The coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted the UCU strikes - cutting across plans for continued industrial action, whilst simultaneously exacerbating the issues the dispute is fighting against.
We publish here an article on the way forward for the UCU strikes and reports on the strike from MSF members in Loughborough, Leeds and Cambridge.
The end of fourteen days of strike action in UCU has coincided with the dawning of a public health emergency in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus will cut across the planned continuation of industrial action as universities shift to digital learning and, likely at some stage, closure. However, in many respects the pandemic only exacerbates the existing issues that underpin the industrial dispute, and the solution to both is the same: a militant class-struggle strategy and the socialist transformation of society and the economy.
Inevitably with the onset of the coronavirus emergency pressure has built for UCU to fall in line with management and government in unity against the virus. This, combined with the practical barriers to organising, was the reason given for UCU general secretary Jo Grady’s announcement that reballoting on further rounds of industrial action would be postponed.
Even in the absence of the pandemic, however, it was far from clear that further ballots would have been successful. After nearly a month of action between November 2019 and March 2020, with negotiations seemingly stalled and UCU already making concessions on pay, many members feel that their resources to carry on the fight have been depleted. While in the stronger branches and among more active layers there is an understanding that the fight must be won soon, this is far from uniform.
This mood is understandable amidst a contradictory situation. On one hand, the strikes have clearly caused consternation among employers, who have been forced to negotiate on a better basis than before. They have accepted the need for firmer “expectations” of universities on issues like casualisation and inequality and have called secret meetings to discuss the reputational damage done by their exploitative practices.
At the same time, UCU negotiators have sought to demonstrate their “reasonableness” by offering to settle for a smaller pay increase than originally demanded, which would do little to make up for a decade of pay cuts. Picket lines at many institutions have been smaller than during earlier disputes and members are yet to be convinced of the strategic value of further action.
It is necessary for the union to take stock and open up a period of democratic discussion about strategy. This should begin with digital meetings and discussions at the branch level, with a view to convening a special conference in the summer. Since 2018, UCU has been refreshed with many new, young, and militant members, who made their mark by electing Jo Grady as an independent, rank-and-file left candidate for leadership. But little has been done to firm up this base and to effectively combat the stifling grip of the conservative bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, the leadership has failed to clearly outline the political dimensions and nature of UCU’s struggle. Jo Grady and others must clearly explain that these disputes can only be won on the basis of united struggle with workers across the sector against austerity, and as part of a political fightback against the Tory government. This dispute must be understood as being fundamentally connected to the crisis of capitalism.
To give this political position real weight, it is necessary to properly organise and educate the militants at the grassroots level. Rank-and-file members should be given the opportunity to determine the strategy going forward, and the left must present a clear leadership in connecting this dispute with the wider struggle of the working-class.
Clearly, all strategic considerations must now be adjusted in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. However, the siren song of unity – either with the management or the government – must be resisted.
University management across the country has responded poorly or not at all to the pandemic. There seems no logic or plan: teaching is moved online, yet libraries and student services remain open; research staff should work from home, yet lab staff should carry on; students should practice social distancing, yet medical training should be intensified and rushed through the system. The only common line seems to be that staff's health is secondary. Confusion and anxiety are ripe amongst all university staff and workers are rightly calling for proper risk assessments to be released and their unions to be involved in the emergency planning.
UCU leadership at local and national levels must avoid falling for the trick of “unity” with management amidst crisis. As coronavirus calls into question teaching schedules and raises concerns about staff health and safety, and as governments internationally are having to introduce emergency measures around sick pay and rent, unions in Britain should see that the validity and urgency of members’ demands are being proven now more than ever. Hourly-paid and casual staff are worried about losing pay amidst cancelled and rearranged teaching, while office staff are still being asked to work despite the pandemic. Workers in Italy and elsewhere have shown the way in this regard, forcing closures and bringing forward positive demands to improve their pay and conditions.
As such, we say yes to unity amidst the pandemic, but unity only with the right allies: Unity with students whose health is being put at risk by government policy; unity with healthcare workers who have borne the brunt of austerity and are now paying the price as impossible demands are being placed on them; and unity with all low-paid, precarious workers in danger of destitution and homelessness. No similar unity can be forged with the careless and reckless management, who place money above staff and student safety.
UCU must immediately link up with other unions and raise demands to secure the health and safety of workers. All education unions should call for the closure of universities. Together with the wider movement they must demand that workers do not lose pay as a result of the pandemic and measures to ensure that international staff and students can return home if they desire. Unions must call for emergency measures to provide for the sick and prevent the further spread of the virus. This should include the expropriation of private healthcare and the requisitioning of essential goods, an amnesty on rents and bringing housing into the public sector to ensure adequate and fair provision.
Such a response would in turn help point the way forward on the pensions and Four Fights disputes. Only on the basis of a socialist reorganisation of society will the plagues of low pay, insecure work, and inequality really be tackled, as well as the developing COVID-19 pandemic.
- For the immediate closure of all universities!
- No loss of pay for any staff unable to work due to the coronavirus pandemic!
- For a democratic discussion about strategy, and a co-ordinated fightback across Higher Education!
- For socialist measures to meet the COVID-19 emergency!
On 7 March, the first case of coronavirus in Loughborough was confirmed after a student tested positive. The Vice Chancellor, Professor Robert Allison, was quick to send out an email reassuring staff and students that the threat was low and that, because “all guidance from Public Health England” was being followed to limit the spread, the risk was being managed.
What the email was somewhat quieter about, however, was “VC Bob’s” plan to stop striking UCU workers from handing out leaflets “in the interests of public hygiene”. Failure to comply, we were told, would result in pickets being removed from campus. Needless to say, the VC’s “concern” to prevent paper exchanging hands hasn’t been extended to strikebreaking lecturers who are regularly handing out lecture notes, or to any of the other thousands of activities that see paper exchange hands in a university on a daily basis.
Indeed, the library - where books will regularly change hands - was quick to reassure students that it was open as usual after a power cut. One could argue that the best way to stop paper exchanging hands “in the interests of public hygiene” would be to spread the strike into a full shutdown. We await the cold day in hell when “VC Bob” will help that happen.
The coronavirus outbreak is an unprecedented crisis and appropriate measures must be taken to contain it. However, mirroring the actions of authorities elsewhere, the Vice-Chancellor’s pressure on the UCU has sought to exploit the panic to suppress the rights to strike and public assembly. This comes just a month after Loughborough University was reported to the Office for Students by a number of staff and student groups for stifling free speech and protest on campus.
“VC Bob’s” attempts to undermine the strike and suppress student politics are repeated and consistent. At the same time, we see the university investing millions in building projects - lining the pockets of construction companies - while many casual workers on campus take home less than the minimum wage. “VC Bob” himself takes home somewhere in the region of £240,000, while real wages have fallen around 17% on average for staff since 2009. Contrary to his folksy “VC Bob” persona, Professor Robert Allison’s actions as Vice Chancellor expose him for what he really is: a representative of the interests of big business on campus. It is no wonder he wanted to break the strike!
The Leeds Marxists have played a leading role in supporting UCU members in their recent strike. Following on from our work last term, where we formed close links with UCU members both on the picket line and at joint meetings, we took it upon ourselves to launch the Leeds Student Staff Solidarity campaign, alongside members of the Labour society and other left groups.
We kicked off the campaign with a joint event aimed at both staff and students, with a panel of speakers including the President of Leeds UCU and a member of the Leeds Marxists who is active in the union. This gave us a great opportunity to discuss the pernicious role of higher management, the importance of students supporting the strike, and the need to reverse the onslaught of marketisation in favour of a socialist model of education.
On the picket line, we stood shoulder to shoulder with the striking workers and were invited to speak at the closing rally every day. We raised points about how the struggle of staff and students is one and the same, and that we must be united in our fight against profiteering in our universities.
To raise money for the UCU hardship fund, we organised a club night which UCU members could attend for free. Alongside the sale of merchandise we produced, we managed to raise over £600 to assist striking workers in need.
In the closing week of the strike, the higher management of the university held a meeting of the Senate without any representation from the UCU. In response to this blatant disregard for the strikers, we held a sit-in occupation of their venue, which forced them to adjourn the meeting.This was met with cheers from the picketers outside.
The campaign has strengthened the bond between the Leeds Marxists and the UCU, and has given us plenty of opportunities to put forward Marxist ideas which were relevant to the struggle of our academic staff.
On March 3rd, students from the Cambridge Marxist Society, Cambridge Defend Education and other groups occupied Old Schools, the main administrative hub of Cambridge University. The occupation served as a rallying call to those active in the Cambridge UCU struggle, and a unifying force between staff and students. The heart of university management was occupied for 10 days, demanding that the university meet the demands of UCU, Unite and Unison.
More and more, students and workers are coming to realise that the struggles against casualisation, marketisation and fossil fuel investments are, in the final analysis, struggles against capitalism itself. In refusing even minimal concessions, university bosses are playing with fire.
A week into the occupation, the news broke that Cambridge UCU would finally, after ten years of struggle, be recognised by the university. This is an important victory. But it is not enough. Management must be reminded that not a class is taught, not an essay is marked, nor a room is cleaned without the kind permission of the workers of this university.
We will continue the fight for a university run in our interests, where education is an end in itself, and where research is used for the betterment of mankind rather than propping up the military industrial complex or fossil fuel industry.
We have left Old Schools, but we are not leaving the struggle. Our exit was not a capitulation: we were forced out by an unresponsive management. But staff and students, united together, will not give up the fight for a free, fair and equal socialist education system. Students and workers, continue the fight!