Striking staff tired but determined in third wave of walkouts

Sunny start to the latest round of UK industrial action couldn’t mask the frustrations felt by many union members

March 21, 2022
Strike picket line at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Source: Tom Williams

As a third wave of strike action began at UK universities, staff on the picket lines insisted that they were determined to fight on despite controversial pension cuts being forced through.

The University and College Union says that 50,000 staff are eligible to take part in the latest industrial action and that 1 million students could be affected, with 38 institutions out this week and a further 29 to follow on 28 March.

It is the third walkout of this academic year, after similar strikes a month ago and in December 2021. Staff are striking over pay and working conditions or pension cuts, and most branches have a mandate to take action in both disputes.

Those on the picket lines admitted to being affected by fatigue but said frustrations at the lack of progress and at vice-chancellors forcing through cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) have forced them to down tools once again.

Outside the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, research fellow and local UCU branch chair Shari Krishnaratne told Times Higher Education that she was “disappointed” to be back on strike.

“We were hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but the USS vote was really demoralising,” she said. “It seemed liked a closed conversation before it had even started. I think we are being heard, but the message is not being taken up for whatever reason.”

Ms Krishnaratne said that as well as pensions, she was concerned about the impact of casualisation on higher education. None of the four staff members on the picket line on 21 March was on a permanent contract, and she personally had been in post for 10 years with little job security. Ms Krishnaratne added that staff have worked longer hours and given up holidays because of the school’s pivotal role during the pandemic but many still don’t know if they will be working there from one year to the next.

“People that are here love the school. We think it is such a great institution and produces such great work,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s anybody here who hasn’t had the experience of trying to piece together grants and covering gaps between funding.”

The latest strikes are taking place as UCU members are balloted over further potential industrial action that could coincide with the exams and marking period.

Amid claims from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association that previous actions had resulted in only “low” levels of disruption, John Yandell, an associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education, said the impact had been hard to judge because many academics were still working from home several days a week.

“Our sense is the membership is still committed to fighting for the very reasonable demands we are making around pay and the end of casualisation,” Dr Yandell said from the picket line.

“There is increasing bitterness that our employers are just not prepared to enter into any serious negotiations. I think they thought we would just crumble and give up, and that isn’t what’s happening or what is going to happen.”

Tanya Serisier, the UCU branch chair and a reader in criminology at Birkbeck, University of London, said modelling had shown that her pension income was likely to go down by 40 per cent because of the reforms, which would force her to work for longer and have to leave London when she does retire.

She said on the “four fights” dispute – which demands an end to race and gender pay gaps; the elimination of insecure contracts; meaningful action to tackle workloads and a £2,500 pay rise for all – members were “fed up” at the lack of progress.

“We need to work towards change: it will help the sector function better; it will provide a better experience for students; it will be more sustainable financially,” she said.

“The demands we are making are very reasonable, and a lot of our members do not understand why employers are so entrenched. We are hoping it doesn’t have to proceed further. I think people are fatigued, but there’s also a sense of what’s the other option – let our working conditions be completely eroded?”

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Reader's comments (6)

I would hope (but somehow doubt) that VCs collectively are sufficiently aware of the very long term anger and devastating impact of acrimonious disputes in other employment sectors. Almost 40 years after the last major strike action in the UK coalfields the anger towards government and managers seen as responsible remains raw. In those industries which have experienced similarly hostile industrial relations but remain largely intact all goodwill has gone – a worker will not work a minute beyond their allotted hours without overtime pay. If University leaders believe that a sector built upon the highest levels of qualification and expertise, and run to a very significant extent on the goodwill of the workforce to go above and beyond their contractual obligations will continue to operate in this way if the levels of anger currently within the workforce are not assuaged they are at the very least extremely naive. And I'm not talking about a few months and then things settling back to normal - this is a major betrayal for which university managers will lose the trust of the workforce in everything they attempt to do into the foreseeable future.
2 things: 1. Why is UUK not joining with UCU to hold USS to account for their shambolic mismanagment of the pension fund? 2. Why is USS not offering the option of paying more now whilst working (when income is relatively high) to maintain retirement income rather than forcing everyone to face old-age poverty as they break their contract with us? Surely that choice is up to us not them yet it has not been even considered let alone offered.
3. Why has there been no commitment to reversing the change in terms when the scheme's deficit is found to not be as big as USS are reporting ?
I'm alarmed by the inter-generational inequality. When I took early retirement in 2005, the pension was assessed on 1/80th of salary for each year of service plus a lump sum. That agreement allowed people to retire effectively on half salary with a lump sum. As I recollect, there were some very generous allocations. It seems entirely discriminatory to penalize this generation of academics. In a wider context, we have to prevent this deterioration of terms and conditions - British Gas and Brush fire and rehire (in this country) and P & O in the maritime economy (outside national laws). If we don't all stand together on all these issues, we will all lose. It's heartening to perceive UCU leadership aligning with other unions.
The comment about 'low levels of disruption' that UCEA keep trotting out is an interesting one, and reflective about how universities currently are managed. In my own experience, industrial action creates enormous amounts of disruption (first of all in the sense that a 'mitigation committee' of dozens of staff will be set up and have regular meetings before, during and after - perhaps 200+ hours of mid-senior staff time taken up with this; secondly in the amount of time dealing with student comms, cover, reorganisation that is required from professional services staff). However, there is then a common theme when a head of department or director is asked about how much impact the strike as had: 'oh, not much, we managed, all's well'. For this person, the emphasis is on showing how well they've coped, rather than really gauging how much additional work has been heaped on the more junior staff in the department. Senior management has long ago giving up trying to accurately measure and mitigate overwork in universities, and in the response to the strike can be seen more of the same.
Universities are presumably passing off previously recoded material during the covid pandemic in lieu of cancelled f2f teaching. When this trade off becomes unacceptable to students and calls for refunds grow, then and only then will employees’ concerns be taken seriously.