A huge wave of strikes was set to begin in dozens of universities from this week. It will challenge the neoliberal vision of education.
“This is a fight for the wider trade union movement,” Carlo Morelli, a UCU rep at Dundee university, told Socialist Worker. He is right.
UCU union members at 74 universities plan strikes over issues that will be depressingly familiar to millions of other workers across Britain. Low pay—and years of real terms pay cuts. Casual contracts and zero-hours jobs. A gender pay gap of 13.7 percent and a race pay gap of 26 percent.
And spiralling workloads, rising stress and mental health problems.
Jennie Drabble from Sheffield Hallam University said the strikes were “about having 20 minutes to mark a piece of work, working overtime without pay, stress, bullying and endless admin”.
Brian Garvey, chair of the UCU at Strathclyde university, agreed. “At Strathclyde we had a 41 percent rise in the number of staff off with mental health problems in one year,” he told Socialist Worker.
But he added that casualisation and pay inequality are “motivating people to get involved”.
The latest strikes follow a magnificent eight-day walkout at 60 universities in November and December last year.
“Our last picket line was populated by people working two jobs, three jobs, people in precarious work,” said Brian. “The nature of work has changed in higher education, and these strikes are an example of what that means.”
Some 3,500 people joined the union within three weeks of last year’s action being called—and the union is still growing.
Jo Gilmore, a departmental rep at York university, said she felt “inspired” following a union meeting last week with “lots of casualised staff”.
“There’s a lot happening on the ground,” she told Socialist Worker. “A lot of people are really keen to get involved in building the strike.”
Julie Hearn is president of the UCU branch at Lancaster university. She is currently fighting a victimisation and is off sick—but said preparation for the strike is going well.
“We have a draft programme of teach-outs for the 14 days,” she told Socialist Worker. “We have 2,500 bulletins for non-union members explaining what the strike is about.
A lot of people are really keen to get involved in building the strike.
“We’ve got somebody in charge of ‘fun’ for every day of the strikes, organising music and so on to keep up morale.”
Bruce Baker is a UCU rep at Newcastle university, where a “shark of solidarity” will be on the picket lines. He said fighting back has changed the branch. “During previous strikes a group of members started a running club,” he told Socialist Worker.
“They would jog around campus with their strike armbands on, and they’ve continued to meet once a week. It’s a permanent feature of our branch now. The strikes create these new things.
“We now have a big, active strike committee and probably a quarter of the people are new. The committee is planning all the details for the action.
“We’re getting really good at going on strike.”
Every union should back the strike. And UCU members have to fight to get maximum solidarity—for instance, by speaking at union meetings and inviting other workers to speak to teach-outs.
The enthusiasm to keep fighting is clear. But it didn’t stop some right wingers, and their media friends, claiming the strikes don’t have support.
Brian said there was “no opposition” to striking for 14 days at a Strathclyde branch meeting last week. And he added that his branch was “absolutely” for fighting over pensions and the four fights at the same time.
“It’s a big ask,” he said. “But everybody on the picket lines last year knew the employers were moving very reluctantly towards negotiation. I don’t think anybody was surprised that further action was called.”
Jo said grassroots organising is key. “People have had questions, but by the end of our meetings they are much clearer about the need to take decisive action,” she said.
“People I spoke to a week ago who probably wouldn’t have struck are now telling me they are going to strike. It shows the importance of not just of branch meetings but organising on a departmental or even building level.
“Rank and file work has been vital and it’s what will win the dispute.”
Some workers are concerned about the impact of the strike on students. Yet last year’s strikes, and walkouts over the USS scheme in 2018, saw lots of student solidarity.
The NUS student union backs the UCU. Brian said student support in Strathclyde is “resolute”, but argued workers shouldn’t be defensive about taking action. “We have to remind ourselves that the purpose of a strike is to be disruptive,” he said.
Another issue is that, while casualised contracts are growing in universities, there are also some very highly-paid staff.
“There’s a class dynamic to some of the debates,” explained Carlo. “Some professors on permanent contracts want to focus on pensions and sacrifice everything else.
“But everything is linked. If people are on low pay, they can’t afford pensions. That will undermine the scheme for everyone.”
Mark Abel, a UCU rep at Brighton university and a union national negotiator, agreed. “We can’t say some people’s issues are more important than others,” he told Socialist Worker.
“During previous strikes young, casualised staff struck for the pensions of more secure staff. We can’t abandon them.”
Everything is linked. If people are on low pay, they can’t afford pensions. That will undermine the scheme for everyone.
Bruce said there is often a “dip” in mood just before a strike, as people get nervous. “That usually changes very quickly on the picket line,” he said.
“Also we have already lost hundreds of pounds striking. We need to get something from it.”
A big question is whether the strikes are getting anywhere—and whether it’s possible to win.
“People ask what have we accomplished,” said Bruce. “The point to make is that our strikes last time got bosses to negotiate. They had said right up until the day before the last strike that they wouldn’t negotiate.”
Brian added, “Before our 2018 strikes, they wanted to do away with USS as a defined benefit scheme completely. The fact that we are where we are with pensions does show the success of industrial action.”
And bosses did make a new offer before this latest round of strikes. But they failed to make promises on improving conditions or to abandon their 1.8 percent below-inflation pay offer.
Bruce was glad the offer “talked about casualisation, workload and the gender pay gap”.
But he said, “It was vague and not nailed down. We need a national agreement on these issues. We have them on other things, why not these?”
Mark agreed. “People want to know this will be worth it,” he said. “We need something firm that isn’t just empty words. If we could get some kind of framework deal on casualisation especially that would be a major step forward.
“For instance, every institution could have to enter negotiations to phase out zero hours contracts and move hourly-paid staff onto permanent contracts.
We need a national agreement on these issues. We have them on other things, why not these?”
“Quite a few universities are doing that, so what’s the problem with all of them doing it?”
Brian agreed that bosses can resolve this dispute, but said it would take a battle to force them to do so.
And he is “optimistic and pleased that people are so resolute”. “One person who was concerned about strikes said we’re asking for a big restructure in higher education and I agree—it is,” said Brian. “It does require a big shift.
“But this further 14 days shows a strength within our membership to carry the fight through.”
The last strike took place in the run-up to the general election. Several workers thought the election of a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn could open up a real chance of transforming life for ordinary people.
“We were hopeful that a Labour government might come in and we might get better trade union laws,” said Bruce. “And that might encourage employers to negotiate with us.
“That obviously isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future.
“Our dispute isn’t about winning an intellectual debate with employers about what they should do. It’s an industrial struggle. And we have to make it impossible for universities to carry on as they are.”
Brian hoped that the struggle can show other workers that resistance is possible. “We’ve had extensive defeats,” he said. “But we can’t go on blaming Margaret Thatcher for another 20 or 30 years.
“We must win this. There must be a victory so we can go back to members and say that was worth our time.”