University strikers were buoyed on Wednesday by news that the vice chancellor (VC) of Oxford university has backed off from supporting an attack on their pensions.
The bosses’ UUK group wants to shift workers’ USS scheme from a defined benefit to a defined contribution one. It said the move was backed by a survey of bosses. But more and more VCs are changing their minds following a magnificent strike by UCU union members.
Oxford VC Louise Richardson said she would recommend that the university “reverse its response” to UUK bosses’ survey on the pension scheme. The shift was due to the “depth of feeling” among workers.
That depth of feeling was on display yesterday at a meeting of workers called a “congregation”. There, workers were blocked from debating a resolution on the pension attack. But hundreds carried on the meeting outside – and voted by 442 to two to change Oxford’s position.
Des is branch chair of the UCU at Oxford’s Ruskin College. He told Socialist Worker, “We sent a delegation to the meeting yesterday and it was fantastic. The people who blocked the debate probably did us a favour because it just made management’s crisis worse.”
UCU members at Ruskin College are on their second day of strikes against the pension attack. But over 60 universities are striking in total, and many are now on their eighth day of action.
Des said, “Our strike just keeps getting better and better. The picket lines today were bigger than yesterday. Nobody has crossed the picket line and no lectures are taking place. It feels like we’re winning.”
Talks are now taking place between the UCU and UUK at conciliation service Acas. The UCU previously tabled proposals that would keep a defined benefit scheme, but would mean workers pay more and get less in retirement.
Yet the strength of the action means many strikers feel more can now be won.
Roddy is a UCU rep at Imperial College London. “We’ve got the wind in our sails and people can feel their power,” he told Socialist Worker.
“The strikes have had a transformative effect on people and their ideas about what is possible. At our strike meeting today people spoke about how things have moved way beyond the negotiators’ position. Some feel we are making too many concessions.”
Des agreed. “UCU should be going much further,” he said. “We shouldn’t be compromising when we’re winning.”
It’s clear that the scale and strength of the strikes, and the support they have won from students, has rattled bosses. Tomorrow will mark the end of a four-day strike, following previous three-day and two-day walkouts.
UCU members are set to strike for five days from Monday. And the union’s higher education committee could this week call more action after the Easter break.
The strikes have given workers a hint at how universities could be run differently. King’s College London (KCL) UCU rep Jane told Socialist Worker she was “galvanised” by the action.
“A lot of us have been saying that the university on strike is more like a university than it is when we aren’t on strike,” she said. “We actually have time to talk to each other. It’s exciting and there are so many debates happening.”
KCL students Ramona, Tom and Becky agreed. “We have a different relationship with our lecturers now,” Ramona told Socialist Worker. “It’s the first time we’ve seen eye to eye with some of them. It’s different when you’re stood next to each other on the picket line.”
She hoped the strike would help to “build an environment where we look out for each other” and said the teach outs had been “some of the best learning I’ve had”.
“We’re rebuilding the culture of universities that my mum had, when education was free,” she added.
Tom agreed. “There’s been more community on these picket lines than I’ve ever seen at KCL,” he said. “If they save their pensions, then we should fight over other things. And the next time management tries to do something to us, we can go to the lecturers for support.”
Becky said that students should be doing “all they can” to support the strikes. And all said they would support more strikes during exams if bosses don’t back down. “This is a much bigger issue than my exams,” said Ramona.
In London, strikers and students held a protest at the Office for Students to call for an end to the marketisation of education. Speakers described how new people are joining the union and playing a key role in organising the strikes.
The walkouts have plunged the bosses into crisis. But they haven’t yet given in.
As Roddy put it, “They’re divided between the people who want to smash our union and the people who are desperate for a deal.”
Continuing the action—and calling more walkouts—can keep the pressure on and make sure workers win. The stakes are high.
“I hope we win this for the sake of the pensions,” said Jane. “But I also hope we win so that the people who are striking for the first time will see that it’s worth doing.
“If we win, we can start to raise demands over other issues, such as fees.”
KCL striker Mayssoun added, “We can’t afford to lose. This is not just about my pension. It’s about what conditions will be like for students who will be university workers in the future.”