U.K. Universities Strike Again, over Pensions, Pay, and Equity
Tens of thousands of academic staff at more than 60 British universities are striking for the third time in two years.
The strike began February 20; it was called by the University and College Union (UCU), which represents academics, librarians, technicians, and other professional support staff.
Unless university managers return to the negotiating table, the strike is projected to run for 14 days over four weeks—two days the first week, three the second, four the third, and five the fourth. Up to a million students will see their studies disrupted.
The strikers are braving often stormy winter weather—and an equally stormy political climate, as workers are blown about by Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, fresh off its election victory last year.
WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT
The strike is in fact two strikes rolled into one. The first is about pensions, and specifically the future of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). That plan covers academic staff at the 69 British universities founded before 1992.
UCU members are fighting management over the valuation of the fund, which affects the contributions that employees must pay in and the benefits they hope to receive in future. University managers—through Universities UK, the body representing universities enrolled in the USS—want contributions to increase and benefits to go down. UCU has adopted a position of “no detriment,” which means no increase in employee contributions and no reduction in benefits.
The second dispute involves all U.K. universities, not only those enrolled in the USS scheme. It includes four major demands:
- A 3 percent raise. The employers are offering 1.8 percent. The union points out that by the Retail Price Index, one measure of inflation, real pay for workers represented by the UCU has declined by 20 percent since 2009.
- Limits on “casualization,” i.e. the employment of more and more academic workers on short-term contracts.
- Reducing persistent pay gaps between women and men, between workers of color and white workers, and between disabled workers and other staff.
- Reducing workload. Extra duties are frequently piled up on staff already overloaded with work, and the UCU wants a national agreement to manage these pressures.
WHERE IT’S COMING FROM
This new strike grows directly out of the two previous strikes, in February-March 2018 and November-December 2019.
The first strike was a response to attempts by university managers to change the USS from a defined-benefit scheme to a defined-contribution one. UCU members voted overwhelmingly to strike, and after 14 days of industrial action they forced Universities U.K. to back off on the proposed changes. A joint panel of experts was set up to investigate the USS fund and propose alternative solutions; its initial recommendations have not yet been agreed by both sides.
This 2018 strike had a profound effect on members and ultimately on the union leadership. An unprecedented number of members got involved in the dispute, on picket lines and on social media. Thousands of members mobilized to reject an offer from Universities UK midway through the strike. Jo Grady, an industrial relations lecturer at Sheffield, became especially well-known through her frequent interventions on Twitter.
At the same time, more members grew dissatisfied with the UCU leadership, which was widely seen as too conciliatory to management. When General Secretary Sally Hunt stood down for health reasons in February 2019, Grady stood for the role as an independent—not tied to either of the existing factions within the union, the Independent Broad Left or the UCU Left, which between them had traditionally filled the highest positions.
Grady won a clear majority. Many members were enthused by the idea of fresh leadership, from someone who promised to give much more say to members newly energized by the strike. Other independent candidates active in the strike also won election to major positions in the union.
With this new leadership and newly active membership, the UCU decided to widen its demands for the next nationally negotiated pay round in 2019 to include casualization, pay gaps, workload, and pay. Staff at 60 universities struck for eight days in November and December.
But the university employers’ association refused to improve its pay offer and proposed only vague solutions to the other demands. So in January, the union voted for another 14 days of strikes.
WHERE IT’S GOING
The UCU is waging this strike in a legal framework set by the Conservative government. The 2016 Trade Union Act forces unions to meet stringent requirements before they can go on strike: not only must strike action win a majority in a vote by branch members, but voting turnout must be at least 50 percent as well. A high number of UCU branches have voted overwhelmingly for strike action but will not go on strike because they failed—often by a handful of votes—to reach the turnout threshold.
In the November-December strike, 60 universities took strike action; since then, 14 more universities were re-balloted and crossed that threshold and so will now join the dispute. Yet this represents only half of the 147 universities where the UCU has balloted its members.
With a new Conservative government holding a powerful majority in Parliament, unions in the U.K. will face these and other pressures for some time to come. The U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union means uncertainty about student numbers and research funding, with potential consequences for higher education jobs across the country. The UCU must also reckon with the Conservatives’ plan for universities, set out in a 2016 white paper, which looks forward to the deregulation of the British university sector. “Competition between providers in any market,” it says, “incentivizes them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost.”
This is a difficult time for the union to press demands on universities. At the same time, however, many members are desperate to reverse at least some of the reductions in pay, pensions, and job security they have suffered over the past 10 years. Whether they can win those gains will depend on how many of them join the picket lines, on how students respond to another disruption to their studies, and on how many university managers are forced to recognize the scale of the problems facing their employees.
These 14 days of strike action will at least clarify those questions, even if they don’t completely solve the crises that academic staff already face across the U.K.
Steven Parfitt is a UCU member, a former shop steward at New Zealand Post, and a teaching fellow in history on a nine-month contract at Loughborough University. For photos from the strike, visit: https://www.ucu.org.uk/heaction-live.