Socialist Worker

Strikes to hit 60 universities as UCU members fight for the future of education

Tens of thousands of UCU union members are preparing for their return to the picket line. Sadie Robinson talks to activists about how they’re building solidarity—and how to win

Issue No. 2681

UCU members marching during a strike last year in London

UCU members marching during a strike last year in London (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Sixty universities across Britain will be hit with an eight-day strike from Monday of next week.

The UCU union said the walkouts will involve around 43,000 workers. The action can transform higher education.

It follows big votes for strikes over two disputes. One is over pay, workload, pay gaps and casualised contracts. The other is over attacks on the USS pension scheme.

Activists report that workers are up for the fight.

Julie Hearn is president of the UCU at Lancaster university. “We had a strike committee meeting and a general meeting of around 70 people last week,” she told Socialist Worker. “That’s around double the normal size.

Big meetings took place at several other universities last week including Bournemouth, Goldsmiths in London, Newcastle, Birmingham, Ulster and University College London.Carlo Morelli is a UCU rep at Dundee university and sits on the union’s national executive committee.

“The union meetings that are taking place are all big,” he told Socialist Worker. “In several places, a whole load of new, casualised staff are coming along.

“We had an organising meeting in Scotland last week with reps from every branch except one. I was really surprised.

Rotas

“People had had their strike committee meetings, got picket line rotas organised, planned their social media strategies. All reported having big branch meetings.”

At 43 universities, union members will strike over both disputes. Those at a further three will walk out over pensions, while workers at 14 more will strike over pay and conditions.

Workers are furious at years of real-terms pay cuts and pay discrimination against women, black workers and disabled staff. They also want to turn back the tide of casualised, insecure contracts that is sweeping the sector.

Doris Merkl-Davies is vice president of the UCU at Bangor university in Wales. “A lot of members, including those on permanent, full time contracts, are feeling the squeeze of declining salaries and increasing living costs,” she said.

“But they are prepared to fight by going on strike.”

More than half of all staff at universities across Britain are now on casualised contracts. At Bangor university that figure rises to over 65 percent.

Dyfrig Jones, president of the UCU branch there, said workers are aware of the “inconvenience” the action will cause students. But he said, “The issues at stake are too important for us to sit back and do nothing.

“This is about so much more than just our pensions. We are fighting for the very future of higher education.”

For a full list of universities that will be involved in the strikes go to bit.ly/60Uni

Student solidarity for the struggle

UCU union members are striking for more than just winning a one-off pay rise or defending a single pension scheme.

They want to push back attacks on education that have turned universities into businesses that fail students.

One worker tweeted that they were striking “because my students put a lot of effort into their work and they deserve more than 20 minutes to mark and give feedback, which is what my university allows me”.

Workers have held big union meetings ahead of this months strikes

Workers have held big union meetings ahead of this month's strikes (Pic: UCL-UCU/Twitter)


Some bosses have painted the strikes as damaging to students. But strikers disagree.

Sarah Scuzzarello, a researcher at Sussex university, said, “Be reassured we do think of students.

“It is because we care about HE that we cannot continue having more than 50 percent of staff on temporary contracts, or teaching absurd hours.

Precarity is making people ill, and those who can move or leave academia. The stress and anxiety it causes is enormous.”

She said she had worked at four universities on temporary contracts since 2010. “My life is good in many ways, but I’m tired of precarity,” she said.

For all the attempts of university management to divide people, the strikes have won support from students.

Julie, president of the UCU at Lancaster university, said, “During our strike last year, the university sent messages to students telling them they couldn’t join picket lines.

Motion

“Now Labour councillors who are students put in a really good motion in the student union to support the strike.”

She said students are backing workers taking action because they know that the struggle is about improving education.

“Students understand that the vice chancellor could do something about this,” Julie explained.

“They do have agency—the power is in their hands.

“In the first year, you can have 300 students in a class. Students want more staff so they can see staff more. Investment in teachers is more important than shiny new buildings.”

Zamzam Ibrahim, president of the NUS students’ union, sent a message to students urging them to support the strikes.

“Your lectures will be cancelled, you might have to avoid going to the library, you might have to rearrange that site event that you’ve organised,” she said.

“We just can’t afford to be neutral. Being neutral means that your voice is being disenfranchised and co-opted.” UCU members have planned different themes on their strike days. They plan to hold joint actions with climate strikes on Friday 29 November, and to be part of the protests against Donald Trump on Tuesday 3 December.

Many plan teach-outs that can bring strikers, students and non-striking university staff together—for a different kind of education.


‘We don’t want token commitments, we want change’

UCU members at over 60 universities struck last year to defend their USS pension scheme. This transformed union branches with thousands joining the union.

New union members took responsibilities in union branches and helped run the strikes. And after the union leadership called off action for a shoddy deal, the action showed the importance of rank and file workers taking control of disputes.

Workers at many universities have set up strike committees to help organise picketing, solidarity and make the strikes as effective as possible.

Julie said, “We have the local community centre booked each day so we can have a daily strike meeting.

“That’s really important because it’s somewhere everyone can come and we can see where we’re at, and plan other activities.”

Carlo said, “We don’t want token commitments, we want real change. Not just promises to do something in five years’ time, but material changes that we can measure.”

Many UCU branches that voted for action but missed the 50 percent turnout threshold needed for legal strikes will reballot. Some needed just ten or 15 more yes votes to beat the threshold. But unfortunately the union has put back the reballots until the new year.

“They should have been reballoted immediately,” said Carlo. “We need to start talking about a second wave of action in the New Year and the union should name further dates.”


Bosses ignore key JEP report on pension scheme

A strike by UCU members last year to defend their USS pension scheme ended with the setting up of a Joint Expert Panel (JEP). It aimed to look at the future of the scheme, listening to arguments made by the union, the bosses’ UUK group and USS.

An initial JEP report said members of the USS scheme should pay no more than 8 percent of salary in contributions. Bosses have failed to implement these recommendations.

Instead, USS imposed a 0.8 percent rise in contributions in April. And contributions are set to rise to 10.4 percent in October, and to 11.7 percent in April next year.

The union rightly says workers should suffer “no detriment”. They shouldn’t pay more, or get less when they retire.

The next JEP report was postponed. Some activists have asked whether the publication has been delayed because the report will once again back up the union.

“Maybe they don’t want it to come out because it will fuel the strikes,” said Carlo.


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