Socialist Worker

The universities struggle is changing workers

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 2596

Picket lines have been huge, lively - and a place to debate the way forward

Picket lines have been huge, lively - and a place to debate the way forward (Pic: Lewis Nielsen)

I don't know how often I’ve said that workers are changed by the experience of struggle.

I didn’t say this just because I’d read it in Marx. Covering the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 for Socialist Worker, I saw how the men and women of the mining communities were transformed by that long and bitter struggle.

But the strikes by university lecturers that have just ended—for the time being—have allowed me to witness something similar as a participant.

These were strikes by the “old” universities that existed before 1992 because it’s our pension scheme that is being attacked. So it’s a struggle in the oldest and most conservative institutions in higher education, including Oxford, Cambridge, and my own King’s College London.

Workers’ ideas—changing through struggle
Workers’ ideas—changing through struggle
  Read More

Our union, the University and College Union (UCU), has existed for little more than a decade. In recent years it has been fairly ineffective in defending jobs and wages in higher education. It allowed our old final salary pension scheme to be scrapped.

But the strike has infused new life into semi-moribund UCU branches. Picket lines in the past have been small and routine affairs. Now the pickets are huge and generally dominated by young, often women lecturers. And they are fun, with poetry readings, singalongs, and teach-outs on everything under the sun.

The strike has become a generalised rebellion against the neoliberal transformation of universities in recent decades. Managements that pay themselves ridiculously inflated salaries and run their universities like businesses with no reference to staff or students have been forced onto the defensive.

So when union negotiators foolishly agreed to a wholly inadequate deal with the university bosses at the beginning of last week, they had a shock (see page 17). In the past bad settlements have slunk through with the grudging acquiesce of a passive and demoralised membership.

But this deal came out after three weeks of strikes and at the start of another week-long strike, with a growing membership active and confident. We could discuss it on the picket lines or social media. It was swept away in a tidal wave of anger, with not one branch supporting it.

Big challenges lie ahead. The rejection of the deal has created, at least temporarily, a vacuum. But both employers and union officials will soon start manoeuvring

This was a real rank and file rebellion. To find precedents one would have to go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when strong and confident shop stewards’ organisation in cars, mining, and engineering weren’t afraid to defy the full time trade union officials.

Much of that industry was destroyed in the 1980s and 1990s. But universities have been a growing sector thanks to huge tutorial fees and the influx of international students. The militancy is partly a product of expansion on the cheap, on the backs of overworked and often precarious teaching staff.

University workers force union into action
University workers force union into action
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The UCU official machine is relatively weak and inexperienced compared to bureaucratic monoliths such as the Unison and Unite unions. And it is struggling to cope with a membership that has grown quickly thanks to the strikes and become much more active and involved.

But there are lessons for other unions. One is the difference all-out action makes—and the UCU strikes have been close to this. It gives time for the strikers to organise, gain confidence, and build links among themselves and with other workers.

Big challenges lie ahead. The rejection of the deal has created, at least temporarily, a vacuum. But both employers and union officials will soon start manoeuvring. This round of strikes has finished and there will probably be a month’s gap over the Easter vacation before the next 14 days of action start.

These strikes will mark an escalation of the dispute since they are aimed at hitting the exams and other forms of assessment that reach their peak in the summer term.

Management may start to use much nastier tactics. But, during the interval of the next few weeks, there could be attempts to cook up and rush through another bad deal.

The newly energised membership will have to stay vigilant, well organised, and determined to see off anything like this and to pursue the strikes to a successful conclusion. And long-standing activists will be tested in their ability to respond to what is in some ways a new union.

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