The latest phase of university strikes ended last Friday and there is now a major fight over whether they will continue. Strike ballots at 149 universities were set to close on Friday this week.
Activists were pushing to win the biggest possible support for maintaining—and escalating—the action. And to the consternation of some of its leadership, the UCU union’s higher education committee (HEC) this week rejected motions that would have killed off the action and ushered in defeat.
Some of the leadership’s supporters put a series of motions that called for capitulation, pausing the strikes and effectively ending aspects of the 2021‑22 campaign. They were defeated and instead the HEC passed a motion calling for indefinite action over pensions.
The internal battle will be now fought at the UCU special higher education sector conferences (Shescs). Delegates will debate on the “four fights”—over pay, equalities, contracts and workload—on 20 April and the USS pension dispute on 27 April.
The left in the union is putting forward its own motions to the Shescs. These call for escalating the strikes alongside a marking boycott to increase the pressure on university bosses. The right will find it hard to put its positions on the agenda having lost them at the HEC. It’s doubtful whether any branch will pass them.
The left passes its motions for the Shescs through UCU branches.
But the key fight is not at the top of the UCU but what can be organised at the base—whether workers support strikes and show they want more.
Carlo Morelli, co-president of Dundee UCU and past UCU Scotland president, told Socialist Worker, “UCU members are continuing to vote for action in big numbers, irrespective of whether they actually get over the 50 percent threshold under the anti‑union laws.
“They are not rejecting strikes or other methods of resistance. Any attempt to ditch the disputes will be met with huge anger from members.” If the pensions or four fights struggles end It will be a wholly unnecessary defeat.
Under pension proposals that came into force last Friday, a typical university worker is set to lose 35 percent from their guaranteed retirement income. Employers say this is justified after a deficit was reported when the scheme was last valued in March 2020, as financial markets went down.
But a new report last week by the trustee that manages the scheme reported assets increasing to over £88 billion. The trustee says that growth has outstripped liabilities and that the level of contributions required to service the deficit has now fallen to zero percent.
The pension cuts were wrong before these revelations. Now it’s obvious they are based on lies and the UCU has to step up the pension battle.
The four fights campaign has been key to mobilising many of the activists who have built and implemented the strikes.
Last week’s strikes saw major picketing at many universities. In some, such as Brighton, and City University in London, UCU and striking Unison members picketed together. In Liverpool UCU members and supporters marched through the city.
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