Around 40,000 university workers will strike today in the opening shot of a battle for education.
University bosses want to destroy workers’ pensions. They want pensions to be at the mercy of the stock markets with no guaranteed income in retirement. It’s part of a plan to make it easier for universities to borrow money to expand and better compete with others.
That fits into the drive to push competition and the market throughout higher education—which is why so many people back the strikers.
The scale of the action, and the support for strikers, has got bosses worried. The UCU has called on workers not to reschedule any lectures or seminars that are cancelled because of the strikes.
Now some universities are threatening to withhold pay from workers who refuse to reschedule classes.
At Sheffield university, bosses have said they consider refusal to reschedule classes as a breach of contract.
They have given workers two working days to reschedule the classes. After that, they have threatened to deduct 25 percent of workers’ pay for each day the classes aren’t rescheduled, and 100 percent after five working days.
Bosses at Bradford and Cambridge universities are among those issuing similar threats.
Carlo Morelli is a UCU rep at Dundee university and on the UCU’s national executive committee. He told Socialist Worker, “A number of employers are going to harden up as the strikes get nearer. It shows they are panicking and it’s a sign of their weakness.
“They hope that this can undermine the strikes and they’ll want to see how the first walkouts go. But we’ve got the initiative and we have to stay united and resist their threats.”
If bosses dock 100 percent of UCU members’ pay they are effectively locking out workers. The union should escalate to an all-out national strike in response. If workers across over 60 universities stay united, they can force bosses to back down.
UCU members should take heart from the scale of support there is for the strike.
Some 88 percent voted for strikes. Workers report their biggest ever meetings on campuses and people have rushed to join the union so they can be part of the action.
At Cambridge university, some 44 people joined the UCU in the last week. Bristol and St Andrews recently reported a 25 percent rise in membership.
Students are organising to back the strikers. In many areas student unions and the UCU have organised joint events on the strike days.
The NUS has said it is in “full solidarity” with the strikers. It has urged students to join solidarity action during the strikes.
Labour Students has asked members not to cross picket lines and to back the strikes.
Many students have demanded compensation for lost teaching during strike days. They hope to put more pressure on university bosses.
But the demand reflects the fact that education is now something that students “buy” like any other commodity. This is a right wing idea pushed by the Tories.
That’s why Tory universities minister Sam Gyimah said universities should consider compensating students.
“I want universities to respect those consumer rights under consumer law and that includes compensation where they are losing out on their courses,” he said.
Gyimah said the strike meant that the “service” students have paid for “is not being delivered”.
UCU reps have rightly spoken out against compensation. UCU reps spoke to a public meeting at the University of Warwick on Monday. UCU anti-casualisation officer Arianna Tassinari said compensation would “reinforce the logic” that degrees are a commodity to be bought.
She said strikes were the “strongest weapon” the union has.
The branch’s UCU president Justine Mercer said the point of the strikes was to cause disruption. She said compensation would reinforce a “neoliberal narrative” of education as a commodity.
Today is the first day of a two-day strike. The union plans escalating action with a three-day strike next week, followed by a four-day walkout and then a five-day strike. The union will meet on 2 March to decide on further action following this if bosses don’t retreat.
Next week further education lecturers across 16 colleges will be on strike too. In London strikers will hold a joint demonstration next Wednesday.
Everyone should get behind the UCU strikes. A victory will help push back bosses’ attacks everywhere—and help to weaken the Tories.