SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 217 April 2018

A striking lesson for coordinated action

‘We’re out here in the snow, UUK has got to go!’ This was one of the more printable chants from the UCU’s London demonstration on 28 February. On that day, 15 further education colleges taking action on pay joined 61 pre-1992 universities striking to defend the universities’ superannuation scheme (USS) pension. These disputes have the potential to strengthen the University and College Union (UCU), twelve years after its formation – through the merger of the Association of University Teachers from the old universities, and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education representing workers in colleges and new universities.

That up to 2,000 were prepared to brave a blizzard and a limited transport network shows the militant mood among lecturers in two disputes that have brought to light the scale of discontent in further and higher education. UCU has reported that it has recruited over 2,000 new members as the action has built with some branches seeing a membership growth of over 12%.

The fact that hundreds of students joined the London demonstration confirms our view that, perhaps for the first time since the mass student movement of autumn 2010 against the tripling of tuition fees, there is the potential for a real movement of young people in education to fight the ever more severe Tory cuts and for the abolition of the fees. This possibility was revealed in the enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn in last summer’s general election, largely because of his promise to scrap tuition fees.

As we go to print, the USS pension dispute is at a critical stage. On Monday 12 March, the UCU leadership emailed what they called an ‘agreement’ (pending consultation) between the union negotiators and the employers represented by Universities UK (UUK). However, this provoked an explosive revolt of UCU members. This was because of the way the union’s leadership posed it, and the advice it included about preparing to suspend the action, calling a return to work on the Wednesday – during the last full week of the initial 14 days of strike action – and, particularly, advising lecturers to reschedule lectures.

The next day saw big pickets outside universities. These turned into emergency branch meetings. In London lecturers converged in a massive lobby of UCU HQ where the Higher Education Committee (HEC) and a national reps meeting were taking place. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt was forced to speak to members and was visibly shaken. This rank-and-file pressure wrestled control of the dispute from the leadership and forced the HEC to vote to reject the deal and continue the action. This should now include the planned 14 days of further strikes between April and June. These events could mark a new stage in this dispute, with possible consequences for the wider struggle against the Tories of other workers and young people.

It is clear that the strikes, in particular the pension action, have shaken the employers and the government, which had quickly called for negotiations. The size and scale of the picket lines and the ability of lecturers to link up with students will have had an effect on the employers. But their arrogant over-confidence had been punctured by the strike ballot result, with 88% of UCU members in 68 universities voting for strikes on a 58% turnout. Of these, seven did not secure the 50% threshold demanded by the law but are re-balloting.

This was only the second national ballot by a union under the new Tory Trade Union Act and its undemocratic voting thresholds. The earlier ballot result by postal workers in the CWU forced Royal Mail management into talks and then an offer, but the USS dispute is the first that has resulted in strike action on a national scale. The CWU vote, along with the PCS (civil service union) consultative ballot on pay and now the UCU ballot have proved the pessimistic leaders of some other unions wrong in that it is possible to win national industrial action ballots.

However, this can only be achieved on the basis of a properly prepared campaign that actively involves reps and shop stewards and then mobilises members. Nothing can be taken for granted. UCU proceeded with caution, balloting each university individually, but was still able to get an overwhelming yes vote.

The UCU ballot result and the impressive action will raise the hopes of activists in other unions, especially in the public sector, that mass coordinated strikes can be built, particularly on pay. PCS has just announced its intention to ballot for national action should the government fail to respond to its pay claim by early April.

Unfortunately, despite a longstanding struggle waged over months by the Unison left, including Socialist Party members, it appears that the leadership of the public-sector union may have been able to stop action against pay in local government. Unison members had voted to reject the employers’ derisory offer in favour of strike action and a consultative ballot. This was in spite of the leadership deliberately trying to sabotage a reject mandate – it is now arguing that the deal should be accepted because of the narrow voting margin and turnout. The pay deal for 1.3 million NHS workers is still to be resolved.

The twelve-year history of UCU has been of a union fighting for its very existence as further and higher education have been the target of an unprecedented assault by a succession of New Labour, ConDem and Tory governments. They have all carried out the marketisation of education, with all the negative consequences for staff and students. A huge industry has been created. According to a 2014 UUK study, in the last financial year before the increased tuition fees, universities employed nearly 400,000 staff, earning £27.9 billion in revenue. They generated £10.7 billion in export earnings for the UK economy when non-UK students’ off-campus spending is included.

Cost-cutting has seen the growth of privatisation and outsourcing of non-teaching jobs and services such as cleaning and security, and increasing casualisation in lecturing. UCU estimates that 46% of universities and 60% of colleges use zero-hours contracts to deliver teaching, while 68% of research staff in higher education are on fixed-term contracts. Many more are dependent on short-term funding for continued employment. Lecturers have also faced the imposition of new inferior contracts, the scrapping of courses and the resulting redundancies.

These conditions, along with lecturers suffering the same attacks on pay and pensions as other public-sector workers, have been the foundation for increased anger. They have also been a factor in weakening union organisation and members’ confidence. And, while UCU has been active in a number of local and national struggles, activists have been frustrated by the role of the leadership which has a record of shutting down disputes as soon as possible.

The current disputes, however, offer the opportunity to build a democratic rank and file that can mobilise pressure on the leadership. There is a real feeling that the latest attack on USS is a bridge too far. This is the third time in the last seven years that the employers have targeted the scheme. Each time, the defined benefit part of USS has been weakened. Now there is the prospect of it finally ending for members. UCU estimates that lecturers could lose over £200,000 from their retirement as a result. Yet, at the same time that lecturers suffer real pay and pension cuts and students face debts of up to £50,000, those at the richer end of education are on easy street financially.

The astronomical salaries university vice-chancellors are receiving have not been lost on college staff and students. The Times Higher Education survey of vice-chancellors’ pay for financial year 2016-17, showed that the average total income (salary, bonuses and benefits) was £268,103 – a retail price index inflation-proof annual rise of nearly 4%. FE lecturers are being offered 1%.

This was only the average. The vice-chancellors at the Southampton and Bath universities received £433,000 and £471,000 respectively. Christina Slade of Bath Spa University pocketed over £800,000 inclusive of her pay-off for ‘loss of office’. This led to mass protests at the university. Socialist Students have played key roles alongside UCU and campus unions against these outrageous salaries, leading the movement at Birmingham which now has the highest paid vice-chancellor.

By contrast, a report by UCU in 2015 found that 40% of university staff on insecure contracts said they earned under £1,000 a month. Almost a fifth (17%) said that they struggled to pay for food, and 34% said the same for rent or mortgage repayments. A similar amount (36%) said that they struggled to pay household bills like fuel, electricity, water and repairs.

This has had an effect in developing the militant mood. Many of the younger UCU members either were never in the superior final-salary pension (closed to new starters in 2011). Instead, they had to enter the less well-defined benefit career average scheme, or are post-graduates and are therefore not currently in USS. They are desperate to cling on to the idea of having a decent pension rather than an inferior defined contribution one. But it is also clear that the pension issue has acted as a lightning rod for all the other grievances they have on pay, workload and casualisation.

The struggle by UCU and its members is an example to the rest of the trade union movement. While the main consequence of Jeremy Corbyn’s near-miss at the general election has been the weakening of the Tories, it has also led to a certain passivity, as most trade union leaders wait hopefully for a Labour government – led by a leader that they had no confidence in. Nonetheless they use this as an excuse not to mobilise their members and the wider working class in a mass movement that could force prime minister Theresa May out.

The winter crisis in the NHS was a potential trigger for the underlying fury to explode but the response of some union leaders was inadequate. Nonetheless, there are many other sectors which have the potential to break the situation. Education is certainly one of these. Socialist Party members in UCU and other college unions, and in the National Union of Students, will be raising the idea of a joint fight of workers and students that is needed now.

Rob Williams

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