In March last year, as the coronavirus pandemic started to take a firm hold, university workers across the country were undertaking escalating strike action over pay, conditions and pensions. 74 universities were involved at the height of the action and the potential for more to join was rising. After going out for 22 days, picket lines remained solid and our employers were being pushed into negotiations that they had so far refused. However, the disputes were put on hold and the planned reballot shelved by the UCU leadership as campuses were closed down due to the UK-wide lockdown. SA members argued strongly against this delay at the time as it was clear that the momentum we had built up would be needlessly lost at a crucial time for the progress of the disputes. It was also clear that workers were going to bear the brunt of the attempts by management to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, exacerbating many of the key issues we were fighting on. Workloads skyrocketed as we were expected to adapt our teaching methods and material immediately to cope with the move online, casualised staff were left without new contracts as uncertainty over student numbers grew and the question of health and safety on campuses was posed starkly.
Now, a year and a half after our last day of national strike action, a special higher education sector conference is due to take place online on 9th September to decide the way forward. It is crucial that we come out of this congress with a fighting strategy and that we clarify the way forward, with or without the support of union leadership. Employers have been emboldened during the pandemic, as we warned at the time. Workers at a range of institutions have had to fight against redundancies, in addition to the paltry final pay offers of 1.5% for this year and 0% for the previous year. This is coupled with the recent forcing through of severe cuts to the USS pensions scheme which will see a significant loss of retirement benefits for members in addition to the pricing out of many workers on lower incomes.
Two disputes but one set of attacks on HE
It is being argued by some in the union that the USS pensions dispute should be separated from the ‘four fights’ dispute which covers pay, workload, casualisation and pay equality. Unfortunately, this was echoed by general secretary Jo Grady at the national members briefing held last week. It is a mistake to believe that a satisfactory short-term deal can be made on pensions, despite the flawed valuation, and that we just have to accept that employers will never give us enough on pay and casualisation – this is a recipe for defeat. Though it is true that the USS pension scheme covers only the pre-1992 universities whereas the four fights covers the whole sector, keeping the disputes together is key to winning concessions on both. Real gains can only be made by maximising and coordinating action that involves as many members and institutions as possible. This must include more senior staff standing and fighting alongside newer and more casualised workers and this will only happen to the extent needed if the disputes continue to be linked. These are not two separate fights but one fight against one set of employers for the future of higher education. It is important to remember that the boards of the two employers’ associations involved in the negotiations, UUK and UCEA, are in fact made up of our day-to-day bosses, the university vice-chancellors, and that they can be pushed back by well-planned and determined industrial action, as the ongoing heroic action at the University of Liverpool has shown.
What does a win look like?
It has also been repeated many times by some in the union that it is not clear what a win looks like in the four fights dispute, apart from the pay element. This is not true – we already have a clear set of demands that have been detailed in the latest joint union claim. For example: on workload, a maximum 35-hour working week; on pay equality, for equal pay audits to be carried out at every institution to an agreed timescale and then a plan to be agreed and implemented to close the gaps; and on casualisation, a minimum contract length of 24 months, which would allow workers to access more employment rights, and an end to the use of zero-hour contracts. Achieving these demands would mean a thorough shake-up in how universities are currently run and will therefore require an intense and unwavering struggle. But we mustn’t put off this struggle to some unspecified future time. Members have shown that they are willing to fight on these issues and leaving it any longer will embolden the employers even further to carry out more damaging cuts to our jobs and conditions.
A fighting strategy
There are several actions that need to be taken as soon as possible:
- An immediate, strong commitment to building the fighting fund needs to be made with clear communication and assurances to members that there will be enough to fund whatever strike action is necessary.
- A proper national members’ meeting should be held, not a one-sided, top-down briefing, that allows speakers from the floor to direct questions to the union leadership about the next steps. If this isn’t organised, branches should get together to call a mass members’ meeting themselves, led by those who have recently fought and won.
- A plan of escalating industrial action needs to be agreed and put in place with a clear strategy for the next academic year, including targeted action such as marking and assessment boycotts. As part of this, the possibility of indefinite strike action should be discussed.
- A ballot timetable should be announced and full resources made available for a serious get-the-vote-out campaign.
- Commitments made at congress to meet with the other major trade unions should be extended to discuss coordinated action on pay. The other campus trade unions should be discussed with urgently about taking joint industrial action to shut down campuses.
- Joint staff and student solidarity campaigns need to be built and strengthened with assemblies called to discuss the issues at stake.
- The moves by the union leadership to leave branches to fight on their own on issues such as redundancies and health and safety must be countered with action coordinated wherever possible.