We are unionist but we won’t be striking this time

Striking again would rob students of vital lecture time and damage the progress we’ve made through bargaining, says one anonymous UCU member

February 10, 2020
Unsupervised students
Source: iStock

I’m a lecturer in a big humanities department at a Russell Group university. I’m mid-career and midlife, but, like many academics, decidedly not middle-of-the-road: my political views are firmly on the left. That is, most pollsters, political parties and certainly Tories would consider me “left-wing”. 

In the fevered Twitter universe of the UK’s Universities and College Union Left, however, I’m considered a “fatalistic” and “naive” advocate of “partnership unionism” who believes in the potential of collective bargaining to achieve concrete gains. Guilty as charged.

For many years, our department had a strong contingent of UCU dues-payers. We were always union members, but not union activists. That changed in February 2018 with “the Great University Strike”. 

It was perfectly obvious to us that our pensions were under attack, and that the Universities Superannuation Scheme was fiddling the valuation. Everyone heard the talk about Oxbridge colleges seeking to shirk the sector’s collective responsibility for supporting the pension fund, and everyone understood that shifting our pensions to a defined-contribution scheme was a simple cash-grab by investment managers and universities. 

Few of us understood the intricacies of fund valuations and actuarial assumptions, but it wasn’t hard to interpret the USS’ own data about how much retirement money we would lose. 

So we struck, en masse. Colleagues showed up to picket lines with dogs and baked goods, guitars and children. And we stood in drifts of snow handing out leaflets to passing students. It was fantastic. And we won. The universities and the USS agreed to reconsider the valuation, and the new Joint Expert Panel set up between the UCU and Universities UK seemed like a favourable development. We were happy and proud. The details remained foggy, but the direction of travel seemed hopeful.

Over the next few years, it became clear that the new valuation process was going awry. The dismissal of Jane Hutton from the USS board, and the support of some university vice-chancellors for the UCU position, suggested that there was some broader governance problem making it difficult to resolve the situation. 

The Financial Times – the Financial Times! – often reported on seeming improprieties in the process. Our victory seemed to be slipping through our hands. When the UCU balloted us for another strike, we voted yes.

The 2019 strike was even better than the previous one. Again the picket lines were lively, with dogs and babies and biscuits, and barbecues and silly songs and very supportive students. We had even larger numbers of staff on strike – 90 per cent in my department alone. Our vice-chancellor made statements that were quite emollient. We were heartened, and when negotiations resumed, we were glad to go back to teaching and leave it to the bargaining table. Again it was hard to follow all the details, but things seemed promising. Published proposals, especially in regard to casualisation, suggested that we were making real progress.

We were astonished this month suddenly to be notified that we are meant to go back on strike for 14 days during February and March over pensions and pay conditions. Bargaining seemed to be under way, and many of us had no idea that our autumn vote could authorise repeated strike calls. 

Our students had been warmly supportive in the fall, but now they are angry. And we can’t blame them. They have already missed numerous lectures and seminars. The additional strike days would mean that degree finalists would miss many more days of instruction, while they were writing summative essays and dissertations. 

Most students would lose a quarter of their tuition for the year. We have a hard time imagining how to explain this to them, especially when it doesn’t make any sense to us.

That’s why we won’t go on strike this time. A strike really doesn’t make sense, not as a bargaining tactic for the union at this moment, and not as a pedagogical position for lecturers committed to our students. 

This doesn’t make us scabs. We are trade unionists and will remain so. We are “independent”, another epithet sometimes launched at us by the UCU Left. We don’t mind the label. Being independent means that we can hold seeming contradictions in our head at the same time: UCU members can back our leaders despite their misguided strategy, and refusing to blindly follow an ill-conceived plan doesn’t make us bad trade unionists. 

We voted for our general secretary Jo Grady, and we support her. But we were members of this union before her slate was elected, and we’ll still be members when new leadership comes in, because we are the union.

UCU’s higher education committee should take heed of members’ views and our actions. We hope that UCU thinks again, and doesn’t sacrifice our union’s solidarity for a strike that doesn’t need to happen right now. There is plenty of time for striking later, if this round of bargaining fails.

University leadership should also take heed. We are not afraid to strike, and we will do it again if we must. 

But good-faith bargaining now – including issues beyond the pension, such as casualisation and pay equity – can build up reserves of goodwill between staff and management. Refusing to come to sensible compromises will only further antagonise staff, and lead to more disruption. While the minutiae of pension valuation are tedious, we can recognise reasonable offers when we see them. Let’s keep negotiating.

Why am I writing anonymously? Because the toxic internet climate is impossible to escape. The deluge of online harassment causes regular people to withdraw from public forums. Twitter conversations are very unlike the exchanges among colleagues in department corridors, pubs and picket lines. 

Union democracy – any form of democracy – requires a public sphere free from bad-faith harassment, and space for more than 280 characters of text.

The author is lecturer at a Russell Group university. 


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Reader's comments (7)

Speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the Press: I agree wholeheartedly that strike action over the pension situation this time is misplaced -- indeed I thought so in 2019 too. Having struck in 2018, we got what we were asked for (the Joint Expert Panel), which did what we hoped (showed the USS valuation to be a con, and suggesting an appropriate alternative). But when USS failed to accept the results, the logical next step is not another strike, which only inconveniences students and our employers alike, both of whom have been largely supportive. USS management, by contrast, is not remotely inconvenienced by our striking. What UCU should do next therefore is not strike again but launch a targeted legal action against specific members of USS management for dereliction of their responsibilities to us -- and if necessary against members of the governing board for failing to force management to accept the JEP's recommendations. We aren't customers to whom USS are providing a service. They are trustees of *our* money, and if we've made it clear by ballot that we want that money to be managed in a certain way, and management refuse to do so, it's time for them to resign or be relieved of their posts. Jonathan Dore
I also agree wholeheartedly with both the article and with what you have written in your comment. Striking is not the right form of action this time. On a different note, I also sometimes wonder what has UCU done for the thousands of HE staff that are EU citizens; several are UCU members too. From the emails and text messages I get by UCU, it seems to me that this other issue is being completely overlooked. They are obviously different issues. However, EU staff leaving their jobs can certainly put the sector under additional strain and increase current staff workloads. I do not have any figures to present. I just wonder what exactly is my UCU membership contributing too: support those who want to strike repeatedly without any impact on the USS management board, or support ALL our members?
The view that anything has been won via negotiation is both myopic - in focusing on pensions - and betrays a lack of knowledge regarding the history of HE employment relations. Let's broaden our interests, away from pensions to examine the generous offers made for reformation of overwhelming reliance of UK HE on Fixed Term appointments – a situation that leaves most students taught by staff understandably spending half their year look for another job (suffering increasing mental health concerns, and finding their personal relations and family breaking apart as a result – UCU case worker experience). In Jan 2020, UCEA offered that “Indefinite contracts will be the general form of employment relationship between employers and employees” (1). It’s hard to see this as radical or generous, when you know the exact same thing was offered 18 years previously, in 2002, when the “Fixed-Term and Casual Employment Guidance for Higher Education Institutions”(2) stated on page 6 that “Indefinite contracts will be the general form of employment relationship between employers and employees”. In Jan 2020, UCEA offered that staff employed on fixed term or casual contracts be given access to staff development, training, and other opportunities etc. Also not so generous given that this is a legal requirement as per the Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 - Regulation 9 (3). If you think this is worth having, it’s basically the same as accepting minimum wages, because you aren’t sufficiently conscious to know this is a legal right. I am open to the possibility that some particular university teachers are so effective they the value of what they can teach in three weeks, far outweighs the value of structural reform of UK HE. In these no doubt numerous cases, the balance of my feeling falls firmly with the specific student cohort impacted. In all situations however, I think this view is rather arrogant. Remaining at work teaches your students naive conformity, and that fear of relinquishment and sacrifice, narrow concerns with impacting particular individuals, should trump engagement in wider and intergenerational reform that will require an adjustment to the status quo. Where academics claiming to be unionists take this role in education, I doubt we have much meaningful chance against poverty, inequality and Climate Change – as there will decreasing appetite to accept limitations on short term “freedom to (go to class)” in active preservation of “freedoms from”: in this case, worsening staff conditions, lower educational standards, marketization and extraction of capital from individuals through HE (as the financial sector sucks greater contributions and offloads more and more risk, as supported by inadequate USS governance and the rank power play of elite decision makers at the cost of everyone in society). (1) https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10691/10-point-briefing-on-UCEAs-offer-Jan-20/pdf/ucu_tenpointbriefing-uceaoffer_jan20.pdf (2) https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/1920/JNCHES-fixed-term-and-casual-employment-guidance-Jun-02/pdf/jnches_fixedtermguidance_1.pdf (3) http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2002/2034/contents/made
To a large extent I agree with the sentiment that a strike right now is the wrong move. Personally I couldn't give to s**ts about pay. Nor do I care at all about a small number of % on the cost of the pension. I DO care about the casualisation, workload and equalities claim. And here I think that what has been offered is a joke. Warm words with no teeth and no mechanism for enforcement. But none of that really matters, because in the end the decision is not mine to make. The author claims to be a unionist, but the point of the union is collectivism. You don't get to make your own decisions. Yes, there may be flaws in the union's decision making process; but at the end of the day, you get to have your say, equal to everyone else, and then you have to abide by the decision of the collective. One day in the future, you a decsision your way, and then those that are in favour of this decision, but against that one will stand with you, as we will stand with them now. So while I disagree with this right now, and while I probably won't be as vocal this time as in the past, I will not now, or ever, cross a picket line for any reason.
The article and first two comments have really saddened me. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding of what the strike is actually about. As well as the pension concern ,the action is also based upon the four fights of pay inequality, job insecurity, rising workloads and pay devaluation. I hope the author's aren't at the sharp end of any of these issues , but they have colleagues who are and they deserve your support. Isn't that what being in a union is all about ? If UCU members actually engaged more with the union, attending branch meetings , not just paying subscriptions, they would have a better understanding of the conditions people are facing and could also better influence the direction of the union, if they don't think it is representing their views. As a member of Professional Services staff , I am fighting to protect a meagre pension and to try and address, in a very small way, the damage done to my salary by sub inflationary pay increases for many years. Nobody wants to harm the student experience, but having given more than two decades of a career supporting them , when do I get to matter ? Employers know how much we care for our students and our reluctance to impact their studies is a weakness they will use against us. That is why the strike needs to be now , not later when it is of no consequence. Negotiations have been promising, but we are still paying more pension contributions having gone on strike on the premise of 'no detriment' and UCEA saying they are firmly sticking to the derisory 1.8% pay offer. Given that 14 more Universities having been reballoted have decided to join the fight, I do not think the article (or the other one published today) represents the sentiments of members at all and obviously influenced the HEC into deciding upon this action. Independent thinking is a thing to be applauded and variation in views and opinions will make the union a better place for all of its members, but I believe being a unionist brings with it a collective responsibility and the thought of crossing a picket line as a union member woud fill me with shame, knowing what my colleagues are going through and the sacrifices they are making from which we all will benefit. Given that UCU left (of which I'm neither a member or supporter) was mentioned negatively in both articles , for balanced reporting I would hope the views of all sides are represented ahead of the coming election.
ON the USS dispute, it is far from over. We have potentially made progress by getting the Joint Expert Panel Reports. But they were only won as the outcome of strike action. Now the task is to get the new more sensible valuation - one that does not assume the scheme to only invest in gilts that yield a negative real rate of return as assumed at the moment - to be accepted. That means we have to get the USS trustees and managers to accept change. So far they have not done so, but there are ongoing tripartite talks with UCU/UUK/USS about change. But the only way we can get anything near what we want is by putting pressure on the employers UUK who are in the driving seat. That means strike action is needed. It is not just a matter of a few percent on the contributions, but the survival of the defined benefit scheme long term. The USS (and UUK) would like to replace it with a cheaper defined contribution scheme that transfers risk to members. By overstating the risk - and shifting investments into gilts to mitigate it - they can argue that the scheme is becoming more expensive - that makes it unaffordable to many members who leave or don't join - leading to a cycle decline and eventual closure. That is the agenda and it will become reality unless we act. There is no reason the USS pension scheme needs to be so expensive. If it stays open and invests prudently and sensibly it can remain affordable and sustainable. That is what the strike is about.
The idea that members were suddenly informed from on high that we would be going out on strike is disingenuous. Members voted to go on strike, and the legal mandate lasts six months. The union is a democratic organisation and this wave of strike action was proposed and voted on at a meeting of branch representatives. It was confirmed by the union's Higher Education Committee. There was regular communication about all of this. Saying 'I am not a scab' is a rhetorical device operating according to the same logic as claiming 'I am not a racist.' If you are going to work when your union has democratically made a collective decision to strike, you are a strikebreaker.