Socialist Worker

University workers get ready for pensions fight

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2591

UCU members striking over pay and inequality in Leeds in 2016

UCU members striking over pay and inequality in Leeds in 2016 (Pic: Neil Terry)


Workers are rushing to join the UCU union ahead of a series of escalating strikes set to begin in dozens of universities next Thursday.

Sean Wallis, vice president of the UCU at University College London, said the union is “recruiting hand over fist”. At Cambridge university 80 people joined the union in one week.

Bristol and St Andrews universities have both reported a recent 25 percent increase in membership.

A UCU member at Imperial College London told Socialist Worker, “We had a meeting of 95 people last week, compared to 60 at the start of the dispute.

“The mood was very good and more people are joining the union.”

Carlo Morelli, a member of the union’s national executive committee, said, “What’s happening in union branches is phenomenal.

“We’re seeing meetings of 80, 90 or 100 people. Recruitment to the union is going through the roof.”

New people are helping to organise ahead of the walkouts. “One day last week we had five strike meetings in departments,” said Sean. “At one of them, nearly half the people in the room were new members.

“A whole chunk of people who weren’t in the union before now want to take action.”

Benefit

UCU members in older universities are fighting to defend their USS pension scheme. Bosses want to change the defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution one.

This would leave workers’ pensions at the mercy of the stock market and slash their value by half or more.

David Blackaby is president of the UCU at Swansea university. It’s one of seven branches that are reballoting after missing the Tories’ 50 percent turnout threshold.

Union members at Swansea backed strikes by 88.5 percent in the ballot—but the turnout was 49.7 percent.

“We were just two votes short of the threshold,” David told Socialist Worker. “Obviously we were disappointed.”

David said the union has made an effort to make sure more people are aware of what’s at stake. “This has potentially dramatic implications for people’s living standards,” he said.

“People are joining the union —we’ve seen something like a 10 percent increase in membership recently.”

Workers are organising to maximise involvement on the strike days. “People are talking about having teach-ins and teach-outs,” said Sean. “These things are giving people confidence.”

Universities where workers are on a different TPS pension scheme are twinning with those that will be on strike to organise solidarity. Students are backing strikers too.

Sean said the dispute is “entirely winnable”. “The union can’t afford to compromise,” he added.

Carlo said, “Groups of staff are trying to find ways of bringing other complaints into the campaign. Some employers think this will peter out, but this could grow bigger.”

A demonstration in London on 28 February will be a focus for university strikers, strikers from further education colleges and everyone who wants to strangle neoliberalism.

Defend education—march for pensions and pay. Wed 28 February, 12 noon, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HY. Called by London Region UCU. Visit bit.ly/2EYmqvB for details

Students are ready with solidarity

Many students are organising to support the strikers—and are turning their fire on university bosses.

The NUS nationally has backed the action and called on students to join solidarity events on the strike days.

Students at several universities including King’s College London (KCL), Manchester and Edinburgh are demanding compensation and fee refunds.

One KCL student told Socialist Worker, “I’m supporting the UCU. The pension cuts are going to hurt not only academics but also the future of our education.

“I believe students should show support and disrupt business as usual with the aim of winning the strike as soon as possible.”

At Imperial College London, students are putting a motion to the student council in support of the strikes.

Many students have held meetings to discuss the strikes and held up posters backing the UCU. The UCU has said that everything on the strike days should be cancelled and not rescheduled.

Workers have also begun action short of a strike, which rules out working overtime to reschedule lectures.

Student sabbatical officers at Cardiff university issued a statement saying they backed “the principle” behind the strike but “are unable to support any action that will substantially affect the student experience”.

But Carlo Morelli, a member of the union’s national executive committee, said, “We’ve found that where union members have spoken with student unions, they are coming out in support.”


Who’s on strike and when?

The UCU has called 14 days of escalating strikes.

A 48-hour strike set to begin on 22 February will hit 57 universities.

Some 61 universities will take part in a three-day strike from 26 February.

Strikes in March could be even bigger.

The union is reballoting seven branches that, although they voted overwhelmingly for strikes, didn’t meet the Tories’ 50 percent turnout threshold.

These ballots end on Friday of this week.

Workers across 68 institutions could join a four-day strike starting on 5 March and a five-day strike from 12 March.

For full details about which universities are striking and when, go to bit.ly/2EXdJ4N

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