Strikes by workers at 60 universities have the potential to transform higher education in Britain. UCU union members are set to walk out for eight days from Monday 25 November.
The action is taking on years of real terms pay cuts, attacks on pensions, insecure contracts, the gender pay gap and sky-high workloads.
UCU members voted in big numbers for strikes over the “five fights”—and have hit the ground running.
“We had two meetings in two days last week,” said Jo McNeill, chair of the UCU branch at Liverpool university and vice chair of UCU’s higher education committee. “The first was the day after strikes were announced. It was packed—well over 100 people—and lots of new faces.
“There was a real appetite for the action. So we decided to have a strike committee meeting the next day, and asked people to send a representative from every department.
“We didn’t know whether to expect two people or 20—we got 50.”
In Manchester, over 80 workers came to a strike coordinating committee meeting the day after strikes were announced.
Carlo Morelli is a lecturer at Dundee university and sits on the union’s national executive committee (NEC). “Some have questioned whether it’s the right thing to call eight days and whether it’s the right time,” he said.
“This is coming from older activists and the right wing, and it indicates demoralisation. It doesn’t reflect the membership. In Dundee people are saying, ‘Bring it on’.”
Jo agreed, “The ballot result was fantastic and we’ve got to act. Eight days is a good start. While we were getting the vote out, everybody we spoke to knew we would be coming out in November. If we waited, we would lose momentum.”
Josh from University College London (UCL) said some workers are already asking “what next” after the eight days. And Paul from UCL said, “Starting with eight days puts the pressure on management.”
He added, “It feels like we have unfinished business.”
UCU members in older universities staged 14 days of strikes to defend their USS pension scheme last year. The walkouts transformed branches—and gave union members valuable experience.
Newcastle university lecturer and UCU NEC member Bruce Baker said, “In the past we had these one-day strikes or even two-hour strikes.
“We would have the same 20 or 30 people out. They were all people you knew. A picket line culture didn’t develop—you were back in work before people had time to notice you were gone.
“But last year people were out on the picket line, talking to more people outside their little department. We developed a new layer of activists.”
Bruce said the branch now has a new president and committee members. “The strike allowed people who were interested to rise up and be more active,” he explained. “And being on the picket line was a lot of fun.”
The union leadership called off the action last year. But workers’ increased confidence meant this didn’t go unchallenged.
Carlo said, “The lessons from last time are that we learned the power of rank and file activists having collective control over the strike. That gave them a voice and “made it feel like it was their strike”.
The current dispute can pull even more workers into activity. Growing anger at casualisation and the gender pay gap, and attacks on education, is galvanising people.
Paul said the Tories have “completely destroyed education”.
“People have to take out ridiculously high loans to go to university,” he said. “I know people who can’t afford to go because they would get into too much debt.
“We had a union member who couldn’t afford his union fees because he’s having problems paying his rent.
“He has trouble affording food. But that’s exactly what the strike is about —to help people like that.”
Carlo added, “This is our best opportunity to resolve long-standing problems of gender, race and institutional discrimination—and change universities once and for all.”
Bruce said the equality parts of the UCU claim “have been gaining in importance”.
“There’s a very strong sense that we’re not willing to settle and trade off one bit against another,” he added.
Jo said the eight days is the “first phase” of the action. “This is not the end, this is the beginning,” she said.
Many feel the general election campaign is an opportunity for workers to fight for their demands.
Carlo said now is “the perfect time to strike”. “Our strike can help to make education an election issue,” he said. “The Tories and the Liberals have brought this chaos into higher education. We want to make sure they pay for it.”
A new mood is sweeping the union from bottom to top
UCU members are determined and confident to win.
Bruce said, “There’s a really strong sense that we’ve been here before. But the stakes are much higher now.
“Universities run on goodwill, and that’s been exploited and manipulated. What’s at stake is a permanent loss of goodwill.”
Workers who are part of the USS pension scheme struck for 14 days last year to defend it. The action saw buoyant picket lines across Britain. But then UCU general secretary Sally Hunt led moves to call off the action—leading to bitter anger among members.
Hunt resigned in February this year and left winger Jo Grady was elected in May.
This has boosted activists.
Jo McNeill said, “Our new general secretary is coming from a very different position. We are confident that she will not accept any offers without consulting members.
“And we don’t want to be consulted on offers that are not worth the paper they’re written on.”
So what would a serious offer look like?
“We want to end casualisation—that’s the biggest scourge in this sector,” said Jo. “It’s not unreasonable to ask for all hourly-paid lecturers to be put on fractional contracts, for people to have more rights, sick pay and holiday leave.
“We also need to have enough resources so people can have a work/life balance. We are entitled to a pay rise and we shouldn’t be ashamed to fight for one. Some in our sector are well paid but some are poorly paid.
“And pensions are not a gift, pensions are our deferred pay.”
Bruce said, “There have been questions about what a victory would look like. On USS I think we’re going to have to have a reckoning with the governance. We need a rolling back of some things that it has done.
“These include getting rid of one of our trustees because she had the audacity to want to look at some of the numbers.
“Also, rushing through changes to rules that prevent the UCU and UUK from withdrawing their trustees and replacing them.
“The bottom line is that they have to implement the recommendations of the first JEP report.
“They have to bring us back to a contribution rate of 8 percent and nothing higher, and there has to be no changes to benefits.
“In order for that to happen there’s going to have to be changes of personnel. USS CEO Bill Galvin for instance has no credibility left.
“We also need a pay rise that’s above inflation, which is what we’ve not had for ten years.
“That’s got to be an absolute starting point. And we want concrete, measurable and accountable ways of fixing the problems with workload, the gender pay gap and casualisation.”
What’s the deal with the USS pension scheme?
After the union leadership called off USS pension strikes last year, a Joint Expert Panel was set up to look at the future of the scheme.
This involved representatives of university bosses’ group UUK, the union and USS.
Its initial report said that members of the USS scheme should pay no more than 8 percent of salary in contributions. But bosses have failed to implement its recommendations.
Instead, USS imposed a rise in contribution of 0.8 percent in April. Contributions are due to rise to 10.4 percent in October, and to 11.7 percent in April next year.
The union’s position is that workers should suffer “no detriment”. They shouldn’t pay any more, or get any less when they retire.
Time for action!
Workers plan to theme their strikes with different issues. The strikes coincide with the climate strike on 29 November and Donald Trump’s visit to Britain on 3 December—so these will be themed accordingly.
In Newcastle, strikers also have a “bake off” planned plus a series of teach-outs. “At the end of the day, we like teaching,” said Bruce.
“The strike is an opportunity to teach outside the ‘excellence framework’ and just for the joy of teaching and learning.”
At Liverpool university people are volunteering for picket duty on a “picketing survey”. Jo said, “We need make sure key points are covered. We have an agreement with the CWU union that post workers won’t cross our picket lines.”
Several universities backed strikes but missed the Tories’ 50 percent threshold to hold legal walkouts. Many are reballoting.
Sean Wallis from University College London said this was “politically essential”.
“This is a national fight,” he said. “One section is not going to win it for the rest.”