UCU: this is a dispute we can win

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Picketing in a blizzard at the Institute of Education. Pic: Jane Coles

The remarkable strike by university staff in the UCU union has involved whole new layers of workers in struggle and raised much wider political issues than the pension scheme dispute that is driving it. Socialist Review spoke to three strikers from different universities about their experiences.

Who could have imagined that university lecturers and other staff would have engaged in a 14-day strike to defend their pensions, still less imagined that after 10 days of the strike they would wholeheartedly reject an attempt to impose a settlement that would have sold short the principle of defined benefits?

The union is now faced with the option of activating a further 14 days of strike, possibly during the crucial period of exams, as well as Action Short of Strike (ASOS), working to contract, to ensure that the status quo is maintained.

In pursuit of the neoliberal agenda Universities UK (representing the employers) and USS (the pension scheme managers) want to shift the “liability” of the pension scheme from their books to facilitate the kind of credit they needed to pursue their vanity building projects. The key change is to transfer the responsibility away from the collective and on to the individual.

Consequently, the strikes have broadened out into a much wider discussion about the marketisation of Higher Education and the transformation of students into consumers.

The pension scheme is not in deficit. In fact it is in surplus and is likely to remain so.

To implement the changes in the scheme from defined benefits to defined contributions would not only involve staff having to pay more into the scheme. It would mean that they would lose up to £10,000 a year. It would have the most dramatic effect on younger staff who could eventually lose a total of £200,000 over their retirement.

Vice-chancellors meanwhile are paying themselves astronomic salaries of up to £450,000 a year

So how did the union respond and what was the experience of the strikes?

We talk to three activists about their involvement and assessment of the action:

Julie Hearn (University of Lancaster and member of the UCU Higher Education Committee)
Jane Coles (UCL Institute of Education and member of the branch executive)
Camilla Royle (King’s College London Doctoral Candidate)

After an amazing 14 days of strike action what are you abiding memories and feelings?

Camilla: The size of the strike and the picket lines has been really impressive. On the first day there were 75 on the picket line and it’s been a really lively atmosphere as well. People have been bringing their own placards and leaflets and taking their own initiatives. So for example, today one of the things we are angry about as well as pensions is the amount of money the VC gets, more than £450,000 a year. So we were making fliers today about that and handing them out to students and that went down really well. I think demos called by London Region UCU have been great as well.

Jane: Like many people I felt pretty apprehensive when the 14 day strike action was first announced and what transpired was the really quite astonishing level of support the strike generated.

Part of the reason for that was the sheer scale of the attack. For an average lecturer £10,000 a year cut from your pension, for 20 years of life, that’s £200,000 being stolen from you because this is money you’ve paid into your pension.

So the scale of the response had to match up. People realised that this was an all or nothing moment and we just had to get out on the picket line and fight it. In my workplace we had picket lines of 50 a day on average and we are just a faculty of a much larger university. Some days we had over 70. On the second London demonstration, over 100.

The scale of the support was overwhelming. People I had never seen at union meetings before were coming out on the picket line. It’s been an uplifting three weeks.

Julie: The clearest memory to me is the fateful Tuesday [13 March] when as a Higher Education Committee UCU member we arrived at the union headquarters to be greeted by chanting from a massive lobby by thousands of strikers outside. My colleague Lesley from Leeds UCU gave an impromptu address and said that we would represent their interests when we went in.

When we were in the meeting deciding whether to accept the deal we could hear clapping and chanting outside. It was just the most fantastic feeling. I’ve never been in a negotiating room where you could actually hear your members telling you what they wanted from outside. So it was very evocative. I came out and reassured members that we would respect their views even if the majority on the National Executive Committee didn’t.

It was really powerful to be making decisions on behalf of thousands of members and reporting back midway through the negotiations. This was trade unionism with integrity. Then the 40 delegates from the branches all voted for wholesale rejection of the deal and the momentum shifted from acceptance to rejection.

The next day at our biggest branch meeting in Lancaster of more than 100 members, we fed back the decision to reject. There was a real sense of democracy and empowerment. We hadn’t gone down the well-worn path of a sell-out. It felt so fantastic — a moment that in a small way changed trade union history.

What has been the response of the students?

Camilla: It’s been very good. I was pleasantly surprised that students responded in the way they did. The polls have said that 60 percent of students nationally support the strike, which is really impressive. The student union supports the strike. At King’s they’ve come and helped out with teach-outs and there’s a group of activists who have occupied one of the buildings at Kings and are still in occupation.

Jane: Again extraordinarily positive. Many of our Institute of Education (IOE) students are out in schools. Our experience is we’ve had lots of emails of support — “How’s the strike going?”, “Hope you’re not getting too cold.”

When our students were back in university some came and joined us on the picket lines. Students at UCL went into occupation outside the Provost’s office. The Provost is our vice chancellor. He couldn’t get into his office and disappeared from view. So the students set up the hashtag #FindMyProvost. That became a running gag. We created a picture postcard with a mass picket in a blizzard on one side with the slogan “Dear Michael, wish you were here” and on the other side we asked students to sign a message of support and add comments.

We found that it was very easy to get students’ support and we had hundreds of cards by the end. We packaged them up in a big box and went round the university in search of the Provost. Eventually we put them in the internal mail because he was nowhere to be seen.

The picket lines seemed to have a very good humoured, almost carnivalesque atmosphere. How do you account for this buoyancy?

Julie: Our picket lines were energised by all the new members who had become active — it wasn’t the old guard. We have a really strong Sociology department, very female-orientated and left-led, and they brought a whole new atmosphere of dancing and fun. It was an example of that old saying from Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution”.

It was a young people’s picket line as well and they knew how to Bluetooth the music. We also had a fantastic member who invited live bands along. We even had a third year student who is a Zumba teacher so she had us doing Zumba on the picket lines.

One of the things I will take from this is the empowerment of women, particularly younger women. It’s great to see them on the megaphone leading the strike.

Camilla: Yeah, definitely you get the feeling that people are taking things into their own hands and running things themselves, which is a change even for the union, because in the past, union meetings have been fairly small at Kings.

But the strike has transformed that. Now there’s a new layer of people getting involved and it feels like people are starting to run things for themselves. It was great on the first day because a few people had done their own version of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for the strike.

Jane: I think that we found enormous collective strength being out together on the picket line. Conversations arose and we had space to discuss issues and talk together. It was the kind of time and space we don’t get in our busy lives in the university.

Referring to the carnivalesque atmosphere, we owned the space in front of our building, both physically and intellectually, and occupied it. Given the cold weather we bought some fire pits. We blasted out music from a portable amp, sang songs played games of giant skittles. We took over the place.

There was a whole new confidence and a buoyancy and it’s fair to say a transformative experience. People felt proud to be a union member. Proud of our union. Pride in ourselves. We realised early on the management didn’t have the confidence to tell us to move on or put the fire out. They were skirting round us rather than the other way round.

One of the most significant aspects was the solidarity shown across the age range and status of members. There was a real sense that this was an intergenerational dispute and we were fighting for future lecturers and workers as well as ourselves.

What was your experience of the teach-outs and the wider discussions that were taking place?

Julie: The teach outs have been absolutely fantastic and it’s the first time we’ve ever done them. The local community centre became our alternative university. For 14 days we had at least one teach-out every day. It was a massive range of topics from the Sociology professor on marketisation to the English department’s Creative Writing colleagues getting us to write imaginatively about our striking experience.

Everyone together: colleagues, students and supporting members of the public. A public university open to everyone. It brought a lot of members together in interdisciplinary meetings and built a new sense of community. I think it’s something that’s really precious and we don’t want to lose it.

Camilla: Two big discussions: one that relates to women and the gender pay gap and the other that relates to democracy in the university. With regard to the gender pay gap we had a rally on 8 March where women at different stages of our careers brought different issues to the fore.

We had a big notice board and people could write down what their demands would be at the university. So as well as the gender pay gap, we want people to listen to complaints about harassment, much more facilities for women with young children and places where they might breastfeed, and help with childcare because it is extremely expensive in King’s.

The issue around democracy as well has been something that people at King’s have complained about for a very long time. Things are run by a college council and staff are not really represented there, but now people want to get much better representation.

Of course, the issues of casualisation and student fees have been raised by the students themselves, and we had speakers from the cleaners’ campaign which is demanding they be brought in-house.

Jane: We organised a series of daily teach-outs. For example, one about Ivan Illich and the Deschooling debate, which the older ones hadn’t thought of for a couple of decades, talking about cooperative schooling and different visions of higher education. We didn’t necessarily agree on everything; we were a diverse bunch, coming from different traditions with different theoretical points of view. We were claiming and creating the space where those conversations could happen because those conversations are being squeezed out of daily life within the institution, simply because our workloads are so onerous.

What about the political issues relating to the way in which Higher Education has been transformed?

Julie: It’s really easy to link our strike to wider issues. What’s driving the attack on our pensions is marketisation. It’s not that the pension scheme is unhealthy financially or not viable, it’s the fact that it’s seen as a liability to individual universities.

They are going on to the capital markets trying to borrow more and more money at lower interest rates and want to have higher credit ratings, so they want to wipe out the liabilities on their balance sheets.

They see capital investments as assets that show up bright and shiny like the newly built health complex a few yards away from our picket line. The workers are an inconvenience and a liability.

Camilla: We’ll keep raising wider issues of policy linking in the pensions issue with the marketisation of universities. They are reducing their liabilities to staff so they can invest in buildings. That’s quite obvious at King’s with the recent investment in Bush House.

Jane: Particularly at University College London (UCL) there is an enormous controversial vanity project that is being constructed over at Stratford East. It is a huge financial risk that the senior management of UCL have made, whereas the very minimal risk of sustaining the pension fund is not one that they are prepared to take. They value the shiny buildings and their position in world league tables more than their workforce.

What support have you had from other unions and members of the public?

Camilla: One really good thing is that there is a post-1992 university, South Bank, which is not too far from King’s and I went and spoke at their UCU branch meeting. They were very supportive and they have donated a lot of money to us. LSE UCU have donated an extraordinary amount of money as well. The post-92 universities see it as their strike as well and know that their pensions will be attacked if we let this happen to ours, so they are particularly interested in supporting us.

Jane: We had the joint general secretaries of the National Education Union, Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, visiting our picket line and Kevin came a second time. We also had a visit from Mick Cash of the railworkers’ union RMT, who spoke and brought solidarity greetings. Unison members brought banners and trays of coffee and some refused to cross the picket line. Some of us have been invited to union meetings in secondary schools to talk about our strike, because clearly there are connections being made with similar pressures and attacks on pensions, pay and conditions.
We have been buoyed by the response from the general public more than we were expecting. I was on the bus with my picket arm band the day after we had pushed back the offer and the driver stopped me and asked me how things were going, wished us well and said he hoped we’d win.

Why was the proposed settlement of 12 March so decisively rejected?

Camilla: To my mind it’s because of the proposed settlement accepting that there is a deficit in the pension fund. That’s in my opinion why we are against it because we shouldn’t accept that. There’s plenty of money going into the scheme every year and you’d have to be particularly risk averse to accept that there’s a deficit. I think what also grated with people is that we should have to reschedule our lectures even though they were cancelled because of the strike and we wouldn’t get paid for doing them. That really annoyed people.

Jane: It is important to acknowldege that the settlement represented a shift from the employers. They would not have made any offer at all if the strike had not been seen to be so successful and they did not expect us to get the support of the students.

Perhaps had that offer been made before the strike it would have been accepted, or at least a version of it. But by the tenth day of the strike you’ve lost so much pay and it would have to be a bloody good settlement for us to accept it. By that stage of the strike we were confident enough to reject it. They had moved and we felt we could push them further.

Also the way the offer was worded with the rider that we would agree to reschedule classes that had been cancelled during the strike angered union members more than the offer. It appeared to be denying the very purpose of being in a trade union. Why would you withdraw your labour, not be paid and then chuck your labour back into the mix for free again? It makes no sense. People were rightly really angry about that.

What do you think needs to happen as a follow-up to the first phase of action in order to win the dispute?

Julie: I think colleagues need to be assertive. Any rescheduling of classes will undermine the progress that we have made so far. The onus is on us as a branch to make sure people feel safe, so we’ve communicated that to members. Any examples of bullying from management have to be referred to the departmental rep.

We need to prepare for the next 14 days of action and hit the assessment and exam marking period. We’ve already had 14 days strike; 50 hours on the picket line, often in snow blizzards. The turnout on our last picket was 180 strong. We don’t want all of that to be wasted.

Jane: Looking ahead we need to be confident. Union membership has increased dramatically throughout the country. The next strike should be on the same dates across the country to demonstrate our unity and strength. This is a dispute we can win!