Tens of thousands of university workers are set to go on strike this month. Michael Bradley looks at the roots of the dispute and the debates about strategy within the movement.
Tens of thousands of lecturers across Britain, organised by the University and College Union (UCU), are set to come out on strike for up to 14 days in February and March in a dispute over pensions, pay, workload, equalities and casualisation. More than 40,000 workers have already taken part in eight days of strike action last December.
This is the continuation of a wave of action that began in 2018, when UCU members struck for 14 days in a dispute centred on defence of the USS pension scheme. Two thirds of days “lost” to industrial action in 2018 were attributable to the UCU, according to the Office for National Statistics “Labour disputes in the UK” report.
In the wake of Boris Johnson’s election victory and against the backdrop of a very low level of industrial struggle in Britain, the scale of action in this dispute stands out sharply.
So what’s really going on the university campuses?
Low pay, attacks on pensions, the growing culture of casualisation, job insecurity and pay inequality are all issues that many workers can understand. The fact that this dispute is being played out in universities, once seen as sheltered places of privilege and learning, is proof once again that class conflict isn’t just a matter for the factory floor.
Insecure contracts, overwhelming workload and low pay, seen as the preserve of industries like catering, are being replayed on prestigious multimillion pound university campuses.
It’s important to emphasise that the present wave of strikes involves two inter-related disputes. The battle over USS pensions continues. While the employers say the pension scheme is in crisis, the union’s position remains that the scheme is in good health and that UCU members should suffer “no detriment” and there is no need for them to pay more.
The union’s other dispute is over the issue of the “four fights” — pay, equalities, casualisation and workload.
In the eight days of action taken so far, UCU members have struck over all these issues together on the same days. Importantly, these strikes also now include the post-92 (ex-Polytechnic) universities.
This has led to unity across pre-92 (older universities) and post-92 institutions and has shown those at the bottom of the university pile — casualised staff, women and black members — that the whole union is prepared to fight together, and not just over issues like the USS pensions scheme, that are seen as more central to the “core” of the union’s membership on full term contracts.
The attack by management at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London highlighted why the question of casualisation cannot be separated from other fights in higher education. Management were attempting to divide university workers from one another. SOAS suspended research leave for permanent staff, calling them in for more teaching duties, while cutting budgets for fractional staff employment.
This effectively increased teaching time for permanent staff meaning fewer teaching hours were available for fractional workers — those employed on a fraction of full time contracts.
The brilliant unofficial walk out by staff and students at SOAS has beaten back this attack — for now — but it makes the truly precarious nature of employment for thousands of casualised staff very clear.
It shows why unity over the different aspects of the disputes on campus is essential.
Some in UCU argued that the two disputes should be “de-coupled” — that while progress may be possible on USS pensions, the fights over pay, casualisation, workload and the gender/BAME pay gap is somehow unrealistic, or should be put off to a later date.
This strategy would have been disastrous. To say that pensions is the key issue while ignoring the systematic exploitation and discrimination that riddles the sector would have been wrong, divisive and self-defeating.
In the background of the present round of action is the memory of the last round of the USS dispute. The then general secretary of the UCU Sally Hunt played a very positive role at the beginning of the dispute but then attempted to sell a rotten deal. This was met with an explosion of anger among activists and a genuine rank and file revolt, the #nocapitulation hashtag trended on twitter, branches mobilised to overturn the deal and hundreds lobbied UCU’s head office.
Eventually Sally Hunt was able to sell a partial deal to members — leaving us with the unfinished business that is being fought out today.
The bitter taste left in the mouths of many activists came to a head at the UCU Congress in 2018 when attempts to keep censure motions against the general secretary off the conference agenda led to walk outs and the early closure of the congress.
Now UCU has a new general secretary, Jo Grady. Her overwhelming victory in the recent election was part of the wave of change spreading through the union as thousands of new members made their presence felt.
Rightly Jo Grady has been on the road getting the vote out in the latest round of ballots.
But there is concern among activists that she gave a positive spin to a very poor offer by employers over the “four fights”, arguing it was probably the best that could be achieved. Her intervention clearly pointed to ending the four fights dispute.
She also pre-empted debate at the union’s elected Higher Education Committee on the next steps in the dispute.
There has been a flowering of democratic debate in UCU since 2018 and a new engagement in its structures. It’s crucial that this continues to develop and there is no going back to the past. If the last USS dispute showed anything, it’s that the rank and file needs to stay in control of such a crucial dispute.
Already two fairly representative activists’ meetings have brought together reps from striking universities, showing the potential for rank and file networks to develop. Strike committees at a local and national level will be necessary to keep this dispute on track.
UCU is bucking the trends and drawing in thousands of new and young activists. Women and black members have played a conspicuous role in leading the disputes. The politicised nature of the sector has been reflected in the action, with mass assembles, strike committees, teach-outs and vibrant demonstrations.
It was UCU members who put the motion to last year’s TUC Congress to back a 30 minute walk out on climate strike day last September. This led to tens of thousands of UCU members being on strike on the day of the global strike for climate on 20 September as part of the 14 days of action last term, forging links between climate strikers and the union.
Anger is being fuelled on campus by “fat cat” Vice Chancellors’ pay, vanity building projects and overseas expansion. Staff have faced years of pay freezes, redundancies and spiralling workload that is ruining people’s lives. Young academics are like casual labourers of old, facing low pay, insecurity and uncertain futures. Meanwhile students are receiving a worsening quality of education — and paying through the nose for the privilege.
If UCU fights it out over the coming months they can begin to turn this situation around — despite the Tories’ success at the general election. Successful action on the university campuses could also act as an inspiration to other trade unionists to fight. And if UCU members go into action again they will need solidarity from across the movement.
If postal workers in the CWU union re-ballot and take action there is the possibility of co-ordination (as there would have been last year if the anti-union laws hadn’t halted the CWU’s strikes).
Socialists, organised through the UCU Left grouping, have been at the centre of the UCU from its beginnings (following the merger of the old unions AUT and NATFHE). They have been at the heart of the joint dispute strategy in the universities that has proved so successful.
With an industrial dispute taking place against the backdrop of ideological turmoil on the campuses over the future of the sector, there is a real possibility of developing a new generation of socialist militants at the heart of the union.