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No Capitulation

Striking UK lecturers can still win the fight for their pensions — and reclaim their union.

UCU strikers at the University of Edinburgh, March 8, 2018. Magnus Hagdorn / Flickr

For the past few weeks staff in more than sixty British universities and colleges — lecturers, researchers, administrators, librarians, and technicians — have been engaging in an escalating series of strikes.

This industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU) has been the largest ever strike in higher education in recent British history. Indeed there’s a great deal at stake. The outcome of the strike will shape the future of the university sector in the UK for years to come. It is also likely to have major ramifications for workers in other sectors too. As Michael Mair points out,

with the university pension scheme one of the smallest of the remaining large-scale guaranteed occupational pension schemes in Britain, workers in other areas have quickly realised this is a test case: if the moves against university staff are to succeed, it will be everyone else next, a precedent will have been established.

In this respect, as Parfitt indicates, university workers “are actually on the front line of an ongoing battle which threatens to wipe out proper pensions for workers across a whole sector of society.” The UCU struggle is highly important, then, as a defensive action to halt the wider neoliberal erosion of the right for workers’ to expect a decent income in retirement.

For the entire duration of the action — up until Monday evening at least — it was very clear that the strikers possessed the initiative and had momentum on their side. The employers looked stunned and wrong-footed by the unprecedented degree of mobilization on university picket lines up and down the country. Morale among union members was high. We were winning.

And then, on Monday evening, the news broke that an agreement between union negotiators and university employers’ body, Universities UK (UUK), had been reached. As the details of this deal circulated rapidly among rank-and-file union members on Twitter, it became clear that in the view of many of those who had sacrificed so much and shown such determination on the picket lines over the previous ten days of industrial action this looked like a pretty terrible offer.

It certainly is. This is a shoddy and wholly unnecessary compromise on the part of the UCU leadership. But there’s still time to reject it. We can still win this fight — and reclaim our union.


The Dispute

The dispute was triggered by UUK’s drive to convert USS — the pension plan for university workers — from a “defined benefits” to a “defined contributions” scheme. In basic terms, this means converting the scheme from one that guarantees a certain level of income in retirement to one in which the payout will depend on how the stock market performs, shifting the main “burden of risk” from employers to employees.

University staff could lose between 20-40 percent of their pension under these proposals. A typical lecturer stands to lose an average of £10,000 a year, while some younger staff who have only recently started out on their careers could lose more than £200,000 over the course of their retirement.

But, as Steven Parfitt has pointed out, the roots of the strike go much deeper. The pensions issue was merely the catalyst for an open outburst of long pent up anger about the direction in which UK education has been going for many years. This is a revolt against the relentless campaign of neoliberal marketization to which successive governments have subjected the university sector.

One of the most egregious feature of the neoliberal assault has been the imposition and then hiking of student tuition fees (these trebled across most of England in 2012 to £9,000) which, in tandem with drastic cuts to direct government funding of the higher education sector, “incentivized” universities to compete for market share in terms of student numbers. It’s a process that was deliberately designed to erode the idea of higher education as a public good and to transform the relationship between students and their universities into an increasingly market transactional one between (heavily indebted) individualized consumers on the one hand and customer service providers on the other. With universities competing to produce the best “student experience” — a key measure of market performance that will feed into an absurd league table ranking system under the newly introduced “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF) — there has been a huge spending spree on estate development funded by large loans from the capital markets (eager to lend to projects regarded as ultimately underwritten by state guarantee) thus accelerating the financialization of higher education.

All of this has been accompanied by a steady worsening of pay and conditions for many university workers. Staff pay has fallen by 16 percent in real terms since 2009. Additionally, the university workforce has been relentlessly casualized with more and more teaching performed by staff or (postgraduate students) in temporary and/or hourly-paid employment. Indeed, 54 percent of all academic staff are on insecure contracts. Research time — the head space to read, think, and write — is a luxury increasingly confined to a smaller and smaller academic elite, supported by armies of precariously employed teaching staff moving from one short term, part time contract to another.

At the same time, in combination with the transformation of universities into institutions run on business principles, Vice Chancellors (the head managers of universities — and surely it can’t be long until they start to call themselves CEOs) have seen their salaries inflate to an average of over £270,000, with some, of course, “earning” far more than that. Recent revelations about the lavish expense account lifestyle — chauffeurs, five-star hotels, business-class flights — of many of these thrusting entrepreneurial talents have only served to throw into greater relief the massive gulf between them and the increasingly precarious workforces they manage.

So it’s only in this wider context that we can understand the current dispute. UUK’s attack on pensions was the final straw that broke the camel’s back for a workforce already seething with frustration about the creeping marketization of higher education and the steady deterioration in pay and conditions. It’s the way in which the pensions’ assault finally galvanized university workers into action in a process that drew much of its force from a much wider set of grievances that explains the scale of the strike so far and the resolve shown by striking staff.

Response and Mobilization

The response to the UCU ballot on industrial action was overwhelming. The 2016 Trade Union Act designed to weaken trade unions by making strike action in public services much harder stipulates, among other measures, a minimum turnout threshold of 50 percent and an additional threshold of 40 percent support for industrial action among all eligible members for action to be legal. These barriers were convincingly overcome in the industrial action ballot that closed in January. Of 68 institutions balloted, “61 voted overwhelmingly in favour of action, with 88% in favour of strikes and 93% in favour of action short of a strike, with an overall turnout of 58.” Several of the remaining UCU branches (such as mine) that failed to meet the 50 percent threshold in the first ballot, later voted for strike action after being re-balloted in February. If nothing else, UCU has demonstrated that recent Tory anti-trade union legislation can be beaten.

The resounding vote for serious and sustained industrial action generated further resolve among university staff with a reported 5000 new members joining the union in the run up to the strike. Moreover the momentum was carried over into the strike itself — with branches up and down the country reporting rock-solid action on the part of members and large numbers turning out for picket lines (in defiance, it should be noted of the government’s “Code of Practice on Picketing” — part of the panoply of anti-trade union legislation — which indicates that no more than six people should picket an entrance or exit to a workplace). By many accounts, furthermore, the number of those who took to picket lines increased day by day as the strikes continued — braving blizzards and sub-zero temperatures in some cases.

One of the most significant aspects of the strike as it has unfolded, however, has been the magnificent support that UCU members have received from students. As Parfitt rightly noted in February, students’ attitude toward the dispute— the question of whether or not they generally supported the strike — was always going to be a pivotal factor in whether it succeeds or fails. So far, students have been, in the main, solidly behind their lecturers. Indeed, many have taken the initiative in organizing solidarity actions — as they have at my institution, for example, in putting together an imaginative daily program of “teach in” sessions, sending student reps to attend strike committee meetings and drumming up daily student attendance on the picket line. Similar acts of solidarity have taken place at universities up and down the country.

The strike action has quite clearly had a radicalizing effect on many in the union rank and file. It’s an old socialist insight, of course, that the experience of collective action can transform consciousness and open up new horizons of social and political possibility. As Michael Mair puts it, strikes “establish new lines of solidarity, they are instructive and they are educative” and, further, we “come to know the worlds we live and work in differently as a result of participating in them.” This strike is certainly no different in this respect. One dimension here is the way in which the action has, consciously, for many strikers become about much more than pensions in themselves — it’s not been uncommon to hear discussion on picket lines about broadening our strike demands to encompass calls for the dismantling of TEF, for example, or for the abolition of student tuition fees.

Another dimension of this is the way in which we can glimpse via the relations of solidarity and forms of collective cooperation on the picket line and in the “teach in” and “teach out” sessions a different, more democratic and egalitarian vision of the university and of education more broadly — a vision beyond the current limits established by neoliberal structures and the individualized, marketized, and commodified social relations they impose.

We Were Winning

From day one of the industrial action it was very obviously the strikers who were winning this battle. On the other side of the dispute, the employers looked rattled and very much on the back foot. They clearly thought they could divide and conquer by playing students against staff, but instead the scale and solidity of the strike and the support it has won from students opened up serious divisions among the employers.

One key manifestation of this is the way in which university bosses increasingly broke ranks with UUK — the BBC reports that since the strike began about thirty universities have called for a “rethink” on the original pension proposals. Indeed the hard-liners looked more and more isolated and beleaguered over the past few days as even key drivers of the UUK pension reform proposals began to reverse their position in the face of mass industrial action and student protest.

Another measure of who has been winning in this struggle is that UUK were forced to concede to negotiations with UCU under the auspices of the industrial conciliation service, ACAS. For their part, the national UCU negotiators looked to be demonstrating an admirably wily approach in relation to their adversaries — refusing to call a temporary halt to the strikes while the ACAS negotiations are ongoing, for example, and in so doing avoiding the trap that BMA union officials were lured into during the junior doctors’ strike in 2016. The recently announced threat of further strike action after Easter looked like another shrewd tactic on the part of UCU negotiators designed to ramp up the pressure on UUK while they were on the back foot.

But then, incredibly, the news came through that the union leadership — from a position of strength, backed by a fired up and determined rank and file, supported by student militancy — had somehow managed to negotiate a terrible deal that completely threw away this hard fought and won advantage.

The Proposed Agreement

The basic terms of the proposed deal between UUK and UCU are that both parties agree to a “transitional arrangement” in which a modified “defined benefits” scheme remains in place for a three year period, during which time both employers and employees will be required to pay higher contributions and in which “alternative scheme options” are considered for implementation after the transitional period is over. So, in other words, union members are being asked to pay more toward their pensions in a period of temporary reprieve, after which they might still have the original UUK reforms foisted on them anyway.

The agreement also indicates that while the union accepts loss of pay for strike days for its members, it will undertake “to encourage its members to prioritise the rescheduling of teaching in order to minimise the disruption to students”. Essentially, then, union members are being asked to perform unpaid labor — a kind of retrospective scabbing on themselves.

The strike is to be called off from the 14th of March.

As the news of the proposed deal sank in, the shock and anger among members became palpable. Within a few hours a hastily written open letter rejecting the deal had gathered many thousands of signatures.

Indeed it was immediately obvious to many that the leadership had been — to say the least — strategically inept in signing up to this proposed deal. After all, the strike had the employers divided, demoralized, and on the defensive. We had them on the ropes — we could and should have pushed on to press home our advantage and force a decisive victory. Instead this deal lets them almost completely off the hook and hands them a three year breather during which time of course, they will regroup, wait for the energy, determination, and solidarity demonstrated by union members during this dispute to dissipate and then, almost certainly, seek to force through their original reform proposals at a more opportune moment.

We Can Still Win

There’s still a chance that this disastrous deal can be scuppered. The union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) meet on Tuesday to vote on the proposals and will no doubt take a steer in their deliberations from a consultation meeting with branch reps which is also convening that day. Militant pressure on the HEC via our branch reps from the thousands of UCU members enthused and radicalized by the extraordinary mobilizations of the past few weeks can still head off the leadership’s imminent capitulation.

The strikes have unleashed a radical energy, optimism, and fighting spirit among university workers and their student comrades. Calling this strike off now, under these conditions, will undo and destroy all that. But for now all that energy and combativity is still pulsing through us. We can still reject this deal. We can still tell our union’s leadership that we will not accept this climb down. We can still show our employers that we will not roll over — that we’ve found our collective voice and our resolve to fight back against the neoliberalization of the university.

So much depends on this.