Support the university strikes

Submitted by AWL on 16 November, 2021 - 8:52
UCU demonstrators

On 4-5 November, the University and College Union (UCU) announced the results of two national ballots. Higher Education (HE) sector members were balloted on two disputes: the long-running “USS” pensions issue, and the “Four Fights”: pay, workload, casualisation, and inequality. Most of the workers involved are are insecure jobs, with long hours and modest pay. Their cause is essentially the same as that of the NHS workers consulting on action to improve their 3% pay deal, the local government workers voting on strikes against the 1.75% offer, or the bin workers now and recently in dispute in Brighton, Glasgow, Sheffield. Share prices have been booming since mid-September, as capitalists calculate their “recovery”, but workers are dealing with high inflation, squeezed wages, and squeezed public services.

Pensions in HE have been systematically attacked over the past decade, so much so that the average member of the USS pension scheme is now £240,000 worse off. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a pensions scheme revaluation was conducted by USS, which significantly underestimated its worth. This is now being used by the scheme’s management to cut thousands more from the retirement pots of USS pension holders.

Across the sector, workers have had a real-terms 20% pay cut since 2010. The gender pay gap in HE sits at a staggering 16%. In some institutions this exceeds 30%. Analysis in 2019 showed this was in many instances widening. UCU research has consistently found members work over 50 hours per week. Shifting teaching online during the pandemic made this even worse for many. Thousands of university teaching staff are on zero-hour contracts. Thousands more are have no contract at all. Researchers and academics often have to work multiple short-term contracts before being offered permanent employment. As universities have increasingly been managed as businesses, precarity, stress, rising workloads and low pay are now widespread.


No surprise then that UCU members voted in their tens of thousands to fight back in the two ballots. 37 branches now have a legal right to strike to defend their pensions, and 54 branches over the Four Fights. Some branches were balloted on one dispute, some on both, resulting in about 60 unique branches now being able to strike. Those with mandates are in disproportionately larger branches: one-in-three UCU branches can now strike, but these cover a solid 60% of the union’s 130,000 members.

That represents a lower-limit on the action that will be taken next term. We are now half-way through the first semester of the academic year. The first strikes will be 1, 2, and 3 December. By then university terms will be coming close to an end. This means university workers have to be ready to escalate the fight as early as possible in the second term.

The union has decided on targeted reballoting of some branches which missed the thresholds. This could see a huge increase in membership numbers walking out. In 22 branch USS ballots and 37 branch Four Fights ballots, turnout thresholds set by the anti-union laws mean that despite getting 40-50% turnouts, they cannot yet join in. Some of the union’s largest branches, UCL and Manchester University, missed out by a handful of votes. If targeted re-ballots cover those 40-50% turnout branches, and succeed, we could see nearly 90% of members able to strike by the end of January.

UCU has shown that the turnout thresholds set by Tory laws can be beaten, winning strike mandates across the UK in 2017, 2019 and 2021. Universities are some of the biggest employers in many towns and cities in the UK. Cambridge, for example, is a sizeable city, with a population of 130,000: the two universities in the city employ over 13,500 people, far more than other employers. The total HE workforce across the UK is over 400,000, over twice as many as the automotive industry, and almost twice as many as rail. Manufacturing, transport, logistics, utilities and such still have great strategic weight, but sheer numbers make universities important places to organise.


Victory is far from guaranteed. Many of the issues for the strikes are ones that university workers have fought back over before. Through either the machinations of the union’s leadership (with ex-General Secretary, Sally Hunt, selling short the 2018 USS dispute) or past weaknesses in building leverage on the ground, the union is now left fighting again. Rank-and-file members will need to organise to ensure success, and alongside others. Successful action by the UCU over spring-summer this year at the University of Liverpool should however encourage UCU members that they have the power to win when they organise and fight.

UCU is just one of several HE unions (with Unite, Unison, the GMB and IWGB organising other sections of the HE workforce). Campus unions should be calling meetings to maximise opportunities for cross-union solidarity action. Given how the pay and conditions of all HE workers have been eroded by continual market-reforms, privatisation and outsourcing, a victory for the UCU in its fights will help build the organising strength of the “sister” HE unions.

Student solidarity is also key. In 2018, waves of university occupations helped grind campuses to a halt. Although UCU should have fought on, that action did at least help stop the employers closing the “defined benefit” element of the pension. History has shown us that university-worker leverage is enhanced when coupled with student sit-ins and solidarity action.

Wherever you are in the UK, in the next few months you shouldn’t be far from a UCU strike. If you’re in the UCU: mobilise your colleagues, build the picket lines, and help UCU branches win their re-ballots. Otherwise join the pickets, encourage campus cross-union organisation, and build student-staff solidarity networks. The sector is in crisis, but the disputes could unleash a new wave of militant trade unionism; the type needed to fight back against marketisation in HE and to rebuild the labour movement.

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