University workers ended their third week of strikes on Thursday on a high in many places. Strikers reported new faces on picket lines, strong support from students and an optimism about winning real gains.
But there are dangers that some in the union leadership are prepared to settle for deals that fall far short of what workers deserve.
UCU union members are engaged in two disputes. One is to defend their USS pension scheme. The other is focused on “four fights” – equal pay, casual contracts, workload and a real-terms pay rise.
Karen was on the picket line at Greenwich university in south east London. “For me this is about the younger generation on precarious contracts and overloaded with work,” she told Socialist Worker.
“It’s criminal how new and vulnerable workers are treated.”
Striker Lesley said workers had won lots of support from students and other trade unionists. “I’ve been on strikes lots of times and we’ve never had this kind of support,” she told Socialist Worker.
“I think it’s because everyone is facing the same kind of issues and everyone is fed up.”
Strikers said the action has changed their union branch. Branch membership secretary Simon told Socialist Worker, “We’ve got a lot more younger members of staff joining the union. Nobody has left this branch.”
And striker Gavin said, “There’s a different demographic on the picket line. It’s not all wizened old campaigners, it’s hourly-paid lecturers and casualised staff.”
Elmy, on the picket line at Imperial College London (ICL), reported a similar picture. “We’re into our third week and the picket lines are still really good,” she told Socialist Worker. “There has been more of a party atmosphere and union numbers swell every time we do this.
“We feel we are making a difference.”
Jeffrey, another ICL striker, said the union branch there isn’t traditionally militant. “Some people see themselves as professional and don’t see picketing as being professional,” he told Socialist Worker.
“But even if people aren’t picketing there’s a lot of more passive support. And the pickets are a really good mix – we’ve got PhD students, administrators, academics, research staff and professors.”
Roddy, UCU branch organiser at ICL, said workers had this week elected a strike committee to organise the walkouts. “I estimate that we’ve had about 85 different people on picket lines,” he told Socialist Worker. “In general the mood has lifted enormously this week. People are much more optimistic.
“The way we have divided things up, the strike meetings have instilled a sense of accountability and discussion. It has ironed out a lot of the nerves and worries about whether the strike was going to win, or whether the strikes were too much.”
Many strikers took to social media to post videos and pictures of lively picket lines, big teachouts and solidarity rallies. Others showed strikers speaking at trade union meetings to secure donations to the union strike fund.
The strikes so far have been a big success and workers have the power to score a win that could transform universities. But there was some anger after UCU general secretary Jo Grady sent an email to members on Thursday morning.
The email said workers had reached a “pivotal moment” in the strikes.
Grady said the union had “extended an olive branch” to bosses by offering “compromise” on some demands. She said negotiators had “indicated that an offer of a 3 percent increase in pay could resolve the dispute” due to “prospects of progress” in other areas.
She admitted, “This is significantly lower than the 3 percent plus RPI (a total of at least 5.2 percent) which we initially demanded.”
Such concessions tell the employers that the starting point is now 3 percent, not 5.2 percent. They will be encouraged to make an offer based on much lower than that.
Grady said progress had also been made over USS, but didn’t say what this was. Yet she said the union was willing to make “concessions” on contribution rises. This could see workers paying 8.4 percent instead of the 8 percent the union initially demanded.
Grady was wrong to send this email to members. And the union would be wrong to ask workers to consider a deal that is so far from what they are fighting for.
Negotiators in the UCU Left group, which Socialist Worker supports, said they were “concerned” that Grady had sent her email without discussion with them.
They said negotiators had “adopted a position of putting 3 percent on the table” to give bosses “the chance to consult their members about the potential for a rapid resolution of the dispute”.
They added, “Let’s not forget that UCU’s claim is for RPI + 3 percent. The employers are sitting on reserves of £44 billion. They can afford to meet our claim in full.”
They further added that “there is a democratic process that holds us to account” and that an “assessment of whether an offer is acceptable cannot be made until all the details are confirmed”.
In 2018 the then general secretary Sally Hunt tried to force through a rotten deal. It was repulsed by a revolt from below.
The feeling of rebellion was part of the reason for the election of Jo Grady. But she seems ready to go down the same road as Hunt.
Those striking and campaigning on the picket lines need to organise to resist a bad deal again.
Some have worried that the walkouts have less support because picket lines have been smaller in many places than during previous strikes. But there are lots of reasons for people not being on every picket line.
Many strikers have said workers are “pacing themselves” and choosing certain days to picket. Some workers commute and so don’t travel to picket every day. The weather has often been appalling and some workers worry about losing money through being on strike.
It’s also the case that, as newer people are pulled into the strike, not all see the value of joining picket lines.
The feeling of rebellion was part of the reason for the election of Jo Grady
Yet for all this, strikers everywhere have reported new people joining picket lines. Membership of the union has gone up, in some cases dramatically, throughout the dispute. And turnout on the picket lines remains impressive compared to many other strikes.
There are always differences of opinion about tactics in disputes, and there are always some who don’t support escalating. But this shouldn’t be used to dial down the struggle.
People who are unsure or wavering can be won around – and ideas can change fast on the picket lines.
As Greenwich striker Mark told Socialist Worker, “You’re scared to put your toe in the water at first. But once you jump in, you feel totally different.”
Carlo Morelli is a UCU rep at Dundee university and a member of the union’s national executive committee. He told Socialist Worker that there are strong signs that the action could escalate.
“Every branch currently engaged in industrial action is due to reballot for action from 17 March,” he said. “And more branches now want to join the strike, and so have opted to join the ballot too.
“There’s an idea among some that we can’t reballot or that members don’t want to strike anymore. But I think people would be up for more strikes. It’s always surprising. But the resilience and desire of members to get a real change in the universities is quite remarkable.
“People are invested in it and are not going to give up. It’s not just about pay. The whole ethos of universities has to change.”
Elmy told Socialist Worker, “We’re in it for the long haul.” And Greenwich striker Vera said, “We want to give students a good education but the attacks on us mean we just can’t deliver it.
“It’s unsustainable. We will fight until we win.”
A five-day strike begins on Monday. Other workers should give it their full solidarity.