Solidarity with striking workers: common questions answered

Marxist students have been on the picket lines alongside staff all over the country. Emilie Dufwa, NUS delegate from UCL and member of the UCL Marxist society, answers some of the questions she has encountered on the picket line from students wondering why they should support the strike.

WHAT ARE LECTURERS STRIKING FOR?

University lecturers will strike across Britain from 22 February in response to a brutal attack on pensions. Fourteen days of strikes will roll across more than 60 UK universities. During the non-strike days, the lecturers will negotiate with Universities UK (UUK), i.e. the managers of those universities, in order to find a solution.

There are two main reasons:

  1. Cuts to pensions: University management wants to make changes to the Universities Superannuation Schemes, i.e. a pension scheme that covers the lecturers of 65 UK universities. The actual pension scheme is based on “defined benefits”, i.e. a scheme where the employees are guaranteed a certain payout for when they retire. The new pension scheme the UK Universities have decided to implement is based on “defined contributions”, i.e. the employee (and potentially the employer) puts a certain amount of money into a pension pot that becomes available to the employee when they retire. The difference between the two is basically that the new pension scheme will be subject to changes in the stock market. This will benefit the management represented by UUK because they will not have to take any risks in securing a pension. However, this will leave the lecturers worse off because their pensions will be drastically cut ; it is estimated that lecturers will lose between 10% and 40% of their retirement income (one of my philosophy lecturers will lose 58% of his pension!). Consequently, staff members will lose between £60,000 and £200,000 over the course of their retirement. This substitution explains why the lecturers are striking with the help of their union, the UCU (University and College Union). In fact, on a turnout of 58%, 88% of eligible members of the UCU voted in favor of industrial action, with 93% supporting action short of a strike.
  2. To save higher education from further marketisation and casualisation: Axing the pensions is part of a larger effort to marketise higher education. UUK and the Tory government want to turn education into a business, available only for a few. If the lecturers are defeated in this strike, then this will give UUK the green light. They will see their victory as a means to keep doing what they’ve been doing for years now: rising tuition fees, treating education like a business, students like consumers and lecturers like service providers (whose value is measured in terms of their cost-effective production of credit units). The government is currently arguing about all defined benefit schemes in the public sector. Thus, the future of USS (the second largest pension fund in the UK) will send a strong signal about the future of the public sector in general.

WHAT DOES THIS STRIKE MEAN?

This is a huge strike taking place in 60 universities in the UK: it is unprecedented in the history of the UCU. It is the largest strike that has ever happened in British higher education.

This cut to pensions follows a series of attacks on university academic staff: a decline in staff salaries of 15 to 20% since 2009; a 60% casualization of the workforce with 75,000 UK university staff on highly casualised contracts in 2016, and 21,000 on zero hours contract; and the appointment of Toby Young to the office for students. Those of us students who want to pursue a career in academia are paying for an education that will give us a job with deteriorating working conditions. In fact, our university diploma might not even secure us a job. This pension scheme substitution is just one striking example of the fact that the UUK does not intend to provide good working conditions and job security to its teaching staff.

Since the time of Tony Blair, there has been major changes in the running of British universities. Before him, students paid no tuition fees until the very end of the 20th century. If they were from poorer backgrounds they could secure maintenance grants – that is, grants to cover living costs – from local or central government. In 1998, Labour’s Blairites allowed universities to charge students up to £1,000 per year. In 2004, the price tripled to £3,000 per year. As if it wasn’t already enough! With the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberals in 2010, they tripled that figure again to £9,000 per year.

Tuition fees have risen up to £9,250 today. This represents the pulling up of the ladder of educational opportunity by the generation of Blair, Brown and their Tory successors (who themselves received free higher education). Our generation of students is now denied this right, and only a privileged few can afford it. Despite excellent grades in school, a significant number of us can’t afford to attend university or have to take on the massive financial burden of tuition fees. The struggle against tuition fees, cuts, and austerity measures is part of a wider struggle against the commodification of education and the marketisation of universities. Education is a right, not a privilege: it should be free.

You might think that lecturers are striking against a relative loss in just one pension scheme, but in reality they are in a greater struggle. “They are on the front line of an ongoing battle which threatens to wipe out proper pensions for workers across a whole sector of society” (Steven Parfitt).

WHY SHOULD YOU SUPPORT YOUR STRIKING LECTURERS?

You might think you don’t have anything to do with this — after all, it’s a fight between the universities’ management and the striking lecturers. You might understand the workers’ situation, but you don’t want to miss your classes.

If your lecturers are striking and you want to go back to class, then the strike has to stop. It could stop tomorrow. But there is only one way out: the management has to accept the demands of the workers. As soon as the lecturers’ demands are met, we students will all be able to attend our lectures and seminars again.

We students have a crucial role to play in the outcome of the strike. The workers cannot win without our full support. Furthermore, if we don’t back our lecturers and ask for their demands to be met, the strike might go on for longer: the disruption might extend to examination period and graduation ceremonies. Or worse than this, there will be no real change in the way higher education is handled and treated. We students, together with the lecturers, are the only ones that can actually speak out to the university management and demand that they meet the lecturers’ demands.

WHY SHOULDN’T YOU BE ANGRY AT YOUR LECTURERS?

The disruption of all work and teaching is an essential component of a successful strike action. The more disruptive the strike, the more chances teachers have of winning! It will be a decisive strike for the lecturers and for the management. Unless the dispute is settled, 14 working days will be lost. We students will have lost 14 days of lectures and seminars. But the workers will have lost 14 days of work. You need to bear in mind that going on strike is not an easy decision to make. Teachers will have lost 14 days of income. This is pretty devastating for staff: they stand to lose a significant amount of their income. Although they have a Hardship Fund, it is not very much. Some teachers will struggle to pay their rent, and fear other financial impacts of the strike.

Workers are standing to fight against losing an estimated £10,000 per year upon receiving their pensions. Whereas teaching staff have to survive with low pay, insecurity and exploitation; vice-chancellors and senior managers enjoy ever-growing salaries — which clearly indicates that if the universities management actually wanted it, they could afford to offer academic staff more stability. The Times Higher Education analysis of university financial accounts shows UK vice-chancellors saw their pay rise by just over £10,000 on average (4%) in 2016-17 – nearly four times the 1.1% increase awarded to staff. The survival of the entire education sector depends on a concerted fightback against UUK and their Tory associates. .

Furthermore, 40% of the strikers are young teaching staff who do not have any pensions. They are the academics of tomorrow and they stand firmly against the pension scheme. They already have it bad enough: low pay and little job security. But with this new scheme, they could lose almost half of their total retirement income.

But the teachers and the UCU are determined. This is revealed by the fact that they have all stayed at the picket lines this morning, despite the cold, from 8am to 11am. At my university, UCL, about fifty students joined the picket lines to express solidarity, distributing leaflets and coffee. Lecturers and students try to stop other students from entering UCL buildings. Although many students cross the picket lines nonetheless, the lecturers are not defeated. They are more and more determined. The picket lines are likely to be much more firm and uncrossable in the days to come.

The strikers have understood the long term consequences of the attacks on higher education. If we don’t fight ferociously against this pension scheme now, we all face the risk, in the long run, of witnessing its devastating consequences in the higher education sector. There is no use getting angry at the teachers. They are anxious and stressed enough. You should stand alongside them and direct all your anger towards the management, the real source of the problem.

HOW CAN YOU SUPPORT YOUR STRIKING LECTURERS?

Tory anti-union laws limit the number of workers legally allowed to stand on a picket line – but there are no restrictions on students! So don’t go to classes and join the picket lines! Bring tea and coffee to your freezing lecturers! Distribute their leaflets, convince students to miss their classes and seminars! And most of all, spread the word. If your student union hasn’t given full support to the striking lecturers, urge them to do so. Explain the situation to all your friends and coursemates! Send messages of support to your striking lecturers, letting them know that they have your solidarity and encouraging them to stand firm. Send emails to your non-striking lecturers telling them that you won’t attend their classes to support the strike (by not crossing the picket lines).

WHY SHOULDN’T YOU GO TO UNIVERSITY?

The point of the strike is to shut down the university. If you do support the strike, then you should not go to university. If you do cross the picket lines, then you’re not supporting the strike. To stand in solidarity with the strikers, return or borrow books at the library on non-strike days. Do not attend or organise any meetings on campus during the strike. Yesterday most of the students told me: “I understand the reason why they are striking, but I have to go to class”. Of course their understanding is welcome for the strikers, but understanding won’t do much on its own. Choosing to not crossing the picket line will be the action that has the biggest impact.

WHY SHOULDN’T YOU BE (WASTING YOUR TIME) ASKING FOR A REFUND?

Asking for refund means that you are either:

  1. Turning the idea of “education as a commodity” (the idea promoted by the UUK) against the UUK (what The National Student has tried to do).
  2. Simply demanding your right as a pure “consumer of education” to get full value for your money.

Response to (1): It might seem like a good strategy to use the management’s argument that we are “customers” against them, by asking for compensation or a refund. Since we are the customers, the management is more keen to listen to our demands than its own staff’s demands. Although this is a (sadly) true fact, the general strategy is wrong for three reasons:

First, if we do get a refund, this will not save the pensions, nor the higher education sector from further marketization. On the contrary, asking for a refund purports to conceive of education in purely economic terms, as a commodity sold on the market. If we want to use our capitalistic “strength” as “consumers” against them, then we should use it to fight against the pension scheme, and the general attacks on the public sector. Instead of asking for a refund, we should use the fact that our voices will be better heard in order to back our lecturers and ask for their demands to be met.

Second, the strategy is ineffective. UCL’s policies state very clearly that “refund can only happen if a strike lasts for more than a month” (it is probably the same case with many other universities). We can thus dream to get a refund. If we want to get back to class, then we need to ask for the workers’ demands to be met.    

Third, the strategy will be turned against the lecturers. To make matters even worse, the managers will use this opportunity to turn our anger towards our teachers (rather than towards the management): “look how much money these lecturers are costing you!”. It is our duty to stand firmly alongside our lecturers and to offer our solidarity without strings attached. Instead of asking for a refund, we should be asking for the management to accept the workers’ demands. This promises to be way more effective (especially if your goal is to put more pressure on the management).

Response to (2): You’d be surprised by how low your refund would turn out. In fact, you’d be shocked at how little of those £9,000 actually go to funding our education. Every year, universities invest in new research equipment, gyms, new facilities, overseas campuses, new senior management and expensive real estate projects, to rope in more and more consumers. Precious little of these fees are put in ensuring good working conditions for teaching staff. Universities want to maximize profit. In order to do so, they have to minimize employment costs, whether through wages, staff numbers, staff nature (e.g. postgrad students) or pension liabilities. If universities actually did refund us for the missed teaching, it would reveal just how little of the fees actually go toward our education (Amia Srinivasan). The fight against the axing of pensions is part of a larger fight for the preservation of higher education as a public good, not a commodity to be sold on the market. Education should be free, and financed, not through general taxation, but through the expropriation of the capitalist class.

KICK CAPITALISM OUT OF EDUCATION!

If we win this strike, it will be an enormous victory that will allow our lecturers to retire in dignity. But we must remember that, on its own, this will not mean that any of the fundamental problems are solved. We need to put an end to the casualisation of teaching, future pay cuts, and threats to working conditions. The struggle against these attacks on the public sectors must be part of a wider struggle against the rotten system in which we live. The commodification of education, rising tuition fees, and severe pay cuts are all consequences of capitalism. The only way we can assure for ourselves a better future, free from exploitation and oppression, is if we students kick capitalism out of education. We students and workers should unite and fight against our common enemy. We need to struggle against capitalism and fight for a better system based on the ownership of the means of production by the working class and the planning of the economy — in one word, we need socialism.

by Emilie Dufwa, UCL Marxist society