I spent today warmed in cold weather by the magnificent solidarity of the Bridgwater and Taunton UCU picket lines. They are one of the “super sixteen” FE colleges that smashed the anti-democratic 50% turnout threshold for taking industrial action as laid down by the Trade Union Act 2016.

This branch has been completely rejuvenated and transformed by exceptional hard, great work by local activists: they have doubled in size in the past 15 months(!!) and produced a solid ballot turnout (52.7%) with an incredible 83% of members voting for strike action. Members in Bridgwater had not been on strike for about a decade. This morning, three mega picket lines full of rank and file members picketed the Bridgwater campus, many on their first ever strike.

Local activists and branch officers have worked very hard to support and encourage this high turnout in the face of unpleasant and intimidating messaging from the college’s management. Building this level of trust and solidarity requires really listening and understanding members’ concerns and fears. Honest conversations must go hand-in-hand with strong efforts to organise at a deep level. Ordinary college staff are fed up: many have been employed on hourly-paid, insecure contracts, often for years. Most staff have had no proper pay rise for a decade, which represents a huge pay cut in real terms. Many I spoke to today have actually seen a reduction in their real take-home pay packet, reporting they used to actually bring home more money for the same job ten years ago.

Further Education provision is vital to society, and should be well-resourced and supported to provide first, second, third chances at education and more, available to everyone. My Mum (who baked picket flapjacks!) and I are proud alumni of Bridgwater College. My Great Auntie Molly used to work in its library. I loved studying at night classes to gain a GCSE I couldn’t take at school (because I am a massive nerd) but it was my Mum’s studies that had the most profound effect on our family. Mum going back to study when my brother and I were young changed her life and outlook, and ours. Supporting picket lines of a branch that has done so much organising legwork together was a fantastic experience in itself, but the personal impact of teachers at the college on our family gave today extra emotional dimensions.

Buildings don’t teach, people do

Bridgwater and Taunton UCU, alongside the other 12 striking FE branches, are taking action because they know that something is up with the accounting. College principals and expanding levels of ‘senior staff’ tend to enjoy eye-watering salaries and better pay rises than many ordinary staff. Funding injected into colleges has not manifested in spending to make sure college staff are being paid properly or employed securely. Buildings don’t teach, people do. At Bridgwater and Taunton College, millions of pounds have been spent to expand the campus and erect shiny buildings but not a jot on improving staff conditions and wages. Nobody wants to work in a leaky shed, but vanity projects should never be at the expense of working and learning conditions for staff and students. In talks yesterday, branch officers secured a commitment from the senior management to share the accounts. This was a step forward in negotiations in a world of obfuscation, but not enough to call off a strike.

This ballot shows us how important it is to combine national action and local activism, and how crucial it is to fight for a return to national pay bargaining in FE. Since the ballot results were announced, local activists at each of the Super Sixteen have been working very hard to put pressure on management, leading to three colleges being able to suspend action: Hugh Baird College and New College Swindon due to last minute negotiating breakthroughs, and Coventry College UCU is continuing talks with their management. Just imagine what could have been accomplished if these incredible activists had been supported by national bargaining machinery.

Standing together

Solidarity speaks volumes and boosts whole campaigns, but it too can be precarious to build. Senior managers in further and higher education know this. At Bridgwater campus, the chair of the college student union been put under pressure by management to withhold support from the strike. Instead, they joined the picket line – with reports emerging from students exiting the college that there was barely anyone inside, students had gone home, and the rarely-spotted principal was clocked wandering about “looking concerned and upset” – presumably wondering why the plans to intimidate people out of striking hadn’t worked. It hadn’t worked because this branch is well-organised, and well-informed!

Added to the solidarity super-mix today were contributions and support from other unions including the Communication Workers Union (whose posties refused to cross the picket lines!), the Fire Brigades Union, and Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union. The branch has also worked closely to build links with the local Trades Council which has gone above and beyond merely donating money to help strikers by coordinating a hardship fund to take the load off the branch.

Today’s picketing finale was a mini march by way of a rally in the local trades club and on to the town square and statue. Our speeches about the state of education and the need to stand up for decent, secure, properly paid jobs attracted attention from passers-by. People stopped to listen, and we noticed a few workers hovering in shop doorways to hear. As we ended, one of the strikers ended up in the front doorway of a shop offering advice about trade unions to one such onlooker. Today was a wonderful day of activism and everything our education union is about and stands for!

Support the strikers!

Bridgwater Trades Union Council have made their strike fund available for UCU (Bridgwater and Taunton College branch) – donate here

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