Wednesday 2nd December, was the first day of five days of strike action in December by University and College Union members at Brighton University. The action is over a plan to make IT staff redundant in a move which will, according to the University, ‘enhance the front line support offered to students’. And this at the height of a pandemic which has made students totally reliant on online learning and IT services! The form of words used by the employers would be laughable if it wasn’t such a desperate situation for workers, including two UCU and five Unison members, who are now facing compulsory redundancy.
However the response of workers has been magnificent, with a well attended morning picket and then a lunchtime online rally attended by over two hundred, including UCU members and student supporters across the country. Members of Brighton Socialist Alternative, including Brighton University workers, were out in force too. Speakers included UCU General Secretary Jo Grady and Brighton Labour MP Lloyd Russell Moyle, but the highlights were the contributions from workers facing the sack as well as local UCU activists.
IT worker, Mark Packer pointed out that his section was working flat out, and lay-offs would not only seriously damage their service but also throw technicians out of work at a time when thousands of others have been laid off in Brighton due to Covid. Responding to Brighton University’s objection to the union’s use of the word ‘sackings’, UCU branch Chair Mark Abel rightly refused to apologise. Sackings were indeed what was at stake. And the fight wasn’t only about IT. Any and every member of staff was now under threat and a vigorous struggle at this stage was vital to serve notice to management that ‘redundancies’ would not be tolerated.
Student and BLM activist Annie Whilby brought solidarity and support from Brighton students, as did NUS President, Larissa Kennedy. Solidarity to and from students and staff is at an incredibly high level in this dispute. Crucially, though, the militant mood is part of a much larger picture. There are currently seven UCU branches in English universities either in dispute with management, balloting for industrial action or on strike.
Although grievances go back to last year and beyond, Universities have behaved particularly badly over Covid. In September they forced students to return to campus – and cough up accommodation fees – when it was clearly unsafe to do so. Lecturers were also compelled to return to face to face teaching in dangerous conditions. And although universities have now backed off to an extent, switching to online teaching, anger among staff about the cavalier action of the employers is growing everywhere. Meanwhile the unresolved ‘Four Fights’ dispute of last Winter, over pay and conditions, remains just that – unresolved.
The latest pronouncement by government on the university sector is that there should be a ‘phased return’ of students after Christmas till at least mid-February. This a 180 degree U turn on the disastrous decision to send students back to their campuses in September, a move which has led to huge spikes in Covid infection – almost 50,000 cases. Unsurprisingly, given Tory ineptitude, the latest plans are complex with different categories of students being given different dates and procedures to follow. What’s more they depend on mass testing of students – a strategy which has already raised concerns about safety and put massive pressure on university staff this term who are being expected to carry it out on top of their regular work,
Still, what the Brighton UCU strikes, and the other disputes now erupting across the universities, demonstrate is that workers and students are fighting back, that the mood is changing and the appetite for resistance is growing. The clear message – together we can win!