The Mood is Radical...

Strike Wave

25th May 2023

... But the Situation is Complex.

In their dispute the UCU are representing Teaching and Research staff, Research Only staff, and some Administrators at English and Welsh universities (other workers are in Unison and Unite, and as usual the trade unions structure keeps them legally separated). The university sector sits on £40bn in reserves and feels justified in clinging on to this excess because it no longer regards itself as a public service but part of a profit-driven, internally competing market. Universities do this by choice – they were not forced into it. The ones ‘winning’ in the market thrive on external grants brought in by research staff on temporary contracts, and by attracting high-paying students as cash-cows, taught by overworked, underpaid staff. 

There have been 18 days of strike action between February and March, in which 150 universities have been affected by strikes and ‘action short-of-a strike’ (ASOS – not taking on voluntary duties and not working evenings or weekends). Because of anti-trade union laws, a strike mandate can only run for 6 months, so the union is currently also re-balloting.

However, we have had a track record of winning disputes through industrial action (notably in 2007). In spite of defeats in more recent disputes, our dissatisfaction and ongoing dissent has set the tone for the confrontation.

One demand of the strikes is to resolve a long-running dispute concerning pensions. These have been eroded from something which, while far from ‘gold-plated’, did at least feel secure enough to be worth entering the profession. Ridiculous changes were made because of mishandling of predictions of the future ‘health’ of the scheme, resulting in reduced benefits, a higher proportion of contributions lying with employees. Many staff look set to lose tens of thousands in benefits each year, even though the scheme was forced to admit to a £56 bn surplus. UCU have been striking on and off since 2018 to get their previous benefits back.

UCU’s other goal is named the Four Fights: pay which has fallen significantly in real terms, like everyone’s, with a demand for a 2% to 12% pay rise (with more at the bottom of the scale); a national strategy to abolish gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps; the casualised nature of staff contracts; and nationally agreed parameters on the volume and type of work staff are expected to do.

Stress and depression levels in the sector are the second-highest nationally, with staff routinely doing 50 hour-weeks instead of the notional 36.5, and rarely taking their full holiday entitlement because of the volume of work still to be done. Mountains of admin are routine for all university staff, much of which is dreamed up by people with little understanding of the job and clearly imposed to grind us down.

It should be said that the sector’s long-established teaching body is predominantly comprised of people on decent, permanent contracts – but only narrowly. This security is being deliberately eroded at a generational level, as Vice Chancellors realise that T&R staff are now the only workers outside of the public sector to whom job security still largely applies. 90,000 staff are on insecure contracts. For academics at the bottom of the ladder, it is pretty much impossible to get any job at all nowadays, let alone a permanent one, even after doing hourly- or unpaid classroom experience as a PhD student, then being a Teaching Associate or junior researcher (typically between one-term and a couple of years, and often term-time-only, and where a 50-hour week is normal). At the same time as this, in order to get a look-in at a permanent post, you have to find the time either to bring in a major research grant or to publish a book with a top-ranking publisher. Research only staff have faced this situation for decades, which is probably where employers took the model from. After that, there are still precious few ‘real’ jobs to compete for anyway. 

This does not just apply to newly qualified PhDs, in the first stages of working life after a minimum of 8 years of academic study. This has become the norm, across the entire sector, and it is not only at ‘junior’ levels. Because new contracts are so short-term and insecure, staff in their 30s and beyond are often still living away from partners and even children, paying for two lots of accommodation, spending a fortune in time and money on travelling at weekends. Even those settling in the town where they work have little or no chance of getting on the housing ladder and struggle like everyone with rent and childcare costs, even without the current cost of living crisis. 

The union called a suspension of the dispute on Monday 27th February for three days because we were making good progress – a ‘cooling off period’. Why let things cool off because you are getting somewhere? Whilst it meant that people could go back to work and stop losing money for a bit, there were unfortunate implications. We were notified on Friday at 6.00pm that this would come into effect on Monday morning. Given ASOS, some staff didn’t even know until Monday morning. Others had to scramble lectures together over the weekend and break ASOS, or embarrassingly un-cancel activities with external partners. Students didn’t know whether they were coming or going in the chaos, didn’t know where to get supportive information, and missed classes due to not being psychic. This undermined important trust between striking staff and students. The suspension momentarily replicated the sort of unreasonable demands that are put on us by management and led to a great deal of stress, to the extent that the union instigated a poll to see how members had felt about the decision. 

In the union’s words, ‘In the previous ballot, our union promised to use your votes responsibly. And we have done that, ensuring at every stage members have their say in what the action looks like’, but this certainly wasn’t the case with the suspension of the action! The membership was effectively told that the union negotiators knew things it didn’t, and that we had to trust them. 

In itself, it doesn’t matter to anarchists whether reformists or leftists are in charge of unions. Both are obstacles to workers’ autonomy. As such, neither the leadership nor UCU Left are able to transform the fundamental nature of industrial action in this sector, as needs to happen, and not just within higher education. From the perspective of teaching staff, there is one form of action which is far more effective than any other. Withdrawing labour for a few days at a time is ineffective: students don’t mind a few missing classes, and in practice staff still have to make the time up afterwards or get even further behind and more stressed by the admin. The most effective model is a marking boycott, which has been proposed for the May-June period of this academic year. This is what the reballot is about, and it seems highly likely that the majority will vote Yes to further action unless the sector agrees to our combination of five demands. 

Ultimately, this might mean in theory that some students do not graduate. That is the gun we hold to the head of management, because ultimately they care more about students’ opinions than ours, which can threaten recruitment of the next fee-paying cohort. This has previously proven too much for management and they have always caved.

I have some frustration with what I’ll call the ‘porous picket line’. The point of a traditional picket line was to make it shameful and even intimidating for fellow workers to cross the line and go to work as normal in a ‘closed shop’ (i.e. where everyone had to be in the union). It’s only a few decades since someone would have been called a ‘scab’ for crossing a picket line. This got muddled with the demise of the closed shop, and workers being in a variety of unions or none at all, in which case they wouldn’t have legal protection for not going to work. This makes it easier also for those members of the union not prepared to strike to slip through as well. In a university, people going in and out alongside with scabbing UCU members are students, Unison and Unite members, GMB members, non-unionised staff, and also the Public. They can’t be told apart. The ‘line’ is now almost irrelevant in many workplaces, and in my own workplace strikers cross the picket line too, for example to park on campus because there is nowhere else for miles; go to the loo, for the same reason; go to the campus museum or gallery, because it’s the only time you can fit it in. The porous picket line is actually endorsed at our workplace because the union organises marches into campus to the management building, which has a courtyard with an amazing echo. Shouting anti-management slogans outside the vice chancellor’s office is such an empowering feeling that it almost feels worth the contradiction, but the ‘picket line’ itself is actually just a demonstration.

However, a number of good things have come out of this action. It seems possible at this stage that the battle over pensions might have been won! We aren’t holding our breath, but it looks as though things will go back to what they were in 2021, because the scheme has said that the cost of restoring benefits will be low. This feels like a real victory and worth the pay lost whilst striking for it.

The action has also brought together the five grievances above, uniting different interest groups within UCU. This has not been straightforward, with the union having previously been unwilling to complicate struggles over things like pay, conditions and pensions for ‘traditional’ workers, with those of workers on a range of precarious contracts and those under-represented in the workplace by gender, ethnicity and disability. The union seemed to consider that it was too difficult to measure what the problems are and what real change might mean in these latter areas, but rank-and-file working groups have managed to make these demands specific and realistic. 

This has also produced widespread empathy and solidarity between workers doing very different jobs. If we are successful, this will also build momentum for further progress in Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity areas, seeing PhD students treated like staff where they are working like staff, leverage for people with caring responsibilities, and maybe even an end to student fees and a return to a public-funded sector. To anarchists, these are reformist demands and not ‘revolutionary’ per se. But as the AF has always recognised, this does not mean that there is not a significant improvement to the condition of the working class, and victory brings confidence and practical ability for further action. 

Academics have brought their own disciplines and expertise to the dispute. This has been fun – historians evidently produced placards including harking back to the Diggers, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the overpaid Vice-Chancellor, man?’, but also serious – the fact that the pensions fund and predictions had been so incompetently handled was first spotted by academic economists and pensions experts and the possible victory in this case is the result of knowing exactly how to prove this. Also, our communities are close-knit ones. We all know dozens if not whole networks of people working and studying in other universities, through our disciplines as well as radical networks, and these networks are completely independent of the union, providing a safety net which helps keep the radical nature of any dispute on track (one reason why our disputes are often successful).

Student activism in support of the strike has also been encouraging. The universities model Gen Z students as ‘snowflakes’, which they spin positively, presenting themselves as committed to supporting the individual student within the broader (implicitly exclusionary) student and staff body. They should be supporting individual students, and, in fact, they have to by law! But in reality, they are manufacturing an environment that is afraid of and discourages collective demands, e.g. those of marginalised students as a powerful group, and of trade unionists. In this scenario, UCU is the enemy of the students, damaging the individual’s growth with our old-fashioned collective concerns. So, university management seeks to juxtapose the interests of workers (collective) and marginalised students (individual). Our experience on the picket lines shows that this is not working. The LGBTQ+ community in particular has been amongst our most vocal supporters. 

The shape of our original pension scheme has been reinstated in the latest offer. Striking works! But as noted, this primarily benefits longer-standing staff at ‘pre-1992’ universities. The Four Fights are far from settled. Some of what is on the table is partially hard to pin down quantitatively and enforce, but nonetheless progress has been made there. We do seem to have the offer of an end to zero-hour contracts, and we have an improved pay offer, but still well below inflation.

As things stand today, on Sunday March 19th, UCU is baffling. During the week, the General Secretary wanted to pause the strike again and put the new deal to the membership. Because of the outcry about the previous ‘pause’, it initiated an informal Yes/No poll conflating ‘pausing’ with initiating a formal ballot on the deal. The linking of the two questions and the idea that the deal was as good as it might possibly get, angered branches and was rejected by the NEC. So, we have three more days of striking coming up. This puts us in a stronger position than Jo Grady would have had us in. The mood is radical and workers are taking a more advanced position than the union leadership itself. On the one hand, to many rank and file workers, we have voted not to pause essentially as a point of principle; it’s only three days and employers will surely ride it out, so it’s another three days of losing pay without longer-term gains. Does the real potential lie with the re-ballot over extending the mandate and the marking boycott? That too now feels like a ‘pause’, but it’s certainly something the universities can’t ignore. However, the employers now have the advantage of perhaps making a final ‘all or nothing’ offer, refusing to decouple pensions from the Four Fights, perhaps even dividing more and less privileged staff over whether or not to accept.

The mood is radical, but the situation is complex. The next steps are unclear and it will be a difficult couple of weeks. ■

UCU Member
Audio reading by Nufi

Since the writing of this piece, UCU have made significant progress regarding their pensions dispute, having voted 85% in support of a new offer that will restore many of the retirement benefits previously afforded. Regarding pay and conditions disputes, UCU have voted to reject the offer currently on the table, and will be moving ahead with a marking and assessment boycott beginning on the 20th of April at 145 universities as well as extending their existing strike mandate a further 6 months.

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