UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Report of UNISON FE Seminar held 8-9 April 2011

I attended my first FE and 6th Form College Seminar the following is a personal account of the inspiring and well organised event in Leeds over two days.

Anne McCormack, Chair, opened the event introducing the diverse range of speakers and topics as well as outlining some of the many achievements of the preceding year.

Shane Chowen, NUS Vice President of NUS (FE) was introduced as potentially the first NUS President from FE in forthcoming elections and he outlined some of the concessions achieved in conjunction with UNISON in relation to the Educational Maintenance Allowance.

Shane reminded the packed hall that in September 2010 students resurrected the creative resistance and use of mass protest and mobilisation against the increase of tuition fees and withdrawal of EMA. It is clear UNISON has much to learn about recruitment and retention of young activists and FE/6th Form Colleges is the obvious vehicle.

In stark contrast the next speaker was Caroline Rowley, a Regional Director from the Association of Colleges (AoC – the ‘paymaster’). With hundreds of colleges in membership and 3.5 million learners per year in FE and 6th Form Colleges the scale and young member potential is immense.

Identifying nearly 1million of the 2.5 currently unemployed as being aged 16-24 is a stark reminder of the impact of the ideologically driven coalition attacks. Perpetuating the myth of no economic alternatives however, Caroline raised eyebrows when she suggested the deficit is the biggest ever, in contrast to UNISON’s position that massive social welfare building occurred when deficit was bigger in 1948.

Her statistic that 65% of College Funds go on salaries also raised queries about the distribution of that 65%.

The Chair cautioned the need to maintain a working relationship whilst retaining different positions. My view is this will not be easy, but that also Pay will not be the critical factor despite national differences between Wales (2.3% Pay increase), England (0.2% settlement and £50 underpinning) and Scotland having pay determined locally.

The Seminar was soon to identify job security and LGPS Pensions threat as ‘trumping’ any members’ concerns over pay. National Officer, Chris Fabby was able to confirm the intention to produce an FE Funding Toolkit similar to the expertise available for local government.

The workshops offered input and discussion over such as campaigning, disability, outsourcing, sickness absence and an introduction for new reps. The campaigning workshop outlined an Organising Model of trade union activity that shifts emphasis from servicing to organising and borrows heavily from the American trade unions similar to Three Companies Project and the SSSNB secondment models in which members identify the issues and sustainability of membership supersedes ‘simple’ recruitment. The feedback from colleagues from other workshops was equally positive but all wished for more time as each had been motivated to learn more.

Ian Wright, Shadow Minister for 14-19 Reform gave a harsh reality check by describing the Minister and the coalition who refused to concede one single issue during the passage of the Education Bill. This was further compounded by a total refusal by the same Minister to answer the question – ‘why is there any need to extend Academy provision to 16-19 year olds as the present system works?’ The need for the trade unions to work more closely with the opposition was acknowledged but he did not escape the reminder that Academies were the creation of the former administration and little had been achieved in terms of anti-trade union laws being repealed.

Jo Seery, from Thompsons finished the formal input for the day with a presentation on Redundancy and the Law. The session became alive when delegates were able to pose specific college based questions and it is clear the fight against college cuts is growing at apace. His reference to a ‘Reasonable Employer’ and exhortation ‘you don’t want to have to rely on the law’ did cause unexpected hilarity. Delegates were encouraged to attend the Thompsons Training on Redundancy and signposted to UNISON’s own Redundancy Toolkit.

The Regional meeting for the North West established a network of improved inter communication and agreed to look at developing a different relationship with Local Government Branch Secretaries that would better serve both ‘sides’.

The quiz was attended by all and the ‘Fat Eads’ were victorious over such as ‘Odd One Out and the HR1s. However, the victory can only be described as hollow as it was based on having a faster internet connection to Google and one team member having Shazzam, music identification software that was especially helpful for the music round! Whilst technically within the rules it was clearly outside the moral code and apologies were made by all......once the champagne had all gone!

Pensions and Cuts were first two sessions on the second day and the threats as well as the national responses to both were outlined followed by a workshop on Fighting the Cuts. It became clear that as with all other sectors and service groups, there is no one size fits all response to local and national attacks. The Pensions issue is one that has the potential to galvanise support from across the Public Sector unions but caution was urged over going too quickly before RMS, our members and Pensions Champions and Pensions Contacts are actually ready to take action – this is also based on an assumption of what the final recommendations of the Hutton Report will be and whether there is a legal trade dispute.

Gill Archer, UNISON National Officer gave a detailed and challenging presentation on Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs) and how, despite the coalition’s undermining of them, they can and should still be used as a powerful tool in defending jobs and highlighting employer deficiencies. Trevor Gordon, former Vice Principal and freelance Equalities Presenter followed on seamlessly identifying of some nepotistic practices within colleges as well as highlighting the pressure around Ofsted inspections that tends to get certain boxes ticked which otherwise would never be achieved. Identifying the Equality Issues within Colleges, Trevor challenged UNISON to do more to spread the message beyond publication of reports that interestingly the majority of delegates had neither seen nor read.

The final set of workshops covered such as Job Evaluation, Health and Safety and College Mergers amongst others and again provided excellent input and space for discussion.

My own input was to close the Seminar under the heading of The Year Ahead in Public Services. The key messages I tried to impart were that Pensions, is a key issue; Organising needs to become more central, Colleges need less isolation and fundamental questions must be raised within our union about what actually works and what is simply not value for money. 26th March was a fantastic event and other lobbies and protests are already building on the recent health Conference Rally In Liverpool such as the action that will occur when the Tories have their October Conference in Manchester.

FE = false economy (see website), ‘fat eads’ (dodgy quiz team) and fantastic event. More Local Government Branch Secretaries should attend – FE and 6th Form Colleges are awash with expertise and commitment and have access to the future generation of activists. With 49 years being the average UNISON member age, Colleges can lead the way in recruiting a major part of the new movement union.

Thanks for the invite to the Seminar, College Reps have a great deal to be proud. Congratulations to all involved on staging an FE – fantastic event!

Glen Williams,
Sefton LG Branch and LG SGE