Socialist Worker

University workers force union into action

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2596

 

Hundreds of UCU members lobbied the delegates’ meeting

Hundreds of UCU members lobbied the delegates’ meeting (Pic: Guy Smallman)


UCU union members scored an awesome victory last week.

Union leaders had reached an “agreement” with UUK bosses last Monday, following talks aimed at ending a bitter pensions dispute.

The Financial Times newspaper crowed on Monday night, “Striking academics are expected to return to work on Wednesday.”

But action by rank and file union members swept the deal off the table—and kept the strikes on.

Sean Wallis is vice-president of the UCU at University College London. He said the strike “has given everyone a lesson in serious industrial trade unionism”.

“Not since 1984, when miners overturned a decision to stop their dispute, have people come out and changed the union’s position like this,” he said.

“That is a tribute to the strength, organisation and seriousness by which every single member of this union is prosecuting this dispute.”

The union sent the agreement to workers last Monday evening. Within hours strikers at dozens of universities had held mass meetings that voted unanimously or overwhelmingly to reject it.

In Newcastle a mass meeting of strikers last Tuesday voted by 183-0 to reject the offer.

UCU rep Geoff told Socialist Worker, “People were very angry at the employers but there was also quite a bit of anger towards the union.

Confidence

“I think the reason for the reaction was that we’d had quite a few days together on the picket line.

“We’d built this sort of collective confidence. People were also seeing that the strike was having an impact.”

Hundreds more lobbied the UCU headquarters as union leaders met to discuss the deal last Tuesday.

Rachel Cohen from City University spoke to a strike meeting following a thousands-strong march through London last Wednesday.

“I think if we’d have had that deal a month ago, a lot of members wouldn’t have been as fast to respond,” she said.

“But we’ve spent four weeks on the picket lines learning, getting organised and getting active.”

The experience of the strike has raised people’s horizons about what is possible. Sophie is from Oxford university, where an angry “congregation”—a formal meeting of

university staff—forced the vice chancellor to shift her position.

“Things like the congregation really gave us a push,” Sophie told Socialist Worker.

And the strikes have forced bosses to change their line. “In January the employers told us we can’t have any defined benefits,” said Rachel. “But we know now that other things are possible.”

The strike is teaching thousands of new union members—and older ones—that the bosses fear their collective power.

“The only thing that meant we got a deal was us taking action,” said Rachel.

“And the only thing that’s going to get us a better deal is us taking more action.”


Strikers held mass meetings to vote down the bosses’ paltry pensions offer

Workers pulled off meetings of hundreds in just a few hours to respond to the deal.

Craig was Sheffield university’s delegate to last Tuesday’s UCU meeting in London. “Strikers wanted to organise a mass meeting to tell me what to say,” he told Socialist Worker. “There were 350 at it. It’s the biggest I’ve ever known and I’ve been there 21 years.”

The meeting voted unanimously to reject the offer. “I think we can win this,” said Craig. “We’ve had such a growth in membership and people are really enthused. Things have changed.”

Not one union branch or delegate backed the deal. William was the University of Kent’s delegate.

“The employers have massively underestimated us and the support from students,” he told Socialist Worker.

The more people picketing and actively leading the strike, the harder it will be for union leaders to settle for a bad deal. Workers have the power to win.

The strikes have released years of pent up anger and made workers feel that universities can be different.

At Imperial College London, over 200 people have joined the UCU in the last eight weeks.

Gemma joined because of the strike, even though she’s in a different pension scheme. “If you guys lose, we’ve all lost,” she explained.

Marketisation

University of Reading striker Chrissy said, “My pension pot is next to nothing, so I’m not out for that. I want to stop the marketisation of education.”

Many strikers’ idea of what a victory would look like has moved far beyond those of some in the union leadership.

Leeds university striker Xanthe told Socialist Worker, “They said that if we rejected the deal, a worse one will be imposed. But the deal didn’t resolve all the political assumptions about the valuation.

“The fundamental question is—who’s paying for pensions?”

Sean added, “We aren’t out for a compromise where our scheme is asset-stripped. We’re out to stop the process.”

The revolt has put the UCU leadership on the defensive. Union president Joanna de Groot spoke at last Wednesday’s strike meeting in central London.

She claimed several times that the union had not agreed a deal. “We’re committed to continuing the dispute,” she said.

But the document that the union sent out was an “agreement reached between UCU and UUK”.

One striker at the meeting said the deal had been “a kick in the teeth”.

Another demanded a promise that the union leadership would never again give workers so little time to respond to proposals.

Last week was a fantastic show of rank and file power, but it was also a warning about trade union leaders.

Activists must continue to deepen the action and draw more union members into activity.

The more people picketing and actively leading the strike, the harder it will be for union leaders to settle for a bad deal. Workers have the power to win.

 


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.