Today, like thousands of members of Unison and UCU (University and College Union) I went on strike to improve my pay.
The protest is against a pay freeze by the Association of Colleges this year, following many years of negligible pay rises that mean pay in the sector has fallen back as much as 17 per cent if you adjust it for inflation.
I do not work in education for the money. I work in the college because it allows me to work and be there for my kids. I also enjoy the work and hope that I do some good. I enjoy teaching and think overall I am probably a pretty useful member of society.
However, I do not especially like the amount I am paid. I understand that it is not totally the college’s fault – rather it reflects the current political view that public sector employees are a drain on the country, rather than an asset. This view is behind the appalling way in which Jeremy Hunt is treating junior doctors. It also informs the attitude towards Further Education – the whole sector is currently under review, putting jobs at risk as colleges are forced to merge.
So why go on strike? Does the government give a shit? The answer is possibly not, but I think strikes are useful as a way of raising awareness of what is really going on. Students turning up to college can talk to their teachers and listen to their arguments – I had a good old rant at quite a few this morning. They can hear it from people directly involved rather than seeing regurgitated arguments on TV or social media. And they can hear positive messages about trade unions, which let’s face it are few and far between.
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when unions were the absolute bugbear for the right. Unions were to blame for everything – from Britain’s economic decline to the high cost of living. Union bosses were Luddites resisting automation and militant communists intent on bringing down society – the ultimate bogeyman was of course Arthur Scargill, who was EVIL.
I probably swallowed some of this. I remember the rubbish piled high during 1979’s Winter of Discontent, and during the telly years I remember laughing when someone asked me if I was in a union – I was moaning about sexism in the workplace. From 1997 to 2013 I was either self employed or on short term or part time contracts and for much of that time I thought rights at work were something that had gone the way of the Space Hopper and the Ford Capri.
Fortunately I know better now. I work in a unionised workplace and see the benefits of unions every day. I am also a union rep myself. I understand that without unions, things we see as totally normal – like holidays and weekends – would not exist. A unionised workplace is a fair work place – people will not get paid more for the same job just because the boss likes them (a common occurrence in less regulated environments). If you feel that you have been treated unfairly, a union rep will support you in a meeting with management – it is much easier to speak your mind with someone there to back you up. A union will also provide you with legal representation if you need it – not that we ever read any of this in the papers. Just think about who owns the papers – Murdoch, the Barclay twins and Lord Rothermere and this might make sense.
Also if you care about your rights at work, I urge you to think twice about how you vote in the forthcoming EU Referendum. Yes, I know the EU is now associated with austerity – and is seen to have shafted Greece – but it also is a beacon of employment law. If you want paid holidays, maternity leave and sick pay, think twice before you denounce the EU as a bastion of neo-liberalism and vote to leave. Do you really trust David Cameron to protect the average worker? We deserve to be treated fairly at work and throwing away the protection the EU offers us would be extremely foolish.