New Worker Banner

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Strikes in the Dreaming Spires

by New Worker correspondent

MONDAY saw the start of an eight-day strike by many members of the 120,000 strong University and College Union (UCU) at 60 of Britain’s 147 institutions of higher learning, from Aberdeen to Exeter.

Last month, UCU members backed strike action on pensions by 79 per cent and on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads by 74 per cent. A low turnout kept many institutions out of the ballot however.

Earlier last week, UCU had accused the universities of playing games after their representatives refused to even discuss pay. The union made the same complaint at related talks over changes to the universities pension scheme (USS), where bosses failed to make a serious offer.

It added that it “feared that universities had learnt nothing from last year’s dispute” when campuses were brought to a standstill by unprecedented levels of strike action.

The union has demanded that other universities follow the example of the University of Essex whose vice-chancellor, Anthony Forster, recently acknowledged that employers can afford to pay more for USS and should be doing more to avoid widespread disruption.

UCU has warned that if universities fail to make improved offers then further waves of strike action will follow next year and that it is currently consulting with its branches at other universities about being balloted again to join further action. Once the present strike concludes, “action short of a strike” will begin that will result in members working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.

The union’s general secretary Jo Grady said: “It is quite staggering that the employers have allowed things to get to this stage and done so little to avoid the upcoming disruption. Instead of engaging seriously with us over the various elements of the disputes, they have been all spin and no substance.”

She called for support from students, saying: “Students should be asking serious questions of their vice-chancellors and putting pressure on them to get their representatives back to the negotiating table with serious offers that address all the issues at stake. If universities don’t change their tune, then next week’s action could just be the start with further waves of strikes involving more staff in the new year.”

Union members complain that their pay has fallen about 20 per cent in real terms at the same time as many vice-chancellors, including those of the less distinguished institutions, now get basic salaries of around £300,000.

One union with members in the universities, Unison, offered its support. General secretary Dave Prentis said: “Unison members, alongside UCU members, have experienced rising workloads and increased stress,” adding that: “Although the union’s members aren’t on strike, members and branches will be lending support to UCU picket lines in other ways.

“As higher education trade union we stand together with a clear message on higher education. Our members deserve more, our members deserve to be heard. We stand together on higher education pay and higher education pensions.”