Insisting the union must fight

Taking stock at half-time

Morale remains high, as UCU members prepare for the second phase of strike action. Kevin Bean says members are increasingly questioning neo-liberal orthodoxy

The last two weeks have been amongst the most turbulent in the modern history of British universities. During the evening of Tuesday March 13 media reports suggested that a deal had been reached between the university employers, represented by Universities UK (UUK), and the University and College Union to settle a dispute about proposed changes to the universities’ pension scheme.

The media, no doubt echoing briefings from both the employers and the union leadership, confidently predicted that the draft agreement would be accepted by members of the UCU and that normal service would be resumed after this unprecedented spasm of militancy had played itself out. The response of UCU members and branches was immediate and unanimous: reject the deal and step up the action to defend our pensions! The vivid picture painted by Bill Chesters of the reaction of UCU members in his branch in Sheffield was typical of what was occurring across the country (Letters Weekly Worker March 15). Online petitions urging ‘no capitulation’, tweets and social media messages condemning the UCU leadership’s retreat and, as the night wore on, more detailed blogs and posts providing a critical analysis of the employers’ proposals emerged, showing the depth of anger and opposition to what many correctly saw as a sellout.1

The union’s negotiators were due to report back to a meeting of branch delegates on the afternoon of March 13, but before that took place opposition was already building, with emergency branch meetings across the country mandating their delegates to reject the deal. Hastily organised lobbies outside both the UUK and UCU headquarters rammed home the message to both the employers and the union leadership that the strike remained solid. The result of this widespread opposition was that the UCU’s higher education committee decisively rejected the offer and the strike action continued as scheduled. Whilst phase one of the strike action ended on March 21, “action short of a strike” - ie, working to contract - continues and the UCU leadership will shortly announce the dates of the next phase of strikes scheduled for April.

After this rejection of the employers’ offer we are now in something of a lull, in which all sides are taking stock. Consequently, in the next few weeks the university employers, the UCU leadership and, most importantly, the ordinary members of the union will be evaluating their strategies and what has been achieved so far. For the employers, the end-of-term report card has a lot of minuses. UUK certainly misjudged the anger over the changes to the pension scheme and the degree of support for the strike amongst union members. Its strategy of trying to mobilise students as ‘customers’ who are being ‘denied a service they have paid for’ has backfired badly.2 Student backing for the strike remains strong and is an important factor in maintaining the continuing high morale and determination of the strikers.3

For the vice-chancellors the strike has been a PR disaster from start to finish, coming hard on the heels of revelations about the high levels of executive pay and expenses amongst senior university staff.4 The growing gap between this executive elite with a lifestyle closer to the boardroom than the lecture theatre and ordinary university staff - many on temporary or casualised contracts - has been further widened by the hard-line rhetoric of the employers and threats of draconian pay deductions for staff working to contract.

Whilst it is easy to lampoon individual vice-chancellors as ‘fat cats’ who are out of touch with the workplaces they preside over, the drive to attack our pension rights and undermine our position as employees does not arise from individual greed or a desire by macho bosses to play the part of Victorian mill-owners facing down their workers. The changing financial structure of British higher education, the increased marketisation of the universities and the need to shift risks and liabilities from institutions onto employees are all important dynamics shaping the attack on our pension scheme. Universities are not insulated ivory towers cloistered away from the realities of a capitalist economy: they are big businesses, subject to the laws of a globalised ‘education market’ and the need to create income and surpluses to fuel yet further expansion. In this brave new world university staff and researchers are employees to be exploited and students are mere customers and sources of fee income.5 The language of bureaucratic mangerialism with its cant of income generation, credit ratings, grant funding and investment projections now dominates university strategic plans, annual reports - and the working lives of university staff at all levels.

The pressures that these changes place on staff are a significant factor in the anger and wave of militancy that has shaken British universities. If the employers were surprised by the response to their pension plans and by our rejection of their ‘revised offer’ (in reality simply a stay of execution for three years) on March 12-13, then the leadership of the UCU was equally shocked - both by the militant pressures that have been building up during the years of pay cuts and retreats in the face of the employers' attacks, and by the unflinching determination of the membership to see this struggle through to victory. The fact that the union’s leadership could even bring forward the March 12 proposals for consideration by the higher education committee and the representatives of the branches shows that it too has underestimated the membership of the UCU.

The members have learnt many lessons in the first phase of the strikes. As the spontaneous rejection of the latest employers’ offer and the organisation of opposition from below spread last week, we have grown in militancy and confidence. Well-attended meetings, lively strike committees and the numbers on the picket line show a union that is being transformed - by its members. UCU member Sol Gamsu has described how the strike “brought [us] out of the isolation and ... destructive competiveness of everyday university life”. Members have “rediscovered both what it means to be a community of learners, teachers, and rediscovered the power of collective action - that we are stronger and that an alternative is possible”.6

However, this process of change is beginning to go beyond trade union militancy and the measures necessary for the effective conduct of a strike. On picket lines and in mass meetings UCU members are discussing wider political and ideological questions about the nature of their workplace - the university - and its place in society. These discussions often begin with a critique of the new corporate universities and how they have come into existence, but they quickly go much further to discover that an alternative is indeed possible.

Increasingly this dispute has forced us to consider the much more profound issues of what a university should be, whose interests it should serve and how we as a group of workers can fight for such a democratic form. In these discussions we sometimes surprise ourselves with the radical implications of what we are proposing or the action we should take. However, if this is a small start, it is still a very important one in beginning the challenge not only to our employers in the workplace, but also to confront their system on the political and ideological plane.


1. For just one selection of this torrent of hostile comment see the Liverpool UCU Twitter feeds on march 12-13: https://twitter.com/ULivUCU2?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7

2. Senior managers at many universities have tried to create an inter-generational conflict by writing emails to students laying the blame for the strike at the door of the union and stressing how unreasonable the UCU is in wishing to defend the defined benefit pension.

3. See, for example, the solid support shown by the Liverpool Guild of Students/National Union of Students through occupations, online petitioning, solidarity on picket lines and fundraising: www.liverpoolguild.org.

4. For instance, ‘Liverpool uni bosses “could’ve saved £113,000” by travelling standard class’ Liverpool Echo March 12.

5. For one liberal critique of the underlying dynamics of what he calls “Hi Ed Biz UK” and the impact of this system on the nature of university education and research, see S Collini What are universities for? London 2012.

6. www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/perhaps-our-time-has-come-the-uss-strike-as-the-beginning-of-a-new-politics-for-uk-higher-education.html.