Gina Davidson: Stretched staff must take a stand

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EDINBURGH College is in a mess. The merged institution of three former further education colleges – Stevenson, Telford and Jewel & Esk – is in the grip of industrial action.

This comes as no surprise to those who have been watching the college’s slow disintegration. Last year it had to cut £1.7 million from its budget which included getting rid of 70 staff. The principal resigned, and then it was revealed that applications for places were in a state of “precipitous decline”.

Of course, it was never going to be easy to bring three different colleges together and make a harmonious whole, but this month will be the third anniversary and by now things should have got a little easier.

There is the problem of a lack of support for the whole further education sector from Holyrood as resources are driven towards universities, which has seen part-time and short courses cut and bursaries slashed. And, of course, the budget cut and job losses.

So from this week lecturers, instructors and other staff are all taking “work to rule” action – basically not doing over their hours or filling in when fellow staff are off, or doing anything out of sheer “goodwill”, which is how a lot of organisations generally get by.

Now, there are some people who don’t hold with unions, who would think such action by the members of the Educational Institute of Scotland is shocking, and that folk should just be glad they have got a job.

But they would be wrong. At some point people have to take a stand; when their working conditions are being consistently eroded, when they are being asked to do more for less, when pressures are such that their health is being affected, when they can see that the very basis of what they do for a living is being twisted out of all recognition.

It’s the same with junior doctors down south. They are being balloted for industrial action which again could be a work to rule – no overtime – because the government thinks their normal working hours should be from 7am to 10pm. Now, medicine is a vocation, but it surely shouldn’t mean antisocial hours are only worth a shrug of the shoulders.

Perhaps the radical answer would be to have more junior doctors and so relieve the stress levels and the need for working crazy hours. Same goes for lecturers, or for any occupation which needs to get by on people willing to work a little extra for free.

Working hour contracts are there for a reason, especially within the medical profession where a tired brain could mean the difference between life and death. They are there to ensure people are not exploited, that they are paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work, to ensure people have some kind of work-life balance. All things unions have spent decades fighting for.

I for one hope that the actions of the lecturers – and the doctors – are successful. We’d probably all benefit from a little more working to rule.