University lecturers’ action in defence of their pay claim had forced employers back to the negotiating table as Socialist Worker went to press.
Whatever emerges from these talks, the dispute has shown the determination of managers to run universities along neo-liberal lines with a poorly paid, flexible workforce.
It has also shown the ability of lecturers in the AUT and Natfhe unions to resist. For two and a half months they have refused to mark work or set exams.
At Northumbria university, Newcastle, management responded to the action by threatening to stop lecturers’ pay.
Only the threat of indefinite strike action forced managers to back down, at least until 17 June when they will reconsider.
Similar battles have taken place around the country as the unions press their pay claim for a 23 percent increase over three years – a figure that would bring lecturers into line with similar professions. Managers are offering just 12.6 percent over three years.
In Bristol management have threatened to deduct 30 percent of lecturers’ pay if the action continues.
The move has provoked anger. AUT member Celia Hollingworth said that at a mass meeting held last week “all seats were taken, with many people sitting on the floor or standing in the aisles”.
Those at the meeting wanted to see a repeat of the one-day strike at the beginning of March.
“Bristol AUT are now committed to call on the union nationally for another one-day strike on 1 June,” said Celia.
The meeting also decided to send a coach to a national demonstration, also set to be held in London on 1 June.
“Immediately after the meeting we held a lively demonstration to the vice chancellor’s office,” Celia added.
At Leeds university on Tuesday of last week, 300 AUT members marched on the vice chancellor’s office after he threatened to dock pay by 30 percent.
Michael Lavalette, a Preston Respect councillor and a lecturer at Liverpool university, said, “Some 200 AUT members crammed into a meeting on Monday of this week.
“The meeting was called in response to a letter from the university which threatened to deduct 28 percent of pay from all union members.
“The meeting voted to call a demonstration, set for Thursday of this week, outside the senate building.
“AUT members plan to burn the offending letters. We also voted to send transport to the national demonstration.”
University managers in the employers’ UCEA association have attempted to play on students’ worries about exams and coursework to weaken the action.
But in some areas students have organised in support of lecturers. Jessica Edwards, a student at Greenwich university, said, “I am on a graduate teaching course and due to qualify this year.
“I made an announcement to the other students on my course explaining why the lecturers are taking action, and saying that management are to blame for the threat to our qualifications.
“Everybody in the class agreed that we would send a letter from teaching students to the vice chancellor saying that we support our lecturers.”
Dan Swain from Cambridge Student Respect said, “Over 100 students turned out on Wednesday of last week at the biggest open meeting of our students’ union in three years. There was almost unanimous backing for the lecturers’ action.”
Susie Wylie is a member of Student Respect and sits on the National Union of Students executive. She said, “Since the AUT and Natfhe rejected the management’s pathetic pay offer the struggle has been intensifying on the campuses.
“It’s clear that the action is polarising students. As the exam boycott begins to affect some students, the right wing has seized the initiative in some student unions to direct student anger at their lecturers.
“The media has focused on this, and has ignored those universities such as Swansea, University College London and Sussex where students are supporting the lecturers.
“When those on the left argue that lecturers are taking action to secure the future of the education system, they can win the argument.
“This dispute is about Tony Blair’s neo-liberal agenda for education. Lecturers stood with us when we fought against top-up fees – another aspect of this agenda.
“If lecturers lose their fight, it will give managers and the government confidence to try to remove the £5,000 cap on top-up fees.”
Both students and lecturers need to keep up the pressure in what may be a long fight. If the dispute rolls on into the summer vacation, lecturers could be left stranded.
Solidarity and escalating action are needed. The biggest possible turn out for the 1 June demonstration can help boost the confidence of lecturers to continue with their fight.
Education Is Not For Sale conference to organise a new left in a democratic union, Saturday 24 June. For details go to www.uculeft.org