On Strikes, Action Short of a Strike and the Meaning of Solidarity.
Today staff in the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) begin a campaign of action short of a strike as the first phase of an attempt to force universities management back to the negotiating table over changes to pension plans.
The dispute (which, earlier this year, already resulted in several days of strike action) concerns the imposition (despite the scheme being in surplus) of a change from a final salary to a career averaged scheme and significantly reduced terms, increased contributions and later retirement. The changes will also make it significantly cheaper to sack staff and must be seen in concert with the cuts to teaching budgets and moves towards privatisation in the upcoming HE White Paper.
If this first phase phase of action is, which see staff working to contract (i.e. working only their set, contracted hours (far less than most academics usually work) and engaging in no voluntary activities such as covering colleagues or attending many meetings or open days), is insufficient a second phase of rolling, departmental strikes will come into effect.
Intending to maximise disruption to management whilst minimising the effect on students and the financial loss to members taking part, different departments every week would take action at each institution. So in the first week of strikes Edinburgh University might see informatics then physics take one day of action, in week two the library and social and political science might be on strike and so on in a series of escalating actions. Currently there are no plans for nationwide simultaneous action across every department and institution, so UCU may not be part of the November 30 coordinated action (though that could yet change).
If these strikes also fail to persuade management of the need to return to negotiations, a final phase of action could see staff refusing to set or to mark exams.
No one wants to see us reach that stage. If we do students’ progression from one year to the next and their graduation after their final year could be disrupted or delayed. This is not something staff want to happen. But if we want to avoid it we need to force management back to (meaningful) negotiations before that happens. That means presenting a united front. It means students, and their elected officers in students’ unions and the NUS, backing the UCU action and offering their unwavering and continuing support.
If management sense that a wedge can be driven between staff and students they will drive in that wedge. And if they think all they have to do is wait out a few months till exams come round and students will turn on their lecturers, and blame the union for their inconvenience, then management will wait out those months. And the very action all of us want to avoid will become inevitable — the attacks on pensions are too destructive to not use every tool we have available.
And when relations between staff and students break down it will be us, as students, that suffer. When we need to work together to campaign against fees, for adequate student support, or even simply for better course feedback we may find academics less eager to help and we may wish we had supported staff when they needed our backing.
Solidarity doesn’t just mean a few nice sounding statements and turning up to a demo or two when things don’t really affect us, it means standing up in defence of others even to our own inconvenience. If and when we reach the need for exams to remain unset or unmarked staff will have already sacrificed days of pay for this campaign. Can we really say we support them, if that support disappears as soon as we have to wait a little longer to get our results?
You make some very interesting points Franklin, which I thought myself the last time we were on strike back in March.
I’d be interested to hear more about what you think UCU should be doing instead of the current action? If we all stopped engaging with any admin tasks, I can see that might have some impact, but it would put us in breach of contract. I don’t think that means we shouldn’t do it, but I suspect given where we are there wouldn’t be massive support for action that would not be legally protected.
I’d add that the feeling in my branch was that action short of a strike had much better support than striking did, and that last time we refused to set and mark exams that was quite successful.
I thought I’d supplement this with a view from, as it were, the other side of the fence, and why I think UCU have got this wrong. As a (fixed-term contract) Lecturer, the central part of my contract states:
“The actual hours worked in any particular week may vary, but the norm over a period which is reasonable for the job in question will be 35 hours. There are no fixed hours of work, to reflect the need for work to be directed in order to meet organisational priorities and fluctuating work requirements, and to permit flexibility where appropriate.”
So essentially my job is elastic: extended here, shortened there, according to changing organisational priorities. Given this, UCU’s action of ‘working to contract’ seems rather meaningless. Worse, in fact, as their guidance tells us to ‘perform no additional voluntary duties’. This means no more activities like perusing this fine blog, reading around my subject, conversing with colleagues in other institutions, going to conferences, giving an external talk; basically all the activites that aren’t specified by ‘organisational priorites’ but are part of being an academic. Yet again, UCU misconstrues the nature of academia. UCU’s action would have me spending hours filling in risk assessments to go to a library in London (I kid you not), or completing ethical review procedures to do an interview (don’t even get me started on that one), rather than all the extra good stuff necessary to be a good researcher and teacher: how exactly does this hurt the university? Similarly, strike action merely shuffles work around (strike on Monday, do all your work on Tuesday instead) or shifts it on to colleagues. UCU have it backwards. You are entirely right that disruption to teaching – which will result if this action gets going – generates discord between teachers and students. This should be avoided. It is front-line academic staff and students together who are increasingly marginalised, isolated at the end of the decision-making chain, by the growth of the university adminisphere (not my phrase). Clearly, the productive response is to maintain all teaching activities but to withold participation in any and all university administrative processes (given that corporate priorities are in reality ordered: research, administration, teaching, students). One might imagine the university senior management’s reaction if staff stopped filling in their risk assessments, opening up the university to all sorts of risks. I think they might worry about that more than a few hundred students getting their degrees a week or two late. At root here is UCU’s lack of vision: it ignores the growth of the adminisphere, the in-roads of corporate funding and commercialisation, the de-skilling of lecturers through shorter and shorter fixed term contracts, in favour of percentage points on a pension (not to say that isn’t important). Any disruption to teaching is counter-productive.