The University and Colleges Union (UCU) is currently balloting staff in hundreds of universities and further education colleges over the issues of low pay and casualisation. Last term, members of the UCU secured an important victory in defence of their pensions, which has shown that united and determined strike action gets results. Students also played an important part in this struggle, organising solidarity protests and joining picket lines. This helped boost the confidence of University and Colleges Union (UCU) members to continue the strike over several weeks of action. Members of Socialist Students were at the forefront of organising and taking part in solidarity action on campuses all over the country.
Here we present an article from Socialist Students' magazine, Megaphone, explaining the background to the dispute and how students can support university staff in their current dispute.
(Pictured - Sheffield Socialist Students at a UCU solidarity rally)
From February to March this year, Socialist Students groups up and down the country supported academic and academic-related staff as they took part in the largest ever university strike. It was an unprecedented action with members at 65 institutions taking part in a nationally coordinated, sustained walkout over 14 days to protect their pensions. It was the biggest strike in the history of higher education with 42,000 staff taking part in the walk out and led to the collapse of the employer’s proposals to get rid of guaranteed ‘defined benefits’ at retirement.
But this could be dwarfed by proposed action over pay, equality, and casualisation planned for the autumn term with all 110,000 UCU members across universities and colleges set to be balloted in joint union proposals that could also see UNISON, and other trade unions representing support staff, joining the dispute. The university ballots will propose continued and sustained strike action to achieve a £10/hour minimum wage, 7.5% pay settlement including a minimum £1,500 pay increase, concrete action on gender inequality, and an end to casual contracts, with a separate pay ballot for FE Colleges soon to be announced.
So how exactly did a moderate union with a relatively passive leadership who had never taken continuous strike action come so far? And what is the role for students as we enter the next dispute?
Victory on staff pensions
It is fair to say that when employers quietly proposed that the USS pensions scheme, available to staff at pre-92 universities, be ‘reformed’ they did not expect the scale of the response. Indeed, the very idea that an industry churning out record surpluses of over £2.3bn could propose the abolition of the guaranteed ‘defined benefits’ without increasing their own contributions showed just how over confident they were less than 12 months ago. UCU estimated that staff would be 20% to 40% worse off, with early career academics set to lose as much as £9,600 a year in retirement.
But UK Higher Education is changing. UCU now estimates that 54% of all academic staff are now on some form of precarious or casual contract, and at many well-known institutions that figure is as high as 75% to 80%. Salaries and conditions are being driven down, with pay having fallen by over 20% in real terms since 2010; early career researchers face increasingly precarious employment; migrant workers face constant monitoring and even deportation; and, crucially, staff are joining their trade unions.
Within days of strike action previously intransigent employers, represented by Universities UK, were back around the negotiating table. After an initial offer was rejected, employers returned with a revised offer promising to keep both the defined benefits element of the pensions package and significantly increase their contributions.
Tentative leaders, fighting members
The victory in the pensions dispute was not won in isolation; it was an expression of anger at an increasingly exploitative education system that has generated incredible wealth across universities, excessive vice chancellor pay, while at the same time dismantling the terms and conditions of an ever increasing layer of staff.
The general secretary of UCU, Sally Hunt, was widely derided for attempting to defend the initial offer from employers, which would have allowed them to make significant cuts to pensions and only improved on the initial cuts by creating a ‘three year transition’ period. While the final offer was significantly improved, it again fell short of total victory just when employers had clearly become desperate. Most worryingly, the revised deal was forced through in a highly contentious e-ballot, in which the union leadership seemed to majorly misrepresent the alternatives, and made claims about support from local branches which would later prove to have been largely fabricated.
Having come so close to a complete victory, and having conducted a vibrant campaign seeing 20% to 30% increase in union membership in many branches, a broad layer of new and active members attended the UCU annual congress in May. Our delegation, from Birmingham, went fully expecting to see a leadership defending their handling of the pensions dispute in light of what had been, nonetheless, significant steps forward for the union.
Instead we saw a bureaucracy entirely determined to prevent any criticism of the general secretary whatsoever. Much of the three day conference descended to farce as union officials sought to frustrate congress business from the platform, which eventually led to repeated walk outs from the full time staff working for the general secretary, and the UCU president repeatedly suspending and then closing congress rather than debate the issues.
While these were incredible and laughable scenes, there were well over 300 delegates from across the country who had seen the real face of the UCU leadership. A statement from the majority of members in the hall, in establishing the #OurUCU campaign, read:
“We UCU elected delegates voted repeatedly in line with the advice of our Congress Business Committee to hear motions criticising the General Secretary which were in order… We believe the union members have the right to hold our most senior elected officials to account. This is a basic democratic right in all trade union and representative systems.”
Where this leads remains to be seen, but one principle is clear – where there is a broad and exploited class under a given set of material conditions; then grass roots democracy, organisation, and consciousness will lead to direct and radical action that will confront that exploitation. As young members joining our union en masse, we expect to be listened to – but for socialists in this context, we must also ensure that this consciousness extends beyond the immediate anger at the leadership over pensions. We must ensure that we achieve a fully democratic grass roots union in order to build a movement that is capable of achieving a truly democratic and grass roots emancipatory education system.
Broadening the fight: the role of Socialist Students
In the Autumn pay demands, agreed at the UCU HE Sector conference, it is clear that members now want broad and ambitious reform on pay, equality, and casualisation, and that they’re prepared to take action to get it. Additionally, the possibility of UNISON, who represent thousands of academic support staff, joining the action could seriously escalate the dispute.
On the one hand, it will be crucial that Socialist Students and other groups on the left are able to play a proactive role in communicating the real issues at stake and building solidarity – in an increasingly consumerised sector, employers will attempt to pit students and staff against one another.
But equally, our role as socialists will also be to ensure that the lessons of the strike are that we win when we are together – and that the fight does not stop at a few reforms over pay, nor even at a genuinely democratic university that puts education and research before tuition fees and grant capture, but at a grass roots socialist society that holds all of its leaders to account.