Non-teaching staff in higher education (HE) have been ‘offered’ a derisory 0% pay ‘rise’ this year. In the middle of a pandemic where union members are on the frontline in universities, workers are seeing just how much they are valued by management.

The joint union claim was for a mere 5% pay rise – hardly a king’s ransom. The ‘pay offer’ also doesn’t address any of the other parts of the claim. For example, university bosses have ignored union calls for a standard 35-hour week and for action on gender and race inequality on pay.

Unison, the biggest union among support staff, is balloting its 50,000 HE members, seeking a substantial vote to reject the offer. The ballot runs until 30 November.

Rotten deal

Those affected by this rotten deal are the workers who staff the offices, who clean the buildings and halls of residence, and who provide security; it is the caretakers and maintenance staff, the careers advisers, counsellors, lab technicians, librarians, and other support staff.

As a statement on the Unison website comments:

“It’s an insulting figure at the best of times, let alone when staff have spent the year bending over backwards to keep services running safely and efficiently.”

“From keeping campuses cleaner than ever before, to making high quality remote learning a reality; from supporting vulnerable students, to planning programmes and finances when everything’s up in the air – university staff simply could not have given more to their jobs.”

Unison is balloting members to see whether they are prepared to accept the offer. Rejection would lead to a formal strike ballot, followed by escalating industrial action across the country.

Tensions are already running high in HE. There is enormous anger towards vice chancellors and their eye-watering pay; towards precarious working conditions; and, most recently, towards the plight of students barricaded in their accommodation. There is every chance, therefore, that the ‘offer’ will be rejected.

Who pays?

The universities will cry poverty. But that won’t wash with union members. In recent years, the university sector has built up reserves of as much as £44 billion. While the collapse in international student tuition fees has hit finances, these reserves have certainly not dissolved.

What’s more, many universities have experienced record high uptake among fee-paying UK students – who are being robbed blind by a sector driven by market incentives.

At the same time, workers and students can see that the wealth exists in society to fully-fund education. But currently it is going towards bailouts for big business, and to boost the profits of the bosses and the billionaires.

Unite and fight

28th Feb demo London 2

The lesson of the pandemic is that the Tory government can be forced to U-turn. And there is no reason to believe that an effective struggle over pay can’t succeed either.

A well-organised campaign, involving the maximum number of members, would win the overwhelming support of students and the wider public. Students forking out £9k in fees and thousands more in rents for an online-only ‘university experience’ would be natural allies in the fight against unscrupulous university bosses.

Most importantly, it would give Unison the opportunity to link with other unions on campuses – in particular, the UCU representing academic staff – who are involved in similar struggles over pay, inequality, and casualisation.

The way to win is with determined, united, and militant action across the sector. The MSF will support action taken against this.

  • Reject the pay freeze – fight for the full claim!
  • For a united fightback in higher education! Students and workers – unite and fight!
  • Make the bosses pay!
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