On Monday 12 March Universities UK and the University and Colleges Union (UCU) announced they had reached an ″agreement″ at ACAS in the ongoing dispute over the USS pension scheme.
As details of the ″deal″ came to light UCU members across the country were at first confused as to why the UCU would have agreed such a deal, and then angry.
Ten days of strikes had forced employers first into negotiations, then into making an offer. But the offer was a bad one. Pension contributions would go up to 8.7% from 8%; the accrual rate would go down to 1/85 salary a year from 1/75, and pensions would only be guaranteed on salaries up to £42,000 (about the third point on the main lecturer scale) instead of the current £55,000 (roughly the top of the senior lecturer scale).
Worse, the deal was a ″transitional″ one for three years, with a dangerous prospect that after that the whole basis of defined benefit pensions could be lost. It stuck within highly conservative costings that have been widely challenged as ″recklessly prudent″ by pensions experts. The agreement also talked of lecturers rescheduling classes that had not happened during strikes.
Within a couple of hours of the proposed deal being announced, branches were already mobilising against it on social media. The inclusion of a clause that UCU should encourage members to reschedule teaching without any guarantee of no deductions attracted particular anger. It was clear that the employers are on the back foot and that settling now would waste the dispute’s momentum and disillusion new activists and thousands of new members.
Overnight #NoCapitulation trended on Twitter as UCU members and students took to social media to discuss the deal with each other and to call on the UCU′s Higher Education Committee to reject it. On Tuesday morning mass meetings were held on picket lines up and down the country, and one after one votes came in of members rejecting the deal. Several hundred UCU members and supporters gathered outside UCU′s headquarters in London to protest outside the Higher Education Committee meeting.
That the strike was not called off on Monday evening is significant. It meant UCU members were on picket lines on Tuesday morning, discussing the agreement rather than isolated at home or in small groups at work.
By the time the UCU′s Higher Education Committee met with branch representatives mid-morning on Tuesday, approximately 46 out of 64 universities on strike had held votes which rejected the agreement. The branch representatives’ meeting voted unanimously to reject the deal and reopen negotiations and the Higher Education Committee quickly followed with a vote to reject the agreement and keep the strikes on.
UCU has already authorised a further fourteen days of action to hit exams and assessment after Easter if the dispute is not settled.
Planning for those now takes priority. Thousands of staff have joined UCU over the course of the dispute. Targeted campaigns have forced a number of hard-line Vice-Chancellors to back down on punitive pay deductions for action short of strikes, and to promise that strike deductions will be spread over several months. These need to continue.
The strikes have been highly revealing of university management’s real attitude towards workers. The Vice-Chancellor of St Andrew’s University sent round an email saying that paying higher pensions would put equality and diversity initiatives under threat. After a social media storm she issued an apology. At Oxford University management used a procedural motion to prevent academics voting on a pensions motion, only for staff to walk out of the meeting and hold the vote outside the building. The VC later accepted the result of the unofficial vote. Sheffield, Keele, Sussex, Southampton and Glasgow have all retreated under public pressure. Revelations in the press about the enormous pay packages and perks VCs enjoy by comparison to their counterparts in the NHS and local authorities have further put them in the spotlight.
Many staff are now saying they no longer feel any goodwill towards their institutions and will not be working unpaid overtime in future. A 2016 report by UCU found that academic staff worked an average of 50.9 hours a week (contracts typically give a guideline of 35 to 37.5). Two-thirds of staff reported unmanageable workloads at least half the time, and 28.8% said workloads were unmanageable all or most of the time. If the strike makes staff more confident about refusing work that would take them over their basic hours, that will be a very good thing.
Casualisation has also been a theme of discussion during the strike. Many strikers have no idea whether they will be able to stay in university jobs long enough for pensions to be relevant but have joined the picket lines in solidarity and because they know the outcome of this strike matters for working conditions across HE. At the University of Kent management have agreed not to deduct any pay from striking Graduate Teaching Assistants. The rejected settlement included only a weaselly promise from employers to consider not penalising GTAs. That was nowhere near good enough.
The rejection of the deal is positive, but it is not the end. It is not a given that UUK won′t double down: the fight could get harder in the next few weeks. With the Easter break coming up there is a danger that the current momentum could become demobilised. Discussions about what should happen next, and what strategy to take after Easter are urgent. Up until this point the strike has benefited from being a national strike, with all universities being on strike at the same time. The strategy after Easter will have to take into account different assessment timetables at different universities, and some of the profile of national strikes could be lost.
The UCU has been in a poor state for many years, and this strike has rightly broken from a years-long pattern of one-day strikes where little is won. The mobilisation which was able to turn around the UCU′s position on the agreement in less than 24 hours is the basis of a potential wider rank-and-file shake up of the union more generally.
The strike has had a huge impact on the consciousness of UCU members. Three and a half weeks have been spent organising picket lines, holding teach-outs, responding to management threats, organising with students, and engaging in endless discussions about the dispute, its direction, and wider issues about Higher Education. Many have commented that this strike has been their first opportunity to talk to colleagues about things other than the mundane bureaucracy of university life. Teach-outs have provided a glimpse of how universities could look different.
During this dispute university workers and students have shown that they are the university.