We’re on break #UCUrising

Estimated read time 7 min read
The picket line at the University of Derby

Anyone who has been following my social media or working with me over the last couple of months will probably have noticed that I’ve been taking quite a lot of strike action. This has been personally pretty difficult (not to mention financially challenging), but I’m very persuaded that it is the right decision. The public sector is creaking under creeping austerity and those of us who care about public services have to try and do something. To ignore it is to see the ongoing destruction of the public realm and the continuing de-professionalisation of the public sector. I wrote more about why I was striking at the start of the dispute, so read it if you are interested.

Late yesterday afternoon we heard that the dispute had been paused because negotiations were going well and the five unions that represent workers in higher education were on the brink of a big break through. So, I wanted to use this blog to explain where we are and what I think that it all means, particularly as I know a lot of people who read this blog are outside of higher education and might be interested in what is going on.

Our union’s General Secretary, Jo Grady explains what the negotiations have achieved so far.

What has happened so far has been a very clear demonstration that strikes work and that it is only when you show some collective muscle that employers have any interest in negotiating. Decent pay and conditions, an interest in equal pay and reducing precarity only become issues when workers stand up and say that they really matter. Employers only listen when you’ve got something on them. For all of the careers advisers and careers researchers reading this, this shouldn’t be news. The labour market is, after all, a market and so it works in the interest of those with the power. This is why we talk about paying attention to what employers want so much.

Unions help us to level the playing field and serve as a critical check on the behaviour of employers. This is particularly the case when, as I wrote in a piece on the Career guidance for social justice blog, public sector wages are being deliberately held down by the government below the market rate.

So what is actually on the table? Remember none of this has been agreed yet, but this is the ballpark that we’re in at the moment.

  • Firstly on pay there is a promise for an improved pay rise next year. After years of microscopic pay rises falling far short of inflation, the strike has pushed employers to offer 8% for workers earning less than £20K, 7% for those earning less than £22K, 6% for those earning less than 30K, and 5% for the rest of us. This is still well short of inflation (currently 8.8%), but it is better than nothing and much better than we would have got without the strike.
  • Secondly, there seems to have been a real breakthrough on the USS pension. That doesn’t impact on me or other people in post-1992 universities. But for those in the older universities this will reverse a massive cut to their pensions that was enacted last year. This will hopefully allow a lot of higher education workers to retire with dignity. It also includes a commitment to divest the pensions investments in fossil fuels, which is good for all of us.
  • Thirdly, the union is hoping to get some real movement on casualisation, decent work and job security. At the moment it is not clear what this will look like, but in a sector where more and more people are on zero hour contracts and other forms of insecure employment it will be a bit step forward if we can pull it off.
  • Fourthly, there is a hope that we can do something about spiralling workloads in the sector.
  • Finally, there is a commitment to address gender and ethnicity pay gaps.

As I say this is not a done deal, but there does seem to be some willingness from all parties to move things forwards on all of these critical issues. The strike has been the sole lever that has made all of this happen.

Is this all I want? No, it isn’t. On pay I would really rather I didn’t end up in a situation where my salary is declining in real terms. On casualisation, workload and pay gaps, I would like to see more detail. It is easy for this stuff to end up as warm words that are ignored at a local level. But, we have a chance to get something meaningful. I never entered into this dispute thinking that I’d get everything that I wanted, but I hoped that it would move things forwards.

Of course, there is the risk that the employers are just pulling a fast one. If we stop striking they can change their mind and just pull all the goodies back off the table. But, we can also return to striking. This is just a pause, we can go back to striking if we have to (I really hope not, but I’m willing to do it if I have to). This is why it is so important that we win our reballot which will give the union the option of continuing the industrial action for another six months if necessary. Voting YES in this ballot is the biggest way that we can exert pressure on the employers at the moment.

So there is still a lot of road to travel. Some people in the union are worried that we are settling for too little and endangering the momentum that the strike has built. I feel that the strike is solid and that we’ll be able to switch it back on again, and I also think that everyone could do with a bit of a break to replenish their salaries after days of lost pay. But, ultimately I have trust in Jo Grady to lead us well. She has a long history of commitment to the labour movement, academic expertise in industrial relations and has proved herself to be a redoubtable fighter for higher education workers. She has also walked in our shoes and was a lecturer very recently. She knows first hand the issues of pay, workload and precarity that impact on the sector. I’m not uncritical of her, I think that she has made some mistakes (but who hasn’t) and I also think that we have to always remember that the union is bigger than any one individual. But I think that Jo would be one of the first people to say that. All in all, I think that this means that we should trust her and feel optimistic about the way the current dispute is going.

So, hi ho, hi ho, back to work we go. Over the next couple of weeks I hope that three things happen.

  • The employers continue to work with the unions in good faith to find a way forward for the sector.
  • UCU members vote YES in the ballot to renew industrial action. This will be the absolute best way to empower our negotiators.
  • Finally, I hope that people who have sat this one out see that trade unions and industrial action are effective and that joining the union is the best way to drive forward your career and to build a higher education sector (and a wider public sector and society) that works for everyone.

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