The Higher Education pay dispute: on two hour strikes

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Since the start of the New Year the industrial action within the Higher Education (HE) pay dispute has increased in tempo, with UCU – the union to which lecturers and teaching staff are largely affiliated – organising a number of strike days throughout January and February.

However, whilst the strike action itself has increased in frequency it has consisted mostly of three weekly two-hour strikes throughout January and February (with national action of all three unions on the 6th February). For a number of reasons, these two-hour strikes have had limited success nationally.

Cuts for staff; bonuses for the bosses

Since it began in Autumn 2013, the HE pay dispute has so far concerned three main unions: UCU, Unison and UNITE. The dispute itself has emerged for a number of reasons, mainly due to that of a pay freeze among staff in HE since 2009 – staff have since been offered a one per cent pay increase to their wages, but to accept these terms would mean a thirteen per cent cut to wages in relation to inflation.

To accompany this, many workers are still not receiving a ‘living wage’, particularly those such as cleaners, campus porters, security, and administrative staff. In fact, minimum wage and job insecurity is on the agenda for staff in HE institutions. Privatisation of campus services at universities across the UK is jeopardising pre-existing work and pay conditions; workers are being forced to reapply for their own jobs, but under the authority of private enterprise and business, only to be forced to accept lower pay rates, shorter hours and no sick pay when they are offered their own job; zero-hour contracts are now prolific in universities.

To pour salt in the wound, this has occurred when immense pay rises have been granted to university Vice Chancellors. According to UCU, the average pay raise among Vice Chancellors has amounted to just over five per cent, while an estimated quarter have received an increase of ten per cent, and other individuals such as Craig Calhoun of LSE have seen their income increased by 61.1 per cent, and Keith Burnett of the University of Sheffield by 39 per cent.

To put this into perspective, Universities are charging greater amounts for education and employing workers on increasingly precarious and ambiguous contracts which might see workers lose their jobs, or force their income to fall by hundreds of pounds per year, whilst simultaneously, in the case of Michael Farthing of Sussex University, universities still justify affording increases to the salaries of their Vice Chancellors by £8,000 per year. For Farthing, this brings his total annual income to £280,000 in 2013, a sum which most staff and students at Sussex could only dream of.

The role of the student unions

UCU, Unison and UNITE have sought a series of one-day national strikes during November and December last year to demand improved pay conditions, and 2014 has begun with similar vigour. UCU has orchestrated a number of two-hour strikes to occur weekly throughout January and February.

The results of these two-hour strikes has varied across the country. Among many universities, such as Sussex, the disappearance of students from campuses over December and most of January due to periods of scheduled exams and holiday, has meant that the UCU action came highly unexpectedly to students just starting their term. Some students have even responded to the strikes with hostility. A lack of understanding of the HE pay dispute has led many to perceive that the staff strike is preventing them from ‘getting what they paid for’ at university.

The responsibility for this ignorance and opposition towards the HE strike amongst students lies with the leadership of the student unions, who should be doing everything in their power to highlight the importance of these strikes, explain how the struggles of the university staff are intertwined with the struggles of students against fees and cuts, and make links with the trade unions on campus in order to offer concrete solidarity and organise joint student-worker action.

Students and workers: unite and fight!

Just as the Marxist Student Federation supported the united action of Unison, UNITE and UCU over November and December, we must unerringly support the staff who participate in UCU’s two-hour strike action. We must also continue to keenly discuss strike action, to appear on picket lines where they occur, and consistently support the struggle of the staff, whilst pushing for our own students unions to exhibit the same solidarity by organising for co-ordinated student strike action.

We cannot forget that the attacks on the pay conditions and working conditions of staff in HE institutions entirely compromise the education of the students within them. But more importantly, we too will be faced with such attacks from all directions when we join the ranks of the working class upon graduation from school, college or university.

One does not have to look far to identify the close relationship between the employment prospects for graduates to the conditions of staff in education institutions. Thousands of post-graduates enter the teaching profession each year in the hope of utilising the discipline of their degree, but do so on the basis of two or three-year contracts, low-paid post-graduate positions and temporary placements, founded on a lack of support and adequate teacher training. Unknowingly, post-graduates provide a constant stream of cheap labour with little long-term prospect of employment.

The industrial struggles of workers in Higher Education, in FE colleges, in secondary schools and in primary schools, and elsewhere, will be the concern of the student whether they wish to acknowledge it now, while in education, or later, when unemployed.

Two-hour strikes

It is very clear that the level of publicity for the recent UCU action has been varied, and depending on varying numbers of active trade unionists and the fighting traditions in certain places or among certain groups of staff, the impact of the strike has been inconsistent and has differed greatly from one area of the country to the next.

In some areas, for example, the short and sporadic bursts of industrial action served to boost the mood of resistance among staff, as the prospect of taking action without losing a whole day’s pay encouraged a greater number of people to come out onto the pick lines.

We must also be clear, however, about our expectations and our understanding of the limitations of this current form of industrial action. The tactic of the two-hour strike may have several benefits: it does not inflict the loss of an entire day’s pay, and may also have the benefit of serving to draw more workers into activity through the increased regularity of action.

The demoralising effects of the use of small strikes – such as two-hour strikes – is all too clear. In Greece, Spain, and Italy, where the economic crisis has reached a far more advanced and ominous stage, short and sporadic strikes in these instances have represented a ‘scaling-down’ of industrial action; a means used by the trade union leaders of half-heartedly letting workers air their frustrations without incurring too much damage on businesses. Two-hour strikes can have the effect at certain points in class struggle of demoralising workers and inducing an air of inevitable defeat.

During their two hours of strike action many UCU members did not enthusiastically join their nearest picket-line; instead it was used as an opportunity for a prolonged lunch-break. Given the nature of the UCU leadership, this is completely understandable. The rank-and-file do not have great confidence in their leadership, because the union leadership do not have a perspective of how to win this fight.

Movement needs fighting leadership

February 6th was the most recent strike of all three unions. In reports from the Marxist societies across the UK it was expressed that the numbers on the picket lines were much lower. At Sussex, the picket line was organised in order to have a ‘teach-out’, with the picket line dissolving at only eleven o’clock. It is clear that there is a broad mood of frustration and defeat in many areas of the country. The leadership of UCU, but also of Unison and UNITE, is one of disorganisation and passivity.

Reports from London indicate that only around 50 were in attendance at the post-strike London-wide rally. The mood was downbeat and one of anger at the complete absence of strategy from the top. As one speaker from the floor commented, the strike campaign has been needlessly dragged out and de-escalated with the two-hour strikes. Other speakers commented that the correspondence from UCU leadership to the membership was extremely plaintive, and didn’t even say the aim of the strike was to win, but merely to get the government to reopen negotiations. As this speaker pointed out, this is how the union leadership sees things – so long as they’ve been consulted in some way, that’s fine; meanwhile they lose one dispute after another.

The top table speakers at this rally, representing regional leadership from the unions involved, were equally lacking of any perspective. No plan or strategy on how to win the dispute was mentioned at all. Instead the entire discussion was framed merely in terms of how morally justified the workers are in striking. The trade union leadership needs to tell the truth to its members: the cuts to pay and conditions in HE are part of a wider attack on the working class, due to the crisis of capitalism; the struggles in HE, therefore, cannot be won through isolated one-day (not to mention two-hour) strikes, but require unity across the labour movement, armed with a political programme to fight for socialist policies.

For co-ordination action against the Tory Coalition!

Clearly a two-hour strike by one union cannot be more effective than an entire day of co-ordinated action by three unions. It is important to also note at this point that three unions striking for a day cannot be as effective as four unions: The National Union of Students has passively expressed support for the unions locked in the HE pay dispute, but as yet has not co-ordinated concrete action in support or solidarity.

The Marxist Student Federation must push for student unions, and the NUS collectively, to fight alongside resident trade unions on university campuses in their industrial disputes. We call for all-out student strike action in solidarity, with which the student unions should mobilise the facilities at their disposal to educate students about the strike and to insist that students do not cross picket lines. Only when the students and staff are united in their struggle will it be possible for us to adequately defend education and employment in UK Higher Education.

In London, the recent HE strike on 6th February coincided with the strike of London transport workers. This was more a case of accident than design, with no actual co-ordination between the HE unions and the RMT/TSSA unions in London. Nevertheless, the impact of the simultaneous strike action by HE workers and London Underground staff was noticeable, with far fewer students and staff present on campus or crossing picket lines.

This unconscious coincidence indicates what must be now done in a conscious manner: for the unions to co-ordinate action across different sectors and begin organising for a one-day general strike. In the recent period we have seen isolated strikes by teachers, university staff, postal workers, firefighters, civil servants, and others besides.

The task now is for the trade unions to display fighting leadership and mobilise the entire might of the labour movement around the call for a general strike, in order to give confidence and momentum to the struggle of workers in the fight against this Tory Coalition and their programme of austerity.

by Jo Pickard, Sussex Marxist Society