It was a challenging time to be a FELA official. “It was ridiculously frustrating,” says Kirsty Devaney, who would later become the first national EIS president to come from a college background. “It didn’t seem to matter how often we made the case – at the STUC, the TUC, in any meeting with anybody in government, whatever. But we kept on going. You just think: eventually, something will happen.” 

It had made a manifesto commitment to reintroduce a system of national bargaining, and it delivered on this promise. This allowed the EIS to negotiate collectively, on behalf of all Scottish FE colleges. 

The first national strike took place in 2016, with FELA members from across the country – both in the big cities and in rural areas with no history of union activism – responding to the call to action. Management in colleges hadn’t expected such widespread and coherent action, and moved quickly to reach agreement. 

The strike was held on a Thursday. On the Friday, management agreed to meet FELA representatives. By 3am on Saturday, an agreement had been reached. 

The upshot was that management agreed to phase in equal pay for lecturers between April 2017 and April 2019, bringing all lecturers’ pay up to £40,000 by the end of this period. 

Even some EIS members were stunned by the rapid success, with a Saturday demonstration in George Square quickly turning into a party

That, however, was not the end of it. At the start of 2017, management told FELA that they were

not prepared to introduce equal pay without equal conditions. Specifically, they wanted to tie lecturers’ pay to significantly worse conditions, such as reduced holidays. 

And so, in April and May 2017, FELA launched its Honour the Deal campaign. What was notable during this campaign was that the union’s previous success had an enormous impact on staff. Lecturers from industries that weren’t traditionally unionised – such as hair and beauty – had joined en masse in 2016. Students, too, came out in support of their lecturers’ strike action. 

Once again, management conceded almost immediately. The pay deal was implemented, and everyone in the sector was brought on to a common pay scale, with universal conditions. 

Again, however, implementing the deal was not straightforward. In 2019, there was further strike action over pay, and in 2021 over the lecturers’ role. Both were won by FELA. Unusually among Scottish trade unions, FELA has won every single one of its ballots since collective bargaining was reintroduced. And, for the first time in history, every college has an EIS branch.