Thousands of workers at 58 universities across Britain are to strike for three days from Wednesday 1 December to Friday 3 December. It’s an important battle that needs full support and solidarity.
The scale and content of the action were made possible only by a rank and file revolt against the UCU union’s leaders. This has to go much further.
Workers are battling in two linked disputes. One is against huge cuts of 35 percent to guaranteed pensions. These are based on outlandishly pessimistic figures about future funding for the scheme.
Even the Financial Times newspaper’s impeccably mainstream chief economics commentator Martin Wolf backs the workers’ case. He says they are “the victims of unduly risk-averse decision making at the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), under the influence of misconceived regulation”.
Wolf adds, “The USS is a large funded scheme, with 476,000 members and £82.2 billion in assets. Universities are also more or less immortal institutions. If they cannot afford the benefits promised in their scheme, nobody can, apart perhaps from the government.”
The other dispute is over what’s known as the four fights—better pay, reduced workload, opposition to casualisation, and closing the disability, gender and ethnic pay gaps.
Pay has fallen by 20 percent in real terms after 12 years of below-inflation pay offers. A third of academic staff are on insecure contracts and the gender pay gap is 15 percent.
Carlo Morelli is the immediate past president UCU Scotland. He told Socialist Worker, “In the 2018 strikes, which transformed the union, the driver was the pensions issue that opened up all the feelings of resentment.
“This time it is workloads, the way the pandemic has been handled, discrimination and pay—the four fights.
“That shouldn’t mean any retreat from the pension fight. It does mean people are very angry if there’s an attempt to ditch the four fights or decouple those issues from pensions."
Each university’s strike vote was counted separately. Those who did not reach the turnout threshold laid down in the anti-union laws will be reballoted so they have a chance to join the next round of strikes in 2022.
When the strike votes were first announced, UCU union general secretary Jo Grady put forward a wholly inadequate response. She proposed that there be just one day of strike over each dispute before Christmas. This was token action and would also have acted to separate—and potentially to divide—the two.
Ordinary UCU members reacted angrily. Representatives to Branch Delegate Meetings on Friday of last week overwhelmingly rejected Grady’s plan. Subsequently, the union’s higher education committee (HEC) had to come up with a revised plan.
Carlo says, "People are furious about management. The UCU WhatsApp group at Dundee university where I work lit up when the strikes were announced. People had all their plans for teachouts, a playlist for the pickets and loads more ready immediately.
“This resentment and determination are why the plan for token strikes was thrown out. People don’t want delay, they want confrontation
“And there is a really good chance here to win escalation.”
The UCU Left organisation, which Socialist Worker supports, said the HEC “had to respond to a wholesale rejection of the proposals set out by the general secretary”.
“It heard the opposition to decoupling the disputes expressed by branches,” it said.
And UCU Left added that now the strike days “will be joint strikes for both disputes”. “This is the only way to unite pre-92 with post-92 branches, and branches with a mandate in one dispute with those with a mandate in the other.”
It’s good there are more strikes and united strikes. But the union leaders’ new strategy is only the barest reflection of the mood to fight. They should have called at least five days of strikes before Christmas.
And it’s not clear from the UCU statement when the reballots will take place. Grady speaks ominously of branches that win a mandate in reballots being able to join the action “in the spring”. That seems very late if there are to be speedy reballots.
Saira Weiner is UCU branch secretary at Liverpool John Moores University which voted 74 percent for strikes but fell just short of the turnout threshold. She told Socialist Worker, “We want the reballots to start on the first day of the strikes, 1 December, to build on that momentum.
“There’s a real feeling that people want to be part of the action as soon as possible, and that means reballoting quickly.
“On 1 December we will be encouraging our members to join in collective solidarity visits to picket lines near us.
“Our turnout this time was then highest we have ever achieved in a postal ballot. We can get over 50 percent next time.
“We have been strengthening the branch and we now have more activists and we know the areas we have to target and improve.
“People are desperate to take action, particularly over workload and the gender pay gap which is worsening.”
UCU members have to make sure the December strikes are a big success. There need to be big pickets and a real attempt to close down the universities that have been called out.
Those that have not yet won a ballot should visit local striking ones to show support. And other trade unionists should also go to picket lines.
The NUS students’ union says it backs the strikes. Its national president, Larissa Kennedy, said, “Students have a rich history of standing shoulder to shoulder with university staff, who have seen their pensions, pay and conditions slashed in recent years.
“With vice chancellors' average total pay packets rising to £269,000 per year, it's clear employers can afford to resolve their dispute.
“The onus for minimising disruption for students lies with university bosses.”
Students should mobilise for the pickets alongside the striking workers.
And a key task for UCU members is to build the rank and file networks that can shape the dispute and press for urgently-needed escalation.
If it is left to the foot-dragging union leaders the dispute will be taken to a dead end.
Where are the strikes?
Here are the universities that will strike 1-3 December.
- Aston University
- Birkbeck, University of London
- Courtauld Institute of Art
- Durham University
- Edinburgh Napier University
- Glasgow School of Art
- Goldsmiths, University of London
- Greenwich University
- Heriot-Watt University
- Imperial College London
- Institute of Development Studies
- Keele University
- King's College London
- Kingston University
- Liverpool Hope University
- London School of Economics
- London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
- Loughborough University
- Manchester Metropolitan University
- Open University
- Queen Margaret University
- Queens University Belfast
- Roehampton University
- Royal College of Art
- Royal Holloway, University of London
- Royal Northern College of Music
- SOAS, University of London
- Sheffield Hallam University
- The University of Birmingham
- The University of Dundee
- The University of Kent
- The University of Leeds
- The University of Manchester
- The University of Northampton
- The University of Nottingham
- The University of Salford
- The University of Sheffield
- The University of Stirling
- University College London
- University of Bath
- University of Bradford
- University of Brighton
- University of Bristol
- University of Cambridge
- University of Central Lancashire
- University of Chester
- University of Edinburgh
- University of Essex
- University of Glasgow
- University of Lancaster
- University of Leicester
- University of Liverpool
- University of Reading
- University of St Andrews
- University of Sussex
- University of Ulster
- University of York
- University of the Arts London