The Universities and Colleges Union at the University of Brighton has successfully negotiated a resolution of the dispute concerning redundancies of Information Services staff. This is after 5 days of strike action in December, with a further 5 days due to follow in February. An agreement with the university management was reached at the last minute just before the second bout of strike action. Although there have been some redundancies, there have been no compulsory redundancies of UCU members.
The dispute arose due to proposals that predated the pandemic whereby the University planned to reorganise Information Services. As is so often the case nationally (though not at Brighton) this involved compulsory redundancies. However the pandemic only served to highlight the danger of cuts to IT at a time when services were busier than ever due to a massive increase in remote working with all the problems this entails. Coupled with the prospects of a tough Covid jobs market the proposals provoked a strong response from workers.
UCU at the University of Brighton has a long record of no compulsory redundancies for members. It’s a branch which is prepared to fight and this time was no different. What’s more, and crucially, academic staff came out on strike in support of IT staff – the dispute has shown yet again the power of solidarity, of workers fighting together.
As we reported in December the week of industrial action was also an inspiring example of how workers can engage in struggle during lockdown. In addition to a socially distanced picket line, UCU live-streamed the pickets and held virtual rallies, which members of Socialist Alternative attended. The rallies were on a large scale with speakers such as Lloyd Russell-Moyle (a local Labour MP) and John McDonnell, as well as a number of UCU activists from other universities and other unions. There were also student speakers at the rallies.
Student solidarity has been a key part of the action with students condemning management’s highhanded decision to make compulsory redundancies, especially at a time when learning depends so much on IT staff. No doubt student pressure on the issue played a key part in helping union negotiators. But it also showed the massive increase in student militancy, both in Brighton and across the country, with many students stuck at home now on rent strike.
The second Brighton rally on 8 February took place after the magnificent Zoom NEU meeting at the start of term in January when over 400,000 teachers threatened to use health and safety legislation to prevent a forced return to Covid-unsafe classrooms. The lessons of this action – the next day the government introduced Lockdown 2 – were not lost by many speakers. Several pointed to the need to organise nationally in further and higher education on Covid and health, but also to fight the sweeping cuts taking place across the sector. There were also calls to nationalise HE and stop the marketisation of education more generally.
Unison, UCU’s sister trade union at the University of Brighton, also had members affected by the compulsory redundancies and were in dispute with the university management. However after an indicative ballot that reached a 56% turnout, with 82% willing to take strike action and 95% willing to take action short of a strike in order to defend members’ jobs, the unelected regional apparatus of Unison decided that there was no appetite for a strike in the current climate. As a result of this undemocratic decision the branch was prevented from running an official ballot of members.
The lesson is of course that we need a fighting leadership in all trade unions, with union officials and elected representatives keen to take workers’ struggle to management rather than folding at the first opportunity. One such is Socialist Alternative member Sam Morecroft (Sheffield International College UCU) who is standing in the current NEC election for the role of UCU Casualisation Officer.
UCU at the University of Brighton have shown that workers’ struggle pays off. More, the Brighton dispute shows that a fighting stance is infectious, that when one group gets up another will follow, in this case students. There’s no doubt we need to utilise the zeal and experience of UCU and other trade unions for the bigger victories to be won: to fight for the scrapping of tuition fees, for free education for all and to end the marketisation of Higher Education. It’s going to be a busy year in the universities – time to get active and involved!