After a year long campaign of industrial action for higher pay, members of the University and College Union (UCU) in Higher Education (HE) have accepted an improved 2% pay offer. With a clear perspective, political programme, and fighting strategy from the UCU leadership, however, a greatly improved offer could have been achieved. Darrall Cozens of the UCU West Midlands looks at the lessons from the HE pay dispute.
After a year long campaign of industrial action for higher pay, members of the University and College Union (UCU) in Higher Education (HE) have accepted an improved 2% pay offer. In a ballot turnout of 52.6% some 83.7% voted to accept a 2% pay offer for 2014/2015 on top of a 1% pay rise for 2013/2014. The vote effectively ends national industrial action until pay bargaining starts in March 2015 for the year 2015/2016.
Although the mood nationally differs from one HE institution to another, the general feeling that is emerging is one of massive relief that the dispute is over, but with frustration and disappointment that greater concessions were not won. There can be no doubt that if UCU members had not taken strike action, there would have not been a 2% offer from the employers, the UCEA. But with a clear perspective, political programme, and fighting strategy from the UCU leadership, a greatly improved offer could have been achieved.
The reality of the offer is that at the start of the action university staff’s pay had fallen in real terms by 13% since 2009; by the end of 2015 the fall will be around 16%. The 2% pay offer, therefore, does little to make up for the massive decline in living standards that workers in universities, as elsewhere, have suffered since the start of the crisis.
De-escalation and demoralisation
Right from the beginning of the campaign questions were raised about the way that the national leadership of UCU conducted the campaign to get a better pay offer than 1% for 2013/14. Any campaign has to have aims, strategy and tactics. The aim in this dispute was clear, a better pay rise, but the strategy and tactics used completely failed to achieve that aim. Such was the lack of effective leadership that even the vote over the 2% came without a recommendation of for or against from UCU nationally! There is no doubt that at the national UCU Congress at the end of May this will be a bone of contention.
From the outset escalating industrial action turned into its opposite with a number of one-day strikes giving way to a series of two-hour strikes ending in a marking boycott. If the maximum action of one day fails to achieve its objective, was it not obvious that merely repeating the action would also not achieve the aim? At a time when greater action was called for to force the employers’ hand the opposite took place. De-escalating action was a sign of weakness and encouraged the employers to dig their heels in. As one HE rep said in a recent Regional Committee of UCU, “A poorly supported period of industrial action flags up weakness.”
The dispute therefore lost momentum as the numbers of members actively involved in the action began to decline with smaller numbers taking part in picketing, although in some places this was not the case. And what has been the result of this poor, ill thought out national campaign? UCU has been shown to be weak, with many branch committees reporting that they are facing attacks by management and that members have been lost. In one institution UCU members have resigned and are now setting up a branch of the ATL – a union that historically has a general no-strike policy! UCU members in many places became demoralised as they made sacrifices by striking and losing pay yet could not see any concrete gains being made.
It is for these reasons that members are looking forward to a period of relative “industrial peace” in the coming period to rebuild branches, recruit new members and consolidate existing ones. This wish, however, may not be realised as redundancies could well be on the way. Not long back the HE Funding Settlement cut the HE teaching budget by 6%. When you factor in the 3% pay rise over two years to be paid out of a smaller pot, the end result can only be redundancies.
It should be emphasised, however, that the best way for the UCU, or any union, to recruit new members and strengthen branches is by having a leadership that is willing to fight and able to win. The growing numbers in unions such as the RMT demonstrates this fact.
There is also the simmering discontent over massive pay rises for top university staff, such as Vice Chancellors, while those lower down who actually do the teaching have to be content with 2%. In 2013 Vice Chancellors in the top 24 HE institutions, known as the Russell Group, saw pay leap by 8.1%, or £22k, and benefits packages go up by 5.2%. They now enjoy average pay and benefits packages of £318k. In addition there are 2,500 top managers on salaries of more than £100k.
It is this simmering discontent over pay that will continue, as well as issues of bullying and harassment, Development and Performance Reviews and “Grant Capture” where staff will be under greater pressure to apply for funding grants to cover their costs, whilst at the same time preparing their teaching, delivering, marking, interviewing, counselling and administering. Workloads will also be high on the agenda.
Outside the HE environment battles are looming. Osborne’s budget of March 19th made it clear that by 2018/19 the government wants to achieve a budget surplus of £5bn. The deficit at the moment is around £105bn after having been reduced from £170bn in 2010 through a programme of drastic cuts in public spending. Over the next 4-5 years twice as many cuts will take place and this will inevitably affect education, and therefore HE.
Preparing for battle
To prepare for these battles it is vital that the membership of UCU is built, and this can be done by concentrating on relatively much smaller issues such as bullying in HE institutions, achieving smaller victories to build the confidence of members and thereby recruit more members who will see that by having a fighting strategy and militant tactics, victories can be won. This has been shown by the inspiring example of the privatised cleaning staff in the University of London.
It is also vital that more departmental/faculty reps are recruited and trained. One of the most important gains of this dispute has been the emergence of a layer of newer and fresher reps who have given many branches a new lease of life.
It is also vital to build and maintain campus union committees, not only of trade unions but also of the student unions. In the coming battles all who work and study in education will face cuts as they are made to pay the price of a capitalist system in crisis. It will also be vital for HE, FE, AE institutions and schools to link up on a city-wide basis to form a united front of trade unions to defend education. Such steps could lead in the long-term future to the formation of one union for all levels of education.
The next obvious step will be to link up with trade unions outside the world of education by affiliating to local trade union councils, and for trade union leaders to call for nationally co-ordinated action against the Tory-Liberal Coalition and their programme of austerity, beginning with a one-day general strike.
The final task is the development of a programme that will put an end to this austerity and the cuts. That means developing a socialist programme to put an end to a system that reels from crisis to crisis, in the process attacking all the gains that have been won through decades of struggle by working class people and their organisations.
So long as capitalism exists there will be crises and attacks on our gains. The only way to stop this and to win real, genuine, permanent reforms is to get rid of capitalism and transform society along socialist lines.