"Why Academics and Academic-Related Staff in UK Universities Are On Strike" from Bruce E. Baker
December 3, 2019
As I write this, I and tens of thousands of other academic and academic-related staff at UK universities are finishing up eight days of strike action called by the UCU (University and College Union) over two separate disputes. Members of LAWCHA and SLSA might be interested in this both as labor historians and as university employees. As a labor historian trained in the right-to-work state of North Carolina who now sits on the National Executive Committee of UCU, I hope that my comments here might be of some interest.
The first dispute relates to our pension, run by USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme). In autumn 2017, the managers of the pension scheme produced a disputed valuation that suggested the scheme was seriously in deficit and needed to be converted from a defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution scheme. The current changes proposed have more to do with steadily, and unjustifiably, increasing member contributions (from 8.0% of salary to 9.1%, with plans to rise to 9.6% and probably beyond, pushing new members out of the scheme and actually making it unsustainable). The second dispute is over pay, casualisation, workload, and the gender pay gap. Our pay is set in a nationally negotiated scale, and for the past ten years we have seen our wages decline by roughly 17% in real terms, even as more money than ever enter university accounts from student tuition fees. The other three strands of this dispute are probably not all that different than in the United States, and they have typically been devolved to individual universities, who have refused to do anything concrete and immediate about the problems.
The background for this dispute is the pension strike of spring 2018. What was remarkable about that was the way it mobilised the grassroots of the union, creating momentum that existed outside the control of the union hierarchy. An independent group called “USS Briefs” was formed to write and disseminate very thorough papers on every aspect of the dispute and many other issues related to university life and governance. This and much more was circulated through very active and sophisticated social media networks, particularly Twitter. This was also the first strike undertaken by UCU since the work of the Commission on Effective Industrial Action reported with suggestions about how to do more than take symbolic actions. Instead of a one-day strike, we were out for fourteen days over four weeks, part of it in the worst blizzard the country had seen in years, bringing universities to a halt across the country. When the previous General Secretary sent an offer from the employers to members with very strong advice to accept, against the advice of delegates, a majority of UCU members (many of whom had not been on strike), accepted what amounted to a promise to convene an expert panel. The panel met and vindicated the UCU’s position, but the employers refused to pressure USS into implementing its suggestions. So here we are again.
The other very significant effect of the dénouement of the 2018 strike was a radical restructuring of the leadership of the union. At the 2018 Congress, a pair of motions criticising the General Secretary’s handling of the USS dispute led to a walkout by the General Secretary and the rest of the full-time officials, whose union branch held a wildcat strike that brought the Congress to an end, perhaps the most dramatic union annual congress since the 1935 meeting of the AFL. Not long after, the General Secretary went on sick leave and eventually resigned due to ill health. Replacing her was Dr. Jo Grady, a Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations at Sheffield University whose expertise is pension disputes. She comes from Wakefield in Yorkshire, and her father was a miner on strike during the Miners Strike when Jo was born. Along with the massive growth of membership during the previous dispute, and a much more diverse and active group of members taking up national leadership positions, UCU is a very different union today than it was two years ago when the USS dispute began. The employers are a bit slow to learn this, but they are beginning to feel it. The dispute is likely to drag into the spring towards the end of the academic year, but it bids fair to transform how universities are run in the United Kingdom.
The picket lines are even stronger than in the previous dispute (my branch has had roughly twice as many picketing each day), and there is a confident and imaginative spirit. Each day has a theme focusing on a key issue facing university workers. We have baking contests. We have the Shark of Solidarity (I can’t explain—just follow the Twitter account @SolidarityShark). We have dogs and babies. We have daily comics drawn by one of our members (@lyd_w) explaining key issues in an accessible format. We also have daily teach-outs featuring a range of topics related to members’ research interests but also critically engaging with issues at the university.