Recent strike action by UCU members is a shot across the bows for university bosses. With students and other campus workers also mobilising, the potential exists for mass united action across education. Union leaders must seize this chance.

Recent strike action by UCU members is a shot across the bows for university bosses. With students and other campus workers also mobilising, the potential exists for mass united action across education. Union leaders must seize this chance.

Last week, UCU members at 33 universities across the UK participated in three days of strike action over pensions, pay, and working conditions. This marked the start of continuous action short of a strike (ASOS).

This is a welcome resumption of the two struggles that UCU members have been fighting since 2018: the dispute over pensions, with the revaluation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS); and the ‘Four Fights’, against job insecurity, unsustainable workloads, attacks on wages, and pay inequality.

This struggle is likely to continue into the new year. While it will be an uphill battle, UCU members have clearly demonstrated that they are prepared to see this fight through to victory.

Determination

There was a strong turnout by UCU members at picket lines at most universities. Despite coming at the end of term, and despite the cold weather, higher education (HE) workers showed that they are determined to resist the bosses’ attacks.

“You’ve miscalculated our pensions; don’t miscalculate our resolve,” stated a placard held by one striking worker at the University of Nottingham.

This mood of determination extends to members of the UCU who are not directly affected by these issues facing their colleagues, including university staff in professional services. 

“For me, part of being in a trade union is acting collectively to improve working conditions across the sector for everybody,” stated one librarian at the University of Sheffield in conversation with us, “even if the issues that are there aren’t affecting you personally at the time.”

It is clear, therefore, that workers across HE have had enough – and they are ready for a militant fight back.

Solidarity

Support from students was also noticeably high in this latest round of strike action.

Students are extremely sympathetic to the struggle of UCU members – as demonstrated by the positive results of referendums organised by many student unions over whether or not to support the recent lecturers’ strike.

Students face rising fees, debts, and rents – a symptom of the same marketisation of education that is responsible for the attacks on university workers and teaching conditions.

The Marxist Student Federation, which organises activists on campuses across the country, has been at the forefront of organising solidarity during this latest round of strike action. 

From putting on public meetings with UCU representatives, to collecting money for strike funds, to bolstering picket lines: Marxist students have led the way in forging solidarity between students and university workers.

 
 
 
 
 
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Building ties between staff and students is vital to sustaining this struggle. “Management likes to divide staff and students in moments like this,” stated one striking lecturer. 

Only by developing strong unity between staff and students can we counter the bosses’ attempts to try and pit us against each other, and wage a successful fight to defend education.

Unity

These three days of action, however, are only the beginning; a warning shot by members. UCU activists are now gearing up for further strike action in the new year.

Those on strike last week could be joined by more universities next time. UCU branches are re-balloting members at 42 universities where the anti-trade union turnout threshold wasn’t met. 

Even more significantly, UCU members may not be going out alone, with other campus unions preparing to join them.

Unison is currently balloting 37 of its university branches in a dispute about pay. And there is also talk of a number of local branches of Unite – at universities such as Cambridge and Sheffield – potentially looking to strike as well.

At the same time, the NUS is calling on all students to walk out of classes and take part in a mass demonstration in London on 2 March. This mobilisation is being accompanied by demands for education to be democratically transformed, in order to meet the needs of students and staff.

This paves the way for united action by workers and students across higher education. This would mark an enormous step forward, building on the enthusiasm that UCU members have demonstrated.

And it could even set the scene for a public sector wide strike, as workers in other trade unions – such as teachers in the NEU (National Education Union) – take inspiration from activists in the UCU.

Action

To maximise the pressure on university bosses, it is necessary for trade unions in HE to extend not only the scale, but also the length of future industrial action. 

For example, UCU members at Goldsmiths in London are currently engaged in 15 days of consecutive strike action to stop 52 redundancies. They have decided to escalate the action in the new year, with a plan for 21 days of consecutive strike action, alongside ASOS covering a wide range of activities, including a marking boycott. 

The lesson of this dispute is clear: to win, workers – and their leaders – must be prepared to go all the way. In the case of the UCU struggle, that means preparing to strike indefinitely. 

As refuse workers in Sheffield showed in November, when the bosses are threatened with militant action that disrupts their profits, they can be forced to cave in to workers’ demands. 

But if they know in advance that industrial action will only be temporary, as university bosses knew in previous rounds of UCU strikes, then they can sit back, ride out the strike, and wait for employees to return to work. 

The question of indefinite strike action must therefore be put on the table and taken up by the UCU leadership.

Militancy

With this call for action by the NUS, and the mood amongst workers in other HE unions, the potential is clearly there for a united approach and mass struggle.

UCU activists must use the coming weeks to forge links with other unions on campus. And students should reach out to provide support and solidarity.

This must be accompanied by a plan from union leaders for coordinated, indefinite strike action in the new year.

We also repeat our call for the UCU Higher Education Committee to extend ASOS to include a marking and assessment boycott over Christmas. 

By escalating the industrial action in this way, the trade unions could channel the anger of their members into an unstoppable force.

Ultimately, what is required from union leaders is a militant response to the attacks of the bosses. If workers are to be mobilised successfully, they need a clear, bold strategy for industrial action – one that provides confidence and direction.

Such a strategy could not only ensure victory in this round of strikes. It would ultimately demonstrate to workers the potential power they hold.

United mass action by university workers and students must therefore form a step towards a public sector strike; and, in turn, towards the mobilisation of a movement that can kick out this Tory government and bring about the socialist transformation of society.

  • Workers and students: unite and fight!
  • For all-out united action!
  • For free education, under the democratic control of staff and students!