England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

University Strikes: All Out To Win on Pensions, Pay and Conditions

Following 8 days of heroic industrial action by UCU members at 60 Universities, our employers are trying to give the appearance of concessions. In reality however they have offered no concrete promises, and the union has announced 14 more strike days as agreed by delegates at the December Special Conference. This time, workers at 14 more universities will join the picket lines after smashing the Tories undemocratic anti-union laws at the second attempt.

UCU members are fighting on two fronts. In pre-92 universities in defence of our pension in the USS dispute, and across the whole university sector against ever increasing workloads, rampant casualisation, a shameful gender pay gap and years of falling real terms pay, in what members are calling the ‘Four Fights’ dispute. The employers’ ‘offer’ in response to the Four Fights dispute does nothing to resolve this. They offer only recommendations which local universities may wish to follow – leaving us in the same position we were when we started, fighting in our branches for local management to act on casualisation, workload and the gender pay gap. On pay, they have offered no increase on the insulting 1.8%. Right now, we are fighting together in a national campaign on the Four Fights and we need to stick together to win.

Delivering 14 days of strong action is a tall order – but the pattern of action mirrors exactly the successful strike plan that was used in the 2018 USS pension fight, which caused huge disruption to universities and successfully forced the employers to ditch plans to scrap our Defined Benefit pension. Only sustained and serious industrial action will secure what we want and need – a decent pay rise, job security, reduced workload and an end to pay inequality. We are fighting on multiple fronts but combining struggles has built unity and collective strength across the pre and post 92 sectors.

Some union activists believe that we should separate the two disputes and focus our energies on the USS pension fight. This approach was rightly rejected at the December Special Conference – to abandon the demands for action on pay, workload, casualisation and the gender pay gap would be to abandon the most exploited sections of our membership, that have been at the forefront of the struggle for better working conditions. It is essential for the success of both disputes to keep them linked.

Disappointingly, our new General Secretary Jo Grady also seemed to suggest that the ‘Four Fights’ be put on the back burner. In an email to members, pre-empting the Higher Education Committee meeting to decide next steps, she suggested that while a new offer from the employers was “some distance from fulfilling all the demands we have lodged with employers…it is a big step forward”. Grady went on to say that leverage in the dispute had been limited by anti-union laws and that “the best solution to this problem is an aggregated ballot”, at some point in the future. This is a mistake – the union has tried an aggregated ballot and failed to reach the threshold, and the fight for pay and working conditions cannot simply be pushed back to some future date.

It would be wrong to back down now when a further 14 branches have beaten the strike threshold. What’s more, the employers have not moved on pay at all and while they have begun to suggest proposals on other issues they have given no concrete workable commitments on improving job security and workload or reducing the gender pay gap. UCU’s elected negotiators have made clear that although progress has been made, we need concrete guarantees from the employers.

The union nationally should be boldly going to all members with written material about the national strike fund and the local hardship funds, to reassure those in need that the union stands by them financially. Locally, mass members’ meetings should be planned with negotiators or NEC members speaking at them, explaining the truth about the employers’ offer and the 14 more universities joining the strike action.

Fourteen new branches joining the action is a huge boost. Other branches should re-ballot again to boost the dispute further. Unison and Unite members in universities should also re-ballot – this struggle affects us all. We need to build this dispute on campus and across our towns and cities, appealing to students and other groups of workers for support. We must also look beyond the upcoming period of strikes and be ready to escalate further, with more well-prepared strike dates and a marking boycott. We are fighting not just for our pensions, pay and conditions but for the future of Higher Education.

  • Keep fighting on USS and the Four Fights! No decoupling of the disputes – maximum unity among university workers.
  • All out on Feb 20th and beyond – join the pickets, set up local strike committees, organise marches with trade union support in every university town!
  • Prepare for further action and a summer marking boycott – if the employers don’t move, we don’t mark!

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