by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser • The breadth and depth of strike action by staff at ten Scottish universities, and 61 across the UK, is unprecedented.
Members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted overwhelmingly to stage an escalating series of strikes in defence of their pensions, with a total of 14 days already named.
The pickets are large, the roving demos colourful and noisy, and the support for staff from students vast and visible.
This strike is primarily about an assault on staff pensions, with their bosses in Universities UK (UUK) wanting to slash the current defined benefits scheme—the Universities Superannuation Scheme—to a cheap and nasty defined contributions scheme, where retirement income would be dependent on the fluctuations of the stock market.
Concretely, as the UCU union spells out, this would mean an average annual cut of £10,000 to pensions for lecturers, teachers, librarians, researchers and student support staff.
As Dave, one of the strikers in Glasgow, told me, “I face a 50 per cent cut! In many ways this was always quite a conservative workforce, reluctant to take industrial action, and we often put up with the pay levels because at least there is a decent pension at the end of it.
“But we have to take the pain of losing pay now, through striking, or there’ll be nothing left at the end of our careers.”
The Universities UK bosses claim they have to take this slice off pensions because they face a £6billion deficit. But the same bosses have further infuriated teaching staff with their choices of expenditure.
As Dave added, “They say they can’t afford to sustain our pensions. But the principal is on over £300,000. “And have you noticed the £1billion being spent on buildings and investments in Glasgow and Strathclyde universities?”
Another striker gave me her view of the UUK bosses’ claim—and of the deeper causes of the strike—as she rushed in to address a ‘teach-in’ of supportive students: “This is about our pensions, but also about the power structures behind it.
“The way the pension scheme is set up tells all: it’s based on a flawed risk assessment, which favours those investing, to the detriment of workers.
“The assumption in the risk assessment is that all 65 universities will all go into administration; if that were true, our problems are a lot greater than the pensions scheme!”
“In these underlying power structures we are told pensions are a benefit. But we work hard for them; pensions are part of our wages. And this doesn’t just affect lecturers, but all staff, and it’s really important workers are not divided.
“This is about the casualised workforce, temporary research assistants, the library staff, and all the rest too.
“We want to shut down the education factory, because that’s how we and the students are treated.
“The irony is that free education means those who pay are treated better. Free education is of less and less value on the market. That’s why we have the students on our side.
“They live through it and know what it’s like to live through the marketised universities.”
‘STRIKE IS ABOUT MORE THAN PENSIONS’
The staff, students and supporters of the strike know that while this strike is about pensions, it is about more than that. The unprecedented turnout is a clear message that we, together, have had enough of austerity, where pensions are cut while those cutting them award themselves £0.5million salaries. Enough of cuts in education, enough of taking more and more from workers, enough of taking an axe to our pensions and spending billions elsewhere. This strike is wakening academic staff up to the fact that their future is tied up with nurses, construction workers and all working people, and not the heads of UUK taking £10,000 a year from pensions. We call our members, staff, students and supporters to join us in our ongoing strike action that will continue until we win this fight for dignity.
Brian Garvey, Chair, UCU Strathclyde University
First year engineering student and SSP member, Max McKay, told me some of his reasons for actively supporting the strikers and attending their picket lines.
“It’s vital we support the strikers. They’re the ones trying to teach us and be available to us. Now they need us in their moment of struggle. All students should do what they can: join picket lines, not attend lectures, talk to other students to get their support.”
I asked Max what difference the attack on pensions makes to him, as a student: “If the UCU don’t win, and the pension cuts go ahead, some of the best lecturers will be gone, they’ll just leave. Their pay is already low, and the only thing making the job OK is a reasonable pension.
“Some students may be considering going on to become lecturers, but these cuts may stop them, a loss of opportunity. And if the staff lose on pensions, what next? Us as students attacked next? That’s why I’ve been on the pickets showing my support.”
Pensions are the upfront source of the anger that has erupted into strike action. But that anger is also fuelled by the ongoing attacks on education, the brutally precarious nature of many of the jobs for the likes of tutors and teaching assistants, and the grotesque contrasts between pleas of poverty by the university bosses and their own opulence.
Take the case of Peter Mathieson, the recently appointed principal of Edinburgh University. He graciously accepted the offer to move from being vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University so long as he got a basic salary of £342,000—a mere £80,000 more than his predecessor at Edinburgh!
But while UCU members have been driven to withdraw their labour in defence of their pensions, Mathieson enjoys an additional payment of £42,000 “in lieu of pension contributions”—on top of his £342,000, that is.
And as reward for the trek north, he was given use of a lavish “grace and favour” home, plus a £26,000 relocation package.
Just in case that’s not cause enough for outrage, the relocation bung handed over from university funds included the cost of moving his pet cat and dog.
So the university bosses plunder workers’ pensions, but pay out travel costs for the principal’s pets! You couldn’t make it up… and you don’t need to; it’s a metaphor for what the university bosses think of hardworking staff.
A new generation are being educated in the fundamentals of trade unionism in the heat of battle. For many, this is their first ever strike.
As Strathclyde University UCU chair, Brian Garvey, told me, “Many members are on strike for the first time. And many, many more have joined the union since we started this strike action.
“They may have been scared to take action at first, but once it gets going, it’s like being liberated.”
Another key feature of this struggle is the rapid learning about unions, strikes and solidarity that a new generation are living and learning.
Whilst withdrawing their labour, lecturers are staging ‘teach-ins’, addressing hundreds of students on issues like privatisation, the marketisation of education, and as Brian remarked: “I’m going in to speak about what unions and strikes are, because consciousness of those issues had declined amongst younger people for a time.”
The UCU strikers need and deserve the solidarity of every Voice reader, every trade unionist, every SSP member.
Show support on their pickets and demos; invite them to your union branch; help win a victory for the UCU—which would be a victory for all workers, in the face of austerity cuts designed to boost the perks, privileges and profits of the rich and big business.