University staff striking back

Socialist Students national conference sending solidarity to UCU strikers during the 2017 dispute

Lucy, Cardiff UCU and Socialist Students

In February and March last year, university staff across the UK in the University and College Union (UCU) trade union took 14 days of strike action against attacks on pensions – the proposed changes would have seen a typical lecturer an estimated almost £10,000 a year worse off when they retired.

Trade unions like UCU are a vital way for workers to organise to stand up against exploitation from their employers. Individual workers have very little power to make changes to their pay and working conditions, but when workers stand together they are a powerful force. Strike action can be a particularly important way for workers to force bosses to listen. It highlights that bosses are reliant on their workers: strike action hits bosses’ profits – they don’t make any money if workers don’t work. It’s not that different in education: universities can’t run without people working for them.

Strikes are the most powerful tool working class people have to confront the bosses. It’s no wonder then that in previous decade since they’ve been in power, the Tories have introduced new anti-union legislation designed to restrict workers’ ability to take strike action.

For example, for a strike to be legal under the newest Tory anti-union laws, 50% of members of the union have to participate in the vote (ballot) that decides whether strike action is taken. That means that is even if 100% of unions members who vote, vote for strike action, if only 49% of members took part in the vote, it isn’t legal. This 50% threshold isn’t required for other forms of voting (for example, turnout in the UK for the European Parliament election was less than 37%!). This makes organising for strike action difficult – but not impossible! Last year the average UCU ballot turnout was 58% with 88% voting for strike action.

This shows how angry people were about the attacks on their pensions.
The impressive 14 days of militant strike action that UCU members took last February and March –sometimes even in the snow – stopped employers from implementing the pension changes. It also led to the union gaining almost ten thousand new members! This shows that with a determined lead and fight from activists within the trade unions, the draconian Tory anti-union laws can be smashed, and our unions can grow.

Importance of student support
Student support was really important for striking university staff. Staff weren’t just angry about pensions. They were angry about the marketisation of education that’s led to stagnating wages that don’t match inflation, to increased casualisation which means more and more staff members are on fixed-term contracts or zero-hour like contracts that don’t guarantee a decent number of hours, and to massive workloads which mean staff are burnt out working days of unpaid overtime to keep up.

These are important issues for students too – staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions – learning conditions that are also becoming harder as tuition fees rise and pressure increases.

As tuition fees have risen and staff working conditions declined, it’s the top university bosses who have benefitted. The average university vice chancellor earns a ’basic‘ salary of over £250-thousand pounds! The Bath University the vice chancellor last year was on £468-thousand. By fighting together, staff and students are more likely to be able to change things. Last year students joined staff on pickets all over the UK. In some cities they organised solidarity meetings and even held occupations. Socialist Students played a key role in these activities and helped striking staff to keep on fighting.

More possible strike action
This September and October, university staff in UCU will again be voting on strike action – this time in two ballots. One vote will be about pensions – last year’s pensions strike forced our employers to set up a panel to investigate the situation, but now it looks like they’re going to ignore this and try to make staff pay more for our current pension. This shows that the bosses can’t be trusted, and that sustained struggle is needed.

The second vote is about pay-related issues. Staff voted on this earlier this year, but although almost 70% voted for strike action in England, Scotland and Wales we missed the 50% turnout threshold with a 41% turnout. The vote covers a range of issues including addressing gender and ethnicity pay gaps, reducing zero-hour and hourly-paid positions and reducing excessive and unsafe workloads.

It’s important that these ballots draw in all the different kinds of UCU members. Different members will be more affected by some issues than others. For example, a lecturer near retirement might be particularly worried about their pension, whereas a newer lecturer who is only guaranteed a small number of hours work a term might be more angry about zero-hour like contracts. Most staff members are stressed by their workload: it’s estimated that on average staff in higher and further education staff work more than two days unpaid each week. Like with all employers, unpaid overtime is a way for universities to save money by not hiring the extra staff they need.

It’s important that the union builds a fighting organisation to unite all of its members behind resisting these attacks to their pay and working conditions, and it’s important that students support this struggle.

Join the fight back!
It’s not just university staff who need to build fighting organisations – students and young workers do too. Young workers are often particularly exploited by employers – like some university staff they can get stuck in jobs that don’t guarantee them a minimum number of hours a week, can get left without sick-pay and holiday-pay or end up working unpaid overtime by being asked to come in before their shift starts or stay on late. They also get paid less – often for doing exactly the same job – because minimum wage is lower for younger people.

Bosses also make workers feel like they’re easily replaceable to make them put up with bad working conditions and treatment. Like in the university, workers are stronger if they join a trade union so that they can fight together for improvements.

It’s important that workers in different unions also support each other in their struggles. Local Trade Union Councils play an important role in linking up different unions to work and campaign together on issues affecting people at work and in the community. In lots of areas local Trade Councils supported the UCU strike last year – they organised for UCU members to visit other unions branches to discuss the dispute, leading to lots of donations to our local strike fund which helped some of the worse paid workers continue to strike. They also came and spoke at our rallies – encouraging us to continue the fight against attacks on working conditions that affect workers in all sectors.

But it isn’t just the UCU which is currently building for strike action to fight back against the bosses. Workers in the Communication Workers Union (CWU), the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and civil servants in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are all campaigning within their unions for strike action in the near future.

Boris out – Corbyn in with socialist policies!
With chaos building in Parliament and the Tories on the brink of collapse, co-ordinated strike action organised by the leaders of the trade unions could be the final straw for Boris Johnson and the rest of the Tory government. Unions like the UCU should put out the call for a national demonstration organised by the trade unions demanding a general election to kick out the Tories and fight for a Corbyn led anti austerity government.

But our struggle won’t end there. If elected, Corbyn will come under enormous pressure from the capitalist class to back down on his anti-austerity manifesto. Corbyn will only be able to fully deliver on his promises if he breaks the power of the big banks and monopolies, starting by nationalising under democratic public ownership the big banks and companies.

If students were called out onto the streets by Corbyn alongside workers, mobilised in the fight for socialist policies like free education, cancellation of student debt, for living grants, an end to slum student housing and campus cuts, a movement to abolish capitalism and transform society could be built.

Socialist Students will be organising joint meetings with UCU members, open to all students and workers, to discuss how we can support university staff in building successfully for strike action and how to take on the Tories. This year, support university staff in their struggle against attacks on their pay and working conditions, and join Socialist Students to fight for a better education system that’s free and accessible for all.

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