University workers' strikes must escalate

Submitted by Matthew on 27 November, 2013 - 12:42

Higher education workers will strike over pay on 3 December.

Members of UCU, Unite and Unison in higher education who struck on 31 October will be striking again. This time they’ll be joined by Scottish education union EIS and UCU members in further education.

The background to the strike is a 13% real-terms pay cut since 2009: the equivalent of working half a day a week for free. Employers have offered just 1% — well below inflation — and have made no concessions either on the living wage or the gender pay gap. On the advice of university employers’ organisation UCEA, some institutions have imposed the offer and will be paying a back-dated 1% rise before Christmas. This is a cynical attempt to undermine the dispute and it’s vital to get the message out to members that the fight is still on.

The unions also need to respond to the news that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has massively overspent on subsidies to private HE providers and intends to impose huge cuts — £570m and £860m over the next two years — to student support and research funding. On the one hand this shows up exactly where the government’s priorities lie — with privatisation and the creation of a rigged market. Many people will rightly be furious. But on the other it could fuel pessimism about the possibilities of winning on pay.

To date the unions have focused on arguing that the money is there in university surpluses. Now we need to turn our fire on the government too.

The employers have tabled a 1% pay offer, which is effectively a cut, and are currently refusing to improve on it.

It seems that UCU wanted a two-day strike, but for the sake of unity with the other unions have settled for another one-day action.

The Halloween strike was patchy, seemingly stronger on the academic side than it was among support staff. UCU activists have been through a lot in the last few years, whereas the support staff unions are almost coming from a standing start.

Cross-union committees have been meeting in a number of universities to plan strike activities; this is a positive development which needs to be encouraged.

One of the most encouraging things has been the level of student support. When UCU struck a few years ago, many student unions took a stance of outright opposition. This time around, a lot have come out in support, and even the National Union of Students executive has passed a motion in favour of the strike.

This is all great news, and maintaining student support will be more important as the dispute goes on, particularly into exam periods. On the other side of the coin, solidarity actions around the pay dispute can also help to revive the student movement and orient it to class struggle.

But student support won’t win us the dispute; industrial organisation will.

Unfortunately the strategy of the leaderships (if it exists) is not being widely disseminated (except, partially, in UCU), so it is difficult to persuade colleagues of the need to join the union and participate in the action, because we don’t know where the action is going. We need to pressure the leaderships to develop and communicate a national strategy and, if they don’t, come up with one of our own.

The living wage claim is a big card in our hand. The moral force of the demand is very strong. But we need to make sure that campaigning for the living wage doesn’t become the preserve of the great and the good acting on behalf of poor unfortunate workers. The living wage issue need to be approached industrially — we need to see it as a demand around which we can build union power. One of the problems in this dispute is that most (but by no means all) of the staff who are paid below the living wage are outsourced. Because they work for private companies, they have not been balloted for the national action, so it almost feels like we are fighting on their behalf, which is far from ideal.

Nevertheless, in my workplace we have managed to build lose co-ordination between the living wage campaign and joint activist meetings, using each to help build the other.

Even if we don’t win our national claim, I think it’s likely that we will win the living wage, which will be a big victory for us in a workplace where the unions aren’t particularly strong.

In all honesty, it feels unlikely that we will win the pay dispute if it continues at its current level and pace. The employers can easily sit out a few one day strikes, if that’s the road we’re going down.

But we can push for escalation, and even without it the dispute can still result in increased union strength, a culture of co-operation across unions, and victories on the living wage if we play things right.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.