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Turning the War in Our Favor

The UK university lecturers' strike is over, but their struggle isn't.

University College Union picketers on February 22, 2018. Daniel Edmiston / Twitter

The UK university strike is over, for now. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted to accept the second proposal from Universities UK, the representatives of British university managers, by 64 percent to 36 percent. All eyes now turn to the joint panel, half each from the union and the employers, which will investigate the future of the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension fund at the heart of the dispute. If the findings of the panel come out against university workers enrolled in the USS, fresh strikes may well break out in the next academic year.

The strike might be over, but it has changed British higher education for good. University workers have come together on picket lines and found that they need not face their many problems alone. Thanks to the inspirational struggles (and tweets) of teachers in West Virginia they have discovered the practical virtues of international solidarity. They have built networks of rank-and-file activists in person, and online, that can reshape their union. They have amassed a literature of protest that they can draw on in the struggles ahead.

The goodwill that university managers once took for granted, which meant long uncontracted hours by permanent staff and oodles of unpaid labor by an army of casual workers — that goodwill no longer exists. UCU members end their strike with a changed understanding of their place in the university. They and their managers now sit squarely in opposing camps. The myth of a collegial community of scholars, a myth so obviously out of place in the age of the neoliberal university, has been shattered. A growing number of university workers find their allies in students, in other campus workers, and in workers in general. They have jettisoned the academics who have most successfully climbed the greasy pole of university management.

The strike is over, not with a clear victory but not with defeat either. The deal that 64 percent of UCU members accepted is far from perfect. Universities UK inserted enough weasel words in it to form a small zoo, the greatest of them being the desire to maintain a pension “broadly comparable” with present arrangements. What this means in practice will now be left up to a technocratic working group of pension experts, a group not so amenable to union struggle. Yet the deal is still an advance over the previous deal, and still more an advance over the original changes that Universities UK wanted to make to the USS. Those changes would have slashed the benefits of retiring academics and university staff and transferred risk from universities — which currently build like mad and make “surpluses” (read: profits) — to academics whose pay has declined by about 15 percent in real terms since 2009.

The strike is over, but it is only one battle in a much longer war. After several ineffective strikes and protests earlier in the decade, the UCU has shown it can mobilize tens of thousands of members for fourteen days of industrial action and force Universities UK to back down from the drastic changes it first envisaged. It’s a battle we can say we have won because, unlike previous battles, we didn’t lose it. The question we must now ask is: what next? If we want to turn the war in our favor, we should think about how to reshape our union, change our universities, and fight on political as well as industrial fronts.

Reshaping the Union

After fourteen days of industrial action, the University and College Union is a movement in transition. On one hand, we have thousands of newly energized members, angry at the changes to their pensions and connecting the dots between those changes and the other ones made to universities over the past twenty years. The lecturers whose pay has stagnated, the technicians who take on an ever-greater load of work, the casually employed teacher or researcher who struggles to earn enough to even pay tax, the support staff who have to deal with a mental health crisis among students and a bureaucratic minefield of regulations and research exercises — they have all found common cause in the dispute over pensions. From their ranks a militant minority has emerged, committed to continuing the battle until Universities UK admits defeat.

On the other hand, we have most of the union leadership. Led by Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, they have approached the strike as if this unprecedented mobilization of the membership had not happened. To some extent this is unavoidable: they, after all, have spent most of their time negotiating with the employers and have not seen firsthand the upswing in militancy on the picket lines. It should also be pointed out that they resisted the temptation to suspend industrial action when the union and the employers entered arbitration on February 27. Yet it’s difficult to shake the impression that they were always fighting the previous, more passive strike, and not fighting this one. At every stage in the dispute, they sought to end it as quickly as possible. In the vote that closed on April 13, they succeeded.

A showdown looms between the militants and the leadership at the coming annual UCU Congress in late May. Conflict will continue as leadership posts come up for re-election. Yet we should resist the tendency, so strong in parts of the British left, to simply maneuver people with the right politics into those positions and consider the work done. Rather than build a better bureaucracy, the strike has opened new possibilities for a radical restructuring of the union to make it more responsible to the rank-and-file members.

The first steps toward this restructuring have already begun at local and national levels. Throughout this strike, local branches have been the place where the militant minority has coalesced. This is hardly surprising, as it is at the level of the individual institution where university staff have gathered on picket lines, swapped ideas, and passed motions calling for the union to wring the most out of Universities UK. The task at each local branch is to make sure that the momentum built up during the strike does not dissipate, and that all the intersecting issues that have arisen over the course of the strike, from casualization to bureaucratic reorganizations, can be taken up straight away.

A series of networks on social media have also created the outlines of a national movement of active UCU members. Through these networks, university staff have circulated petitions, shared memes, songs, and articles, and thrashed out collective responses to events all through the strike. Initial meetings in London at the end of April should hopefully be the first step in formalizing this national network of activists. That network can ensure that every future campaign, strike, and issue taken up by the UCU will be fought as hard as possible, and push back on union leaders’ illusions that the membership is passive and inactive.

These objectives find their common expression in the fight for union democracy. In the last two weeks, many UCU members have complained bitterly that the UCU national leadership has seemed determined to end the strike by any means necessary. Negotiations have been conducted far away from the prying eyes and ears of those on the picket lines. The last ballot was accompanied by a letter from the UCU general secretary which strained every nerve to convince each member to accept the deal, suggested that a rejection of the deal would mean strikes without end, and refused to recognize the arguments coming from those who urged that the deal be rejected. The battle to reshape the UCU and make it more responsive to its members is a battle to make negotiations more transparent, and in nationwide votes to give space to the views of active members as well as those of the union leadership. That is a battle that has already started, and though it might take time it is well worth the fight.

Changing the Universities

The battle for union democracy is a battle to extend the war to other fronts. The anger at the bottom of the strike is, after all, not solely about changes to the pension scheme. It is much more about the radical restructuring of the university “sector” in the last few decades.

Probably the most striking change to universities has been the growth of an academic precariat that moves from casual job to casual job. According to official figures, this reserve army of the casually employed did not exist in 1999; nearly twenty years on, it accounts for somewhere between a half and a third of all teaching staff at British universities. This is a gender and race issue as well: women and people of color are overrepresented on these lowest rungs of the academic ladder.

Casual university workers were amongst the most steadfast and militant of all UCU members in the recent strike, even though they faced the most severe financial hardship of anyone on the picket lines and are usually the farthest away from receiving a pension. They must be a top priority for UCU branches all over the UK. It is all very well for permanently employed staff to obtain their support in a fight to protect their pensions. That solidarity must now be returned, and the fight against casualization must now begin in earnest.

There are several obstacles to waging this fight at a national level. The UCU national negotiators are only empowered to press for claims over wages, conditions, and benefits, not for the specific forms that contracts take. These must be done at a local level, with individual universities. But this is not as serious an obstacle as it might seem, because there is nothing to stop every local branch from simultaneously pressing the anti-casualization agenda to their respective universities, and nothing to stop casual workers from pressing their local branch to push that agenda. Even if a national campaign as such is out of the question, a national campaign of local battles can push forward the fight against casual contracts in academia.

We can’t forget the other workers on campus. Cleaners, caterers, and maintenance workers — again, a disproportionately high number of them women, migrants and people of color — are the indispensable but often forgotten section of the academic workforce. At the London School of Economics, the School of African and Oriental Studies, and some other institutions, they have put academics to shame with their struggles against outsourcing and low pay.

The militant minority of the UCU can build ties with the members of all the different campus unions. They can demand an end to outsourcing and, crucially, that all university workers receive the living wage — a demand bound to attract public support and serve as a rallying cry for workers across campus. They can ally with new insurgent unions such as the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and the United Voices of the World, and with more established unions, such as Unite and Unison, where those unions are willing to fight. If they fail to push these issues, rank-and-file relationships across unions can ensure that these basic and necessary demands are not kicked into the long grass by universities keen to prevent any impositions on their surpluses and building programs.

We must also repay the solidarity shown by our students. Who among the strikers have not been impressed by the willingness of so many students to stand on picket lines in the snow, occupy university buildings, and generally raise hell with university management? The time has now come to assist them in their battles with the university.

The great issue for students has been and will remain tuition fees, which have risen from zero in 1997 to more than £9000 today. That huge expense, combined with the withdrawal of maintenance grants for low-income students, has left several generations of students hobbled with debt. They carry that debt into a labor market that is, to use a technical term, more or less fucked.

But fees are not the only issue. The stresses and worries of today’s university students has led to a mental health crisis, exacerbated by government cuts to mental health services on campus. This crisis goes under the radar until it emerges in terrible events, or in tears in their tutor’s office, or in students simply enduring alone what they should not have to endure at all. This is an issue on which we can and should fight. It would demonstrate to skeptical students that we are not merely concerned with our own retirement, but with the state of education in general, and with student welfare in particular.

Entering Politics

The strike is a powerful weapon, but it cannot solve all problems — not even all the ones listed above. Some of them need a political solution. The strike itself was conditioned by politics. The Conservative government’s Trade Union Acts, passed in 2016, meant that UCU branches had to ensure a turnout of at least 50 percent to legally vote to take strike action in the first place. Some universities affected by the pensions dispute failed to reach that threshold, even though UCU members there voted by up to 90 percent for strike action, and thus were forced to stay at work. Union and management proposals and counter-proposals were shaped by the government’s pension regulations — regulations that, in recent years, have not favored workers.

We can ignore politics, but politics will not ignore us. An end to tuition fees, the rolling back of anti-union laws, increased funding for students’ mental health, stopping casualization and the enormous invisible accumulation of unpaid labor — all these will ultimately need a political fix. Changing our universities requires political and social change as well.

Yet this is a tricky situation. The militant minority that has begun to emerge in the recent strike is not a politically homogenous group. It contains everyone from anarchists and Trotskyists to Momentum supporters and black liberationists, radical feminists and LBGTQ activists (these are not mutually exclusive, of course!), the politically un-aligned, and even the odd Liberal Democrat or Tory. Yet we might still be able to agree on a minimum program, despite these different perspectives. It would have to include an end to casualization and tuition fees; real steps to redressing the gender and color gap in academia; more funding for students, their teachers, and the other staff who support them; and an end to anti-union legislation.

The details, of course, are for a democratic movement to thrash out together. For me, the quickest road to that minimum program is clear. Corbyn’s Labour might not have the solutions to all problems. It might be hobbled by the internal opposition of most of its parliamentary wing. It has nonetheless committed to much, if not all, of what the UCU’s minimum political program must become. Like the strike itself, a Corbyn-led Labour victory would be a first step in our long war for British higher education. It would not be the last step. And if the UCU strike has brought that victory any closer, then so much the better.