Strikes coming in Higher Education?

The results of University and College Union (UCU) ballots on industrial action are out. This ushers in the likelihood of the third piece of large-scale action in four years. The disputes themselves are not new but have an added urgency to them. UCU activist Grant Buttars gives a personal perspective of the situation.

Placards. Chalk on wall reads: staff deserve fair pay & pensions

2018 saw the largest dispute in UCU’s history, with branches whose members are in the USS pension scheme take action to see off a major attack on the scheme. As I wrote at the time, the strikes became about a lot more, exposing the devastating realities of a marketised HE sector.

Fast-forward to 2019 and we were out again, not just on pensions this time but over pay erosion, pay inequality, casualisation and workloads, with mobilisation right across the sector. These still remain unresolved and so we are back here again.

Since 2009 the value of our pay has fallen by over 20%. This is our pay of course. It is well worth remembering that senior executive pay continues to soar. This Vice Chancellor at my own institution gets paid £342,000, plus other benefits.

Pay inequality is stark. As a colleague recently remarked, quite starkly, ‘I earn on average 17% more than my Black colleagues, 15% more than my female colleagues and 9% more than my disabled colleagues.’ Shiny Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives won’t fix this. We need real change.

Casual, insecure employment blights the sector, with one in three academic staff on insecure contracts. 68% of researchers are employed on fixed-term contracts, while many more have contracts which are dependent on funding. This issue that also affects professional services staff, with more and more work delivered through short-term projects rather than through an investment in core. This is a model where staff are increasingly expendable.

Workloads are off the scale, with an average working week for an academic exceeding 50 hours (29% report over 55 hours). 78% reported a marked increase since the pandemic began.

Covid has exacerbated all the issues which saw us take strike action in 2018 and again in 2019/20. Bogus projections of financial uncertainty have been used to further squeeze pay and worsen conditions, while the current attack on our pensions is being justified using an unrepresentative scheme valuation made during a temporary deep low in the stock market caused by the pandemic.

However, members have not taken this lying down. The magnificent stance of UCU Liverpool, who took action to prevent redundancies, is mirrored in other local actions the length and breadth of the UK. This now needs to be turned into national action.

If unions could win simply by the strength of our arguments, we’d have won this several times over. We counter the bosses’ economic power by the strength of our numbers.

The disaggregated ballots (each institution balloting separately) closed on 4th November, with overall results (USS, four fights) breaking the anti-union legislation’s undemocratic 50% turnout threshold in both. However, not all branches crossed that line, meaning that some don’t yet have a mandate for lawful action. Next steps will be decided by UCU’s Higher Education Committee on 12 November, with proposals already tabled for discussion including the possibility of an aggregated reballot (votes from all institutions being counted together) on one of the disputes. This would include institutions whether they exceeded or fell short of the threshold.

Unsurprisingly, there are notes of concern about whether this proposal is premature or whether the time to attempt this has finally come. If it worked, it would enable united action, but if it failed then it would mean a missed opportunity for institutions who might have passed the threshold with a disaggregated reballot. Would those who already secured a mandate start action in the meantime, or face delays eating into the six month period for lawful strikes? Whatever the decision on reballots, many UCU branches now have mandates to take action and this action must be realised without unnecessary delay.

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