University workers are striking on the issue of pay, conditions, and increased insecurity at work. The last decade has seen a serious decline in the conditions facing staff. Higher education workers have seen a real-terms pay cut of 20.8%. Insecure fixed-term contracts have skyrocketed. UCU estimates that more than 50% of teaching staff are engaged on some kind of casual or insecure contract.
The gender pay gap is much more severe in higher education than the national average. Women are paid on average 15% less than men, while BAME staff are 10% more likely to be on an insecure contract. This means one thing: industrial action is not only necessary, but long overdue.
UCU members at 60 universities voted overwhelmingly at almost all universities to strike but it was blocked at many due to the Tories' anti-trade union laws. Many of these branches are already planning to re-ballot and join the strikes however. Unite and Unison should also re-ballot their members working in higher education, so they can join the picket lines too.
At most universities facing strike action, union members are fighting not just for decent pay and working conditions but also to protect their pensions. The scandalous attempt to scrap Defined Benefit from USS pensions last year was met with 14 days of militant action at pre-92 universities. This won a brilliant victory, stopping the employers from cutting pension benefits. Employers have since imposed steep contribution increases on workers, further denting their take home pay, despite the fact the pension scheme is healthy.
Fighting to transform education
The events of this year and last have acted as an example of how workers can fight to reclaim their unions. Many members were outraged at the inaction of the last union leadership. The election this year of a rank-and-file candidate, Jo Grady, as General Secretary reflects the view among UCU member that we should all have democratic control over our unions.
It is significant that such militant strikes have taken place in higher education. This fight has the potential to demonstrate to the wider movement that working people and the unions can have real power when they take action. It could demonstrate these lessons to a new generation of students, most of whom will graduate into workplaces of their own. Unionisation among young people is at a record low, but the lessons of struggle can resonate widely.
The press has churned out propaganda against the strike, claiming falsely that most students oppose it. We have to prove this is false. Socialist Alternative is calling for and supporting efforts to build links between students and striking staff. Students should form strike support groups, to plan interventions and marches around the pickets. The success of this strike will determine the future our education.
Where to go now?
There should be a democratic and open discussion on the strategy needed to win. Post-92 universities that failed to meet the strike turnout threshold could be targeted by union campaigns, led by the UCU leadership and branches in anticipation of possible action in the future.
Winning the strike will involve mobilising the largest possible force that we can gather. On November 29, young people will be taking to the streets continuing their #YouthStrike4Climate movement. Now it should be a priority to link up with this. Mass rallies, organised jointly between UCU members and youth strikers would be a show of strength, as we would be able to assemble and discuss the future of our education, our planet and our services.
For a Corbyn-led government
It is significant the strike is taking place during the general election period. Workers will have an opportunity to vote against austerity and to get the Tories out.
Corbyn’s manifesto includes a promise of free education and an opposition to the privatisation of education. He is calling for the re-nationalisation of Royal Mail and for a Green New Deal. The protests and strikes taking place in November and December should also mobilise support for a Corbyn majority government.
In the event of a Corbyn victory, a mass mobilisation of working people and youth will be vital to ensure that his policies are put in place. He will face opposition from the representatives of big business, including those in his own party - the Blairite MPs - and our movement will need to be there to fight for anti-austerity policies to be implemented.
Win the strike – change the system
Ultimately, people who are fighting against exploitation of workers and the planet are fighting the same thing – the profit-above-all rules of capitalism. An end to poor working conditions and a solution to the climate emergency can only be achieved on the basis of a democratic socialist society, where the wealth and resources of the planet are taken out of the hands of the capitalists and put into those of working people and youth. By linking up the strikes, we can fight together to demonstrate the power that people can have when they fight!
What we stand for
Expand and link up the strikes! Develop strong, fighting branches at all universities. Organise mass rallies to link up lecturers, postal workers and youth on strike for their future.
Student-worker solidarity – form strike support groups on campus. Students should join the strikes and visit picket lines. When we unite, we can win!
A Corbyn-led Labour government to end austerity.
Scrap the 2016 Trade Union Act and all anti-union laws. For the right to strike!
Free and fully funded education, publicly owned and democratically run – for management by elected bodies of lecturers, teachers, support staff and students.