University workers across the country are taking action against a savage attack on their pensions. Their union, the UCU, has called some of the most militant action ever taken in the sector, organising two weeks of strike days in March. In order to understand the nature of the attacks on the pensions, as well as the wider political context of the dispute, Luke Wilson spoke to two academics at UCL, who are taking part in strike action for the first time.
LW: Firstly, please could you tell our readers a little bit more about yourselves? Which departments do you work in, and what do you do? How long have you been at UCL?
KS: I work in the humanities faculty. I’m a linguist. I’ve been at UCL since the early 2000s, because I did all of my degrees there and then stayed!
AM: I’m very new in at the faculty, and London in general. I’ve been a researcher at the faculty since September, so for about 4 months, and work on languages as well.
LW: Could you give me a bit of background about the strike? What are the main issues at stake?
KS: We’re going on strike because our employers have decided to make very drastic changes to our pensions, which would involve them going from a defined benefits model (where we have a guaranteed retirement income) to a defined contributions model (which will be based on the stock market). It’s been estimated that the average university staff member would lose about £10,000 a year! I think this galvanised a lot of us into feeling like we had no choice but to take action, because it’s such a dramatic attack on our pensions. Most of us didn’t see it coming – it just seemed to come out of the blue. The reason that the employers want to do this is because they say that there’s a deficit in the current pension scheme which is not sustainable. However, independent actuarial evaluations disputed this. The model used by UUK (Universities UK) is based on the scenario of the universities going bankrupt overnight all at once, but this obviously isn’t going to happen.
LW: Could you tell us a bit more about the overall context of these attacks? Do you feel they form part of a wider set of attacks on higher and further education? Why do you think that UUK are doing this now?
KS: Yes, we see the attack on pensions as part of a much wider neoliberal agenda, which started with the introduction of student fees and the raising of student fees over the last 10 years. All of this is really just an attempt to transfer any risk from the employers in the institutions to individuals – students and employees – and to turn higher education into a market [as opposed to a public service]. This is also why we see increasing casualisation of staff, staff on zero hours and fixed-term contracts, things like that. Under the guise of this nonexistent deficit they are really just taking the opportunity to push through an ideological change. The changes to our pensions are just very much in-line with the other changes that we’ve seen over recent years.
AM: I truly believe that higher education is one of the main things in the national cultural life. The main thing is that there are two main parts – students and academic staff. When it gets turned into marketing or entertainment, it really influences the whole of society drastically. I truly believe it’s the most important thing in the universe.
LW: Could you go into a bit more detail about what the strike action entails at the moment?
KS: The strike action consists of 14 days of strikes, starting with two days, Thursday and Friday, followed by Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Now this week it’s Monday to Thursday, and then next week if we continue, if there’s no resolution, it will be Monday to Friday. In the days in between there’s also action short of strike, which means working to contract and not rescheduling lectures that were cancelled due to the strike, not taking on extra duties, etc. This is the biggest strike that the sector has ever seen.
LW: How does this strike differ from previous strikes in the sector?
KS: Over the last 12-15 years, there have been a number of one- or two-day strikes. There were a couple of strikes over pay which were quite successful – I think one was in 2006 – and since then there have been a few minor strikes, but like I said it’s been one day or two days. There was one over pensions a few years ago, when they switched from final salary to career average, and I remember there was a general feeling that we weren’t achieving anything. It just inconvenienced us and students, and nobody cared. Management didn’t seem to take any notice of it, and I think there was quite a low take-up [people not honouring the strike] even though obviously the union had voted in favour of the strike. I think that the take-up was not that high – there was a general feeling that it was pointless and wasn’t going to get us anywhere. I think that there has been a feeling in recent years that the Union couldn’t really withstand senior management – it wasn’t really a match for them. We felt we couldn’t really get anywhere, that academics and university staff were powerless, that there was nothing we could do, and there was no point trying. This strike has a completely different feeling.
LW: Given this strike is on a much more militant level to previous ones, do you feel it has been more successful? How do you think the strike is going?
KS: Yeah, definitely. Before it started we really had no idea what it was going to be like, how many people were going to participate, or what student reaction was going to be like. It’s just been overwhelming to see the number of people who have joined the union – I think they said something like 300-500 people have joined the UCL branch just this week! A lot of people that I’ve talked to have said that they have never been on a picket line before. Myself included, actually – this is my first time on a picket line. This brought people together in a way that nobody expected. And the other thing that’s so incredible about it is how much support we’ve had from students – we’ve been overwhelmed by the number of students joining us on the picket lines, boycotting lectures in solidarity and going out with us on the marches. This was something nobody was expecting and I think management was assuming that the students would be against us. They were trying to pit the students against us and that didn’t work, so I think that’s had had a big effect. The fact that UUK has now agreed to negotiation is a big step, because when the strike started and in the lead-up to the strike, they were insisting that there would be no negotiation. The fact is they are now negotiating, and also many Vice Chancellors have broken ranks from a number of different universities. Initially they were saying, “No! No! No! We’re not going to negotiate, it’s a done deal,” but they are now coming out and saying either that they’re in support of the strike or that they’re in support of meaningful negotiation. I think that’s a really big achievement.
LW (to AM): This is the first time you’ve taken action in this country, but you mentioned that you’ve been involved in movements back in Russia. Could you tell us how this strike compares to your experience of of political action back in your home country?
AM: The big difference is that in Russia it’s dangerous to protest. Here it’s not, at least for us in this strike. Also, the organisation is completely different here. In Russia, our protests involve a lot of hand-drawn, colourful placards and posters, in contrast to the professional, official materials we have here. On the one hand, a Russian protest gives the impression of striking in the kindergarten because of all the childish pictures – usually painters and artists don’t take part! On the other hand, the home-made materials feel more personal somehow.
LW: You mentioned solidarity from the students and how much you appreciate this. What form did this solidarity take? Do you think that there was enough contact between the UCU and the students union, and organisation to make the most impact? What do you think could be done in future to improve this?
KS: I’m not sure what level of communication and coordination was going on between the UCU and NUS nationally. The NUS came out in support of the strikes, which is great. I think somebody mentioned to me the idea that it would have helped to get the message across really clearly to students if the NUS had been sending out email messages every day, just constantly saying for two weeks before the strike not to go to class. A lot of students crossing the picket lines hadn’t heard about the strike, and when we told them about it they were very supportive, in many cases happy to go away and work somewhere else to keep the campus as empty as possible during the strike. Perhaps the NUS was doing this but the messages just didn’t reach everybody. Some students have occupied the Provost Offices at UCL, so there’s a lot of student involvement, but I’m just not sure how much that was grassroots, and how much of it was orchestrated through official channels.
LW: A number of unions including Unite (my union) have have mooted the idea of coordinated public sector action, or even a general strike. What do you believe is the prospect of this happening? Is this something that you would support?
AM: I think its a good idea. We just have to think how to make it interesting for the public and for journalists as well. Thinking back to my activism in Russia, when they were trying to close the European University, we were making street theatre with 15 teachers and students. This was covered by different newspapers online. As teachers, we produce a lot of interesting materials – maybe it would be nice to use them in our activism. We should look at how for example gay pride marches have really involved people and have been fun – we can learn from them.
KS: I would be very much in support of the idea of a coordinated public sector strike, because I think these issues are affecting the entire public sector. Austerity has affected us all for the last 10 years. I hope this is the beginning of a more concentrated protest against all of the stuff that we mentioned, like casualisation of workers and perpetually increasing student fees. There’s this idea that students are consumers, and the university is providing some kind of consumer service. If the lecture is cancelled, students get their money back, these kinds of ideas. All of this stuff is shared by all of the public sector, so I think that definitely if we came together we could achieve some meaningful change, or at least make our voices heard more strongly.
LW: Linking the industrial question to the political question for a minute, we have a socialist as a leader of the Labour Party in Jeremy Corbyn, and a very good chance of a Labour government coming to power. What policies would you like to see this government take up, regarding education and other areas?
KS: Firstly, I would like to see free university education. There’s been an argument going round that if Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of abolishing fees were introduced, it would mean going back to a [student] cap system. I don’t think that’s true because Germany and Scandinavia have free universities [with no student cap] and they work very well. I want free university education, a strong NHS, higher corporation tax, all of that kind of stuff. I hope he gets in so that we have a chance of seeing these policies coming into effect.
AM: Corbyn claims that he wants to make education free, and that’s great. I see that most young people in London, students or even younger people, are really captivated by this idea. It’s very important for them and that’s why they participated in the last elections and voted for Corbyn and his policies.
LW: The dispute went to ACAS today, so I’d like to wrap up this interview by talking about the report you got from the union about this. How are things progressing?
KS: As it stands, the update the we heard was that there has been no progress. The impression is that the UUK side is not is not unified and are in disagreement with each other. We’re taking that as a sign that we need to keep on being united. We do have a consistent stand and the union is optimistic that if we keep up the strike and keep up the pressure then they will have to concede.
LW (to AM): What do you think?
AM: I’m for the strike until we win!