The UCU union has called 14 days of escalating strikes across 61 universities starting next month. A two-day walkout is set to begin on or around 22 February, followed by three-day, four-day and five-day walkouts in the following weeks.
The move follows a stunning vote for strikes to defend workers’ USS pension scheme. In ballots across 68 universities, over 88 percent backed strikes and 93 percent backed action short of strikes on a turnout of over 58 percent.
The result is a testimony to the organising that UCU members have done on the ground – and shows that the Tory anti-union laws can be beaten.
Carlo Morelli is a UCU rep at Dundee university and is on the union’s national executive committee. He told Socialist Worker, “It’s a fantastic vote and it far exceeds what everyone thought would happen. It shows members are willing to fight and can be mobilised when the union shows leadership.”
Workers are fighting plans to change their USS defined benefit pension scheme to a defined contribution one.
This would mean no guaranteed income in retirement and slash the value of workers’ pensions by half or more. It is a massive attack that has generated deep anger among UCU members, and the fight to stop it has brought more people into the union.
Roddy Slorach, a UCU rep at Imperial College London said, “Our membership is up by nearly 10 percent in two months. One head of department emailed his entire department about the ballot. He’s never been to a union meeting before.”
Lancaster university saw the third highest turnout in the country—over 73 percent. UCU chair Julie Hearn told Socialist Worker, “In November we planned our first ever ‘Get the Vote Out’ campaign. We had 30 reps ready to door knock for it and it worked.”
Carlo called the strike vote “remarkable”. “No one anywhere for the past month has said this would mean anything other than extended strikes, two, three, four or five days a week,” he said.
“People knew what they were voting for.”
The lowest vote for strikes across the 68 universities was 70.4 percent – still an overwhelming mandate for action. Yet in seven universities workers didn’t meet the 50 percent threshold in the Tory Trade Union Act, despite delivering huge votes for action.
At Swansea university, the vote for strikes was 88.5 percent but the turnout was 49.7 percent. Ruskin College delivered a 100 percent strike vote – but missed the turnout threshold.
Carlo added, “We voted to approach the seven branches that missed the threshold to see if they want to reballot. One missed the threshold by just two votes. I’m sure if they do, they will get the vote out. People will want to be part of this.”
Talks on the future of the scheme are due to end tomorrow. Carlo said, “The leadership must not throw this away. There can be no negotiation that allows for our benefits to be cut.”
He added that the dispute was about more than defending a pension scheme. The attack on pensions is part of a wider agenda of pushing marketisation and privatisation in education.
UCU members will now move to organise regional activists’ meetings to prepare for the strikes.
Carlo said, “The result marks an historic change. This wasn’t done through email or social media. It was done through knocking on doors and talking to people face to face.
“This vote has created a core of active members on the ground. It’s created a trade union.”