The UCU Strike and the Recent Cultural History of Strike Action.

“Individually, we don’t have a say in the management of our university, but collectively we might” – an anonymous student from Kings College London supporting the industrial action of the 2018 academic strikes. 

Members of the UCU are striking until 4 December over a variety of issues including the continued subject of pensions, workloads, casualisation, pay, and gender and ethnic pay gaps. This situation is not just occurring at Exeter; The University and College Union (UCU) has announced eight days of strikes at sixty universities including Oxford, Durham and Cardiff. Many lecturers and seminar leaders have announced to us their reluctance to strike, yet their determination to fight for a cause close to their heart.

Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary stated that “the employers [need to] start talking to us seriously about how they are going to deal with rising pension costs and declining pay and conditions”. The result of two ballots made it clear that university staff were not going to accept their treatment after 79% of voters supported strike action over pensions and 74% voted in favour of striking over salary, equality, casualitsation and workload.

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The effects of the issues at stake are grave; the UCU predicts that lecturers could be left £240,000 worse off in retirement– an enormous figure.

Yet, employers are arguing that increasing their contributions to even 22.7% of pay would cost them an immense £373 million a year. They have threatened that as a result of this, they would have to reduce funding towards areas in the learning environment, such as student support.

Many lecturers believe student learning environments are already being jeopardized by their difficult working environment. Dr Claire Morris, a food policy expert at London’s City University told the BBC: “I’m going on strike because I really care about the education that we deliver to our students and I feel our working conditions are being eroded”.

In comparison with the current UCU strike, the longest academic strike in the UK lasted for 14 strike days from 22 February until 20 March 2018, involving an estimated 42,000 staff across 64 universities. 575,000 teaching hours were lost and while many university students signed petitions demanding free refunds for the time that was lost, other students on the picket line dismissed these demands as selfish.

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Addressing staff and students at the University of Manchester, Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary, stated that she would “end the scandal of chancellors getting extortionate pay while people at the other end of the pay scale have to use food banks, which is absolutely disgusting and disgraceful”. She promised that under a Labour government, this would end.

The relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions, however, has not always been so in tune. The inclusion of Clause IV in Labour’s manifesto since 1918 made it clear that they would support nationalisation at all times. However, Tony Blair’s New Labour saw an amendment to the constitution, weakening the party’s socialist stance and thereby lessening the power of the trade unions. This relationship would undoubtedly be different under Jeremy Corbyn, a traditional “Old Labour” candidate, who told the TUC Congress in September that he would “put power in workers’ hands”.

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No historic strike could demonstrate the disastrous relationship between the Conservative Party and the trade unions more than the Miners’ Strike in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. This feeling is conveyed in the words of a police officer from the time: “Unions, in reality the only power balance against a right wing government, were legislatively castrated.” Numbers of strikes boomed under Margaret Thatcher’s government, as well as under Theresa May’s, where trade unions chose to “fight like never before” against her. Strikes during the summer of 2017 were rife in the transport sector, with Southern Rail and its disagreements with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling at the forefront. Other walk-outs included junior doctors and postal workers. The fact that South Western Rail will be striking again for 27 days this December suggests that the relationship between the Conservative government and the unions will remain tense for the foreseeable future.

Similarly to the UK, in France, the political mood surrounding education has often been tense, particularly during the 2007-2009 protests in response to Valérie Pécresse’s agenda as Minister for Higher Education and Research. The strikes during this time reached the extreme in aggression, with police using tear gas against demonstrators, who threw projectiles at the officers. An estimated 45% of classes were affected across France due to 200 planned job cuts, changes to lecturers’ training and reforms to put lecturers’ careers more firmly into the hands of the universities themselves, removing the workers’ power. Stéphane Tassel from the National Union of Higher Education compared the situation to coping with a disease”, after emotions ran from “denial and despair” to anger.

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The current UCU strikes are significantly affecting campuses around the country. The important question is: will the issues being protested against be resolved?

– Eleanor Braham

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