Socialist Alternative

UNISON Higher Education Members fighting cuts to pay

Members of UNISON at two universities – Brighton and SOAS, will be joining UCU members taking strike action over pay, in the first few days of December.

Members were balloted over the question of strike action after the August 2020 pay freeze, which was imposed on all university workers three months into the pandemic, when Vice Chancellors were worried about a financial crisis across the whole sector. A year later, universities haven’t collapsed due to a lack of students, but they have faced massive financial issues, with real terms income (now overwhelmingly from tuition fees) falling year after year, just like our pay settlements.

Vice Chancellors, in the style of thousands of local councillors, have held down our wages (but not their own) to deal with funding cuts. They are all under pressure to prioritise spending on shiny new buildings and facilities, to engage in an undignified fight with each other over new student enrolments. Lecturers, administrators, technicians, caretakers and cleaners are all expected to do more for less, with “student experience” and league table places given priority over staff welfare and well-being.

UNISON’s ballots, run on a disaggregate basis and coming much later than they should have done, after branches had to be individually asked if they wanted to be involved (!), produced legal strike mandates (i.e. a 50%+ turnout) at four university branches. This was, of course, disappointing and says a lot about the level of confidence and belief across activists and members that UNISON will lead a sustained fightback, which we all know is necessary. Members need to be confident that branches are able to lead strikes and that these will have the backing of UNISON’s machinery. Timely, well-resourced, well-organised and enthusiastic ballot campaigns are crucial, and all activists need to be able to run these successfully, as long as the anti-trade union laws remain in place.

Those four branches are now using their local ballot mandate to put claims over pay in the form of one-off bonuses for all members. This would in-part, make up for the pay freeze of 2020 and the pitiful increase made in 2021 – well below inflation then and now.

At Brighton, we’re striking for one day on Thursday 2nd December, the middle day of UCU’s three day pay and pension strikes. We’re demanding that the University make us a serious offer and at least recognise that continual years of real-terms pay cuts will not be tolerated by union branches where the leadership reflects the anger of members.

As the new left leadership of UNISON’s NEC starts to make a difference to the direction of our union, despite wrecking attempts from elements of the previous conservative and risk averse leadership, we’re confident that branches such as ours can play a small part in leading the way to a generalised fightback of public sector workers into 2022.

Our strike comes days before the ballot opens over this year’s pay claim (almost matching the timescale of the much larger local government ballot) and also a separate ballot over attacks on the USS pension scheme. It says a lot about what needs to change within UNISON, that UCU will have taken three days of action over the issue before our ballot papers even go out to members.

After years in which our members watched our union leadership do very little to resist pay cuts and workload issues, we’re starting to fight back. Uniting all workers, public and private, in a determined campaign for pay and pension justice will be the priority for 2022 for all trade unionists.