As University and College Union (UCU) members at 74 universities stage an escalating 14 days’ strike action, SSP national workplace organiser Richie Venton spoke to David McKee, UCU member at University of Strathclyde.
UCU members are staging 14 days of intense, escalating strike action. On what you call Four Fights. Firstly, what is the main issue around pensions that merits a strike? What, if anything, have the employers conceded since the previous round of strikes?
The employers want to have their cake and eat it. In the early 2000s, before the markets crashed, the national pension scheme was so well funded that the employers decided they could take a payment holiday, reducing their contributions.
Once the economy crashed, the pension scheme wasn’t able to build funds as fast and employers have been forced to bring contributions back up. The scheme is still very healthy but employers want to shift more of the burden onto staff.
After our 2018 industrial action, a Joint Expert Panel was assembled which put forward recommendations – we want the employers to implement these recommendations.
So far, despite constructive conversations, there have been no concrete proposals to address the outstanding issues. The fact that this dispute is still on-going is an object lesson in tying up loose ends before ending industrial action.
What about pay?
Since 2009 University staff have faced a 20 per cent pay cut in real terms. In partnership with four sister unions in the sector, we submitted a pay claim for RPI + 3 per cent.
Employers initially offered 1.8 per cent and have not moved from this. They are effectively asking us to take another pay cut. This is not a serious or credible response to the strong industrial action in late 2019.
Their intransigence is directly responsible for the next stage of sustained industrial action.
What’s happening on your fight for equality?
The Higher Education sector is not alone in having an appalling record on pay equality for women and ethnic minorities, but this does not give them any excuse for the failure to tackle the issue for so long.
Indeed, it is only as a result of UCU raising the issue as a key plank in our Four Fights dispute that the employers have been forced to agree that this is an area to be covered by future national negotiations.
So far the outcome of negotiations has been an acknowledgment that there is a need for co-ordinated action involving the unions and other stakeholders.
However UCU members want to see concrete proposals for addressing these problems and hard commitments to address the underlying causes.
Vague promises to deal with it later are not going to cut it. It is past time that all staff were treated equally.
The strike is also about casualised employment. What are the issues?
The Higher Education sector is a classic case of haves and have-nots. Those who have a permanent contract supported by secure funding, and those on fixed term and other casual contracts who live with terrible job insecurity.
More than two thirds of research staff are on fixed term contracts. Recent negotiations have seen the employers make promises to address the issue, pointing to existing agreements that have never been properly implemented.
The question you have to ask is: why should we believe them now? The Research Concordat that they are pointing to does not have real teeth to force significant change. Universities need to change their whole approach to staff.
We are not human resources to be used and discarded at will. Proper strategic planning would allow institutions to plan for staffing requirements on a longer term basis. Current proposals are tinkering at the edges rather than addressing the fundamental issues.
I get the impression workload is a major issue?
In my day-to-day conversations with colleagues, the number one issue for most is workload and the stress associated with it. A recent survey at my own institution (University of Strathclyde) found a 41 per cent increase in mental health issues reported by staff in a single year.
Too many staff are at breaking point. Too many staff have already been broken. The negotiations have delivered promises to “explore cultures and behaviours that may be compounding the pressures”.
Again, a fine sentiment, but we will not see real progress until it is matched by an acknowledgement that far too many HE institutions operate in a climate of fear, and where undemocratic structures are led by unaccountable senior management.
We need root and branch reform of University governance, returning to structures that promote academic concerns over corporate greed. This will almost certainly require government level intervention – management turkeys are not going to vote for Christmas!
The public needs to demand that Universities focus on core roles of training students, doing great research and providing a cultural heritage that transcends generations. We need to stop and reverse the drive to turn our Universities into profiteering businesses.
Finally, what can other trade unionists do to help you win a speedy victory?
Our members don’t take strike action lightly. Sadly, in order to be effective, we have to take action during academic term time, to have the biggest impact. Thankfully, we have the support of all the major student bodies, including the NUS.
The solidarity that we share with our students is crucial and provides the single most important bulwark against management propaganda.
Our fight is for equality, decent pay, fair pensions and a healthy working environment. This is the historic fight of all trade unions since the first days of working class organisation.
We welcome all messages of support from sister unions, donations to the fighting fund to support our most disadvantaged colleagues and any other practical solidarity that can be offered. Perhaps more importantly, we need the trade union movement as a whole to campaign on these issues on a national basis.
What we are demanding are basic rights that ought to be the societal norm. I would encourage all of our sister unions to adopt our approach of making these demands in combination, to show that we reject the divide-and-conquer of the employers, and that we will not be satisfied until there is meaningful equality for all.
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