University workers across Britain are set to vote soon on whether to strike over pensions, pay and conditions. If the ballot is successful, UCU union members at over 150 institutions could begin strikes as early as the end of this year.
The strikes will centre around two separate but connected disputes. The first is around pensions.
Thousands of workers at pre-1992 universities will have their pensions slashed after employers’ body UUK voted to scrap the current University Superannuation Scheme (USS).
The move will cut a typical workers' pension by 35 percent.
The second dispute is over equal pay, casual contracts, workload, and a real terms pay rise. This is often dubbed the “four fights”.
Seven institutions will vote on USS only, 83 over pay and working conditions, with another 62 institutions holding two ballots over both USS and pay and working conditions.
The ballots will be "disaggregated"—counted at each individual institution rather than as a national total.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said, 'University staff propped up the entire sector during the pandemic, but they are now being thanked with huge cuts to their pensions, unbearably high workloads, and another below-inflation pay offer—all while universities continue to generate a handsome income from tuition fees.”
UCU members have already mounted major national strikes in the past three years.
A UCU branch officer at the University of the Arts London (UAL) told Socialist Worker, “Union leaders mustn’t focus on what happened during the last two strikes because Covid has changed everything.
“The anger now is at another level after more than a year of the pandemic.
“Our employers have taken advantage of workers using the pandemic as an excuse,” he said.
“The Tories are urging universities to return to face to face teaching and the bosses are listening to this. They don’t care about risking our lives at all.
“Student numbers have gone up. They’re piling them in to grab their money. But despite the money coming in workers have seen their wages cut since 2010 if you take account of inflation.
“People are desperate for a pay rise, especially with the increase in national insurance contributions and fuel bills.
“At my university, most of my colleagues are on casual contracts.”
Even before the ballot was announced, the fightback in universities and colleges was growing with strikes planned at Liverpool University and the Royal College of Art (RCA).
The branch officer at UAL said that activists should take inspiration from these disputes.
“At the RCA they won a really impressive ballot to strike over casualisation, workload and pay in the summer. The RCA isn’t different from any other university, so it’s clear there is a mood to fight.
“It’s possible for us to get a significant yes vote, but for this, we need attention to detail.”
“We need to get our data correct. We need to check branch lists. But most importantly, we need to explain to people in our branches what got us here and why it is right to strike.
“Another important aspect will be the gender and race gap. We need to take some of the energy felt during the Black Lives Matter movement and use it to close that gap.
“And if the ballot is successful union leaders must come up with a plan for sustained action, that will hit the bosses hard. We can’t lose momentum.”
Meanwhile strikes are set to begin at 15 further education colleges on 28-29 September and then 5-15 October. Unity in education battles would boost all the fights.
The university ballots will run from Monday 18 October to Thursday 4 November. UCU's higher education committee will meet to consider the results of the ballot on 8 November with action expected to take place before the end of the year.
The ballots are a step towards the hard-hitting national strikes that are desperately needed.