At Forth Valley College, after 15 months, not only were those who had been fired and rehired reinstated as lecturers but new employees taken on as instructors were upgraded to lecturer. At a branch meeting full of tears of joy and release of pent up emotion (the toll on the mental health of the ‘instructors’ had been immense), we could finally celebrate.
The FELA dispute shows Tory anti-strike ballot thresholds can be beaten – pandemic or no pandemic. New technology affords opportunities that did not exist previously, and a member-led union activism can ensure that the needs of education and those who work in it are put first.
John Kelly and Donny Gluckstein,
Members of EIS-FELA Executive