For the second year in a row, UCU members have been forced to take strike action against intransigent employers’ organisations who are presiding over the continued decline of higher education (HE) in Britain.
The extraordinary four-week pension strike during the winter of 2018 ended with a disgraceful sell-out by the union’s leadership. This was followed with scandalous anti-democratic manoeuvres by the bureaucracy.
Predictably, the employers have come back for more. This time, not only are they attempting to attack staff in the USS pension scheme once again, but they have also rejected a series of union demands on pay, workload, casualisation, and equality issues.
In response, staff at 60 sites have backed strike action on two ballots: on pensions and on the “Four Fights”: pay, workload, casualisation, equalities.
This time, the outcome must be decisive. Signs so far are encouraging. The impressive ballot results at many universities punched through the stringent Tory anti-union legislation. The UCU has a more left-wing leadership in place around Jo Grady. And university bosses are already divided on the pensions issue.
Anger has been building for a number of years. While the pensions issue tends to be of more immediate concern for senior or older employees, it was the younger and casualised staff who electrified the strike in 2018. Now these groups have an even greater stake in the struggle, as the Four Fights ballot addresses the problems that press most severely on young, low-paid and casual staff.
Wages have been depressed for years. Hourly-paid and short-term contracts are endemic. And workload is being piled up on all staff, including young postgraduates, early-career academics, and student counsellors. For women staff, all these issues are compounded by a persistent gender pay gap of 15% nationally.
Maintaining high morale among striking staff will be essential if we are to win this strike. Organised student solidarity is among the most effective ways of ensuring the strike stays strong and adequate pressure is felt by the bosses.
The Marxist Student Federation is playing a key role nationally in organising collections for hardship funds, petitions in support of the strike, and delegations of supportive students on the picket lines. The wider and more militant this student support is, the more likely the strike action will be to succeed.
But in order to effectively turn the tide against marketisation, low wages and casual contracts in the HE sector and across the economy, it will be necessary to broaden the struggle beyond UCU.
Unfortunately, simultaneous ballots of university staff organised in Unite, Unison and other unions failed this time. But a victory in UCU’s struggle will harden the resolve of other staff to fight.
What’s more, in the midst of the most-hard fought and polarised general election in decades, this struggle should be linked directly with the need to bring down this reactionary Tory government.
This government of the rich must be replaced with a socialist Labour government that - within months - could abolish Tory anti-union laws and clear the way for a real fightback against the bosses in HE and in all sectors.
Voter registration efforts could be incorporated into the picket lines, and discussions on the picket lines with both staff and students should raise the need to elect a Labour government on 12 December.
Full support to the UCU strikers!
- Generalise the struggle – for a labour movement fightback against austerity!
- Link the strike to fight for a socialist Labour government!