1. BOB GOUPILLOT REPORTING FROM THE FRONTLINE OF THE UCU STRIKE
I have just returned from the UCU picket lines at Edinburgh University. Today was the last day of this round of strike action in defence of our pensions. As I walked across the central campus earlier this morning it was really heartening to see the number of pickets at various entrances with lots of really witty placards and posters. We had earlier agreed to stop picketing at 12.30 and gather outside George Square lecture theatre which is currently being occupied by students in solidarity with our action and against the marketisation of education.
Here we gathered to sing songs. These included a broad selection of updated versions of pop, Trade Union and Socialist songs from way back such as;
Which Side are You On ,
…Speak out and tell the bosses
The folk at UUK
We won’t accept your pension cuts
And we’ll end your fat cat pay
Down By the Riverside
I’m gonna turn off my powerpoint slides
Until I get my rights
How about that for contemporary?
And my personal favourite a version of Abbas Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (a man after midnight)
Gimme, gimme, gimme a pension to live on,
Pensions are my right and they are part of my pay,
Gimme, gimme, gimme a pension to live on
We will never let you take our pensions away
Your deficit is shit,
We don’t believe in it, oh no!
The songs and banners are just a small example of the creativity and anger released by this strike. UCU is not the most left wing of unions and Edinburgh University is not famous for its student radicalism. But that was yesterday. Something has changed. The last branch meeting, called at a few hours notice to discuss the latest offer from the employer, had over 300 members in attendance. Apparently 500 people have joined the union locally since the dispute began.
The strike has become a vehicle to express anger and concern about a whole number of concerns from Brexit, discrimination due to gender, precarious employment, the commodification of education, students loans and immigration policy. These and a whole spectrum of other issues and activities (Grundrisse reading group anybody?) have been explored through the ‘teach outs’.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect has been the level of student solidarity and political awareness. I think they have seen the future that the UK state is planning for them and they are not going to simply accept it. This has rightly put the fear into our employers.
As Bill Chesters writes in his letter to Weekly Worker reproduced below;
This strike is not simply a run-of-the-mill trade union dispute but appears to be assuming a strategic importance in the battle for the soul of higher education.
Bob Goupillot, UCU Edinburgh (personal capacity)
2. LETTER FROM BILL CHESTERS, SHEFFIELD UNIVERSITY
I thought I would offer readers of the Weekly Worker some impressions from my involvement in the dispute between the shadowy body which goes by the name of Universities UK and the Universities and College Union. As Kevin Bean has pointed out (‘Wave of radicalism’, March 1), the levels of militancy, determination and creativity seen in this strike are simply unprecedented in terms of the history of the UCU.
There have been some tremendous scenes from up and down the country – colourful and vibrant picket lines, mass branch meetings, demonstrations, student occupations, teach-ins, sit-ins and a plethora of witty placards and hastily assembled banners (“Foucault off UUK”, “On your Marx to defend pensions” and so on). Thousands have joined the UCU within the past few weeks and the confidence of the pickets is unmistakeable.
While the proposals to slash pensions are certainly draconian, my impression from talking to fellow strikers is that this issue was merely the catalyst for the current explosion, which flows from far more deep-seated concerns about workloads exceeding contracted hours (or at least for that ‘lucky’ half of teaching staff who actually have a contract); an utter lack of control over the running of the workplace; an increasingly precarious, casually employed workforce; insufficient time for genuine research and a burgeoning, extremely well remunerated management layer, which is entirely divorced from any teaching or research and which relies on bafflingly Kafkaesque shenanigans in order to pursue the neoliberal dream of ‘competitiveness’ and attaining a good score in the university league tables. This anger at the gradual marketisation of academia and its logic-defying consequences has been brewing for years. And tremendous solidarity is coming from the students too.
This is particularly significant. UUK probably wagered that, in these times when the student-lecturer relationship is being redesigned to resemble that between a ‘service provider’ and a ‘consumer’, the students would put enormous pressure on their lecturers for lost teaching time (after all, two semesters of teaching are costing a home student upward of nine grand a year!). But instead the students’ anger – whether in the form of letters to the vice-chancellor or in the occupation of university finance departments – has been directed towards management itself. At a time when the pampered, jet-setting lifestyles of university tops are coming under increasing media scrutiny (as evidenced in the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme), students are beginning to see that the extortionate fees they are charged are simply not finding reflection in the quality of teaching conditions and resources. After all, for every shiny new, multi-million pound building and ‘Porn Star Martini’ ordered by a vice-chancellor in 5-star hotels in Asia, there is an underresourced library, a terribly overstretched workforce and ‘efficiency savings’ (cuts in finances to particular departments, passed off as new and exciting cross-departmental, initiatives with multidisciplinary approaches). In this sense, the majority of students appear to realise that the struggle of their lecturers is part of the same agenda that has seen tuition fees soar.
Perhaps having got a little too used to the good old days before this landmark dispute, management at several universities initially tried to dock the pay of teaching staff taking “action short of a strike” (ie, working only to contract), on the grounds that this would – quite logically – mean refusing to reschedule classes which had been cancelled on strike days. But, in the face of the pressure from students and alumni donors, management soon rowed back on this – now a whole host of university VCs have been forced to agree to spread wage deductions across four months, to spend the money not paid in wages on important student-welfare initiatives and so on. Indeed, with several VCs beginning to query the entire approach of UUK in this stand-off, the question of who this body actually represents in the current negotiations becomes increasingly pertinent.
Despite these and other such victorious skirmishes with the employer, the evening of Tuesday March 13 led to a rather bizarre and worrying situation for UCU members. As we geared up for another picket on the Wednesday morning, news came through of a ‘landmark deal’ between UUK and the UCU under the mediation of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas). My reaction when this news came through was naively positive – I expected that, in light of the strike’s success, the pensions onslaught had been avoided, that the dodgy mathematics of UUK on pensions had been undermined and we could return to teaching with a victory under our belt.
But a cursory glance soon dispelled this view: the deal being offered was an utter joke – pensions were now to fall by an estimated 35% (instead of the 40% cut originally proposed), we were still being asked to pay more for less, and management would ‘encourage’ those who had been on strike to … reschedule classes, despite many university bosses conceding that this was unacceptable! On social media and on the picket lines the following morning, colleagues were simply baffled by the fact that the UCU negotiators could go along with this – let alone pass it off as an ‘agreement’ before even consulting the members. Was it some kind of clever bargaining trick deployed in the dark arts of industrial negotiations? Or a way of testing the resolve of the members in the face of an intransigent employer?
Well, it seems that UCU president Sally Hunt really was of the view that reducing a 40% cut to our pensions by 5% was a good deal. She said: “We felt we had reached a point where the employers had gone as far as they were prepared to go. We wanted members to see the progress and branches to make a decision.”
Emergency UCU branch meetings took place straight away and motions were passed rejecting the deal. The hashtag #nocapitulation quickly made it onto the top 10 most popular topics worldwide on Twitter. At my university over 350 members turned up to the meeting to reject the deal unanimously. We then poured onto the university concourse for an impromptu demo in an eerily empty campus, chanting, “What deal? No deal!”
At a meeting of the UCU’s higher education committee on the same day, not a single delegate from the 60 striking branches voted in favour of the proposed agreement – all of them told Sally Hunt in detail what their members thought of this rotten offer, and it was soundly rejected. I am far from an expert in industrial relations, but it would seem to me that it is quite some time since the actions of a union leadership which is in the process of selling out its members have been so speedily defeated by rank-and-file members. Yet another sign that what we are witnessing is certainly not ‘business as usual’.
In an action that continues to throw up surprises and confound expectations, it is difficult to say what will come next. Most universities are now only a week away from the Easter holidays, and UUK will certainly be hoping that the break will serve to demobilise the strike, with the annual ritual of essay marking, examinations and huge backloads of pastoral and support work looming ever larger on the horizon. More action is planned (including the possibility of refusing to mark exams and so on) and it is vital that the union continues to recruit and organise for a tough battle ahead.
Contrary to the expectations of UUK, university management and perhaps even the odd leftwing lecturer, one thing has certainly become clear: this strike is not simply a run-of-the-mill trade union dispute, but appears to be assuming a strategic importance in the battle for the soul of higher education in this country.
Bill Chesters, Sheffield
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