Workers, students and others attending in solidarity cheered speakers from the unions, from rank and file strike leaders, and from other supporters from the wider union movement, who all congratulated the strikers, blasted the College employers for their intransigence and criticised the Scottish government for their attacks on the strikes.
Lecturers had been striking for one and two day per week for over a month and were about to step up the action with a three day strike the following week, when news came through that there had been a massive climb down by the employers. Talks late on Friday 19 May had culminated in a huge victory for the striking workers.
The union involved – the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), through its autonomous Further Education Lecturers Association (FELA) – had been involved in a longstanding dispute with Colleges around implementation of a pay award. Earlier in the year, the employers had reneged on a deal to pay an agreed salary increase and move all lecturers onto a common pay scale. The slogan of the strikers was #honourthedeal.
Although all are funded at the same rates by the Scottish Government, College boards are autonomous employers and had developed a range of widely varying pay rates and conditions of service in an aim to drive down education costs by attacking the living standards and conditions of lecturers.
96% strike mandate
The EIS held a ballot of members in March that produced a staggering 96% vote for strike action (on a turnout of just under 60%). The action agreed in the ballot consisted of a series of escalating strikes beginning with one day strike per week then moving up to two days and then three days. The employers had hoped to isolate the strikers and were desperately hoping that the strike would fizzle out. Facing such instransigence, the action became more solid and building and picket lines were getting bigger as members became angrier and more organised.
The rally heard how membership of the union had grown during the strikes and new branches were being set up, particularly in more remote parts of Scotland. The strikers reached out to students for their support and some supported picket lines and attended the rally with placards in support of their lecturers.
While not everything has been won in the negotiations, the immediate implementation of a national pay scale with minimum rates of pay for the same job had been achieved and the strikes must be considered a major victory for the Scottish labour movement.
The SNP-led government did not play a good role in the dispute. Earlier in the week, SNP Education Minister John Swinney had angered strikers and union members across Scotland alike when he made a public call for the EIS to call off the strike and back down.
Scottish Green Party leader Patrick Harvie was one of a number of speakers from the platform of the rally to criticise Swinney and the SNP, even though the SNP minority government only recently got its latest budget through the Holyrood parliament with the votes of the Scottish Green MSPs. College budgets have been slashed in recent years as the SNP government has prioritised other parts of the budget despite their importance to those working class communities looking for education, skills and training.
The successful conclusion of the strike action will encourage further action across the education sectors and show that union members can strike and win in defence of pay, jobs and conditions against cuts from both Holyrood and Westminster governments.