Staff at London Metropolitan University were out on strike today in protest against plans by management to cut courses, with an associated loss of 165 jobs. The demands of the union members taking action today were clear: not one course to be closed; not one job to be cut – an injury to one is an injury to all!
Staff at London Metropolitan University were out on strike today in protest against plans by management to cut courses, with an associated loss of 165 jobs. In the words of the #HandsOffLondonMet campaign itself: this is a dispute to defend jobs and to defend education. The demands of the union members taking action today were clear: not one course to be closed; not one job to be cut – an injury to one is an injury to all!
Today’s strike action was for UCU members only, as part of a strategy to escalate over the next few weeks if demands are not met. Currently management has put forward no offer on the table at all. If this remains the case, then the plan is for two days of strike action next week, and a further three days of action in the week after. At the same time, Unison members at London Met are now also balloting for action, with the result to be announced tomorrow. Those on the picket line today were confident that they would be joined by their Unison comrades on future days of action.
Paying for management’s mistakes
Socialist Appeal supporters spoke to UCU members on strike at both the picket lines in North London this morning. All were firm in stating that it was management that had created this problem, but yet it is lecturers and members of staff who are being made to pay for management’s incompetence. As ever, it is ordinary workers who will suffer for the mistakes of the bosses.
Yaz, a UCU rep on the picket line, explained the background to these latest round of job cuts, which follow on from years of errors and incompetence by management. For example, in 2012, London Met was suspended by the UK Border Agency from taking on students from outside of the EU, with the threat of deporting more than 2,000 students, as a result of both mismanagement and Tory attacks against immigration.
Prior to this, Yaz elaborated, the university had seen huge fines and reductions in funding from HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) as a result of management over-reporting student numbers one year, and then over-recruiting beyond their allocated number of students the next. These three incidents of mismanagement have taken their toll, with funding being slashed, courses being closed or amalgamated, and student numbers being reduced.
“There’s never been any stability,” Yaz commented. “It hasn’t been a case of finding efficiency savings of 1-2% here or there; but of a 50% cut one year followed by another 50% cut the next…we just couldn’t go on like this – we had to fight it.”
Despite all of the blame for these errors lying solely at the feet of management, it is this very same management that is now ruthlessly sticking the knife in, attempting to force through 165 compulsory redundancies, mainly falling on the department of Business and Law. As Richard, a retired UCU member on the picket line commented, “I can just about handle vicious management; I can just about handle incompetence. But there’s no way I can handle management that’s both incompetent and vicious!”
Some members suggested that the UCU leadership’s strategy was to hope that university’s governors would come down on the side of ordinary staff, showing benevolence and overruling the dictats of management. To this end, activists on the picket lines were trying to get other staff and students to sign a petition to the board of governors to stop the job losses. But even those passing by could see the limitations of such an appeal, with one student responding, “that [petition] won’t make a difference. We need to occupy. We need everyone to go on strike and bring everything to a standstill!”
This is the correct attitude – workers and students should trust in no-one but themselves. Mass action by staff and students would speak volumes and echo a thousand times louder than any petition or appeal to the governors.
Generalised attacks requires generalised response
The key now is to broaden and generalise the struggle, through co-ordinated action. This point was emphasised by speaker after speaker at the #HandsOffLondonMet rally, which took place in Highbury Fields following a short march from the picket line. From staff and students at London Met, to local councillors and members of other unions: all the speakers stressed the importance of linking up the movements and strikes into a general fight back against the Tories and their austerity.
Already, UCU members in FE colleges in London are balloting for action over job losses. In the past few years, UCU members have linked up with Unison and Unite unions across Higher Education over the issue of pay and pensions. Secondary education, meanwhile, has seen day after day of strike action by teachers in the NUT and NASUWT unions. All of this shows that the fight is not merely a local one; one that is particular to this-or-that university or this-or-that sector.
The general presence and growth of strikes and movements across Britain – and internationally – is a reflection of a generalised sickness in society: the global crisis of capitalism. It is this that means we see cuts, austerity, and attacks on the working class country after country. Capitalism can no longer provide for reforms and increased living standards – in fact, it cannot even afford the reforms won through struggle by previous generations of workers.
But as many speakers at the rally pointed out: the money is there. How can there be job cuts at London Met, when the previous vice-chancellor of the university received over £400,000 as a “golden goodbye? Why has there been an onslaught against education at all levels over the past decade – with cuts to FE and rising tuition fees for university students – whilst the richest 1,000 in Britain have seen their wealth double (to £547bn!!!) in the same period?
Clearly the wealth exists in society to fund universal free education at all ages – the problem is that this wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. By expropriating this wealth – by putting the key levers of the economy into public hands as part of a rational, democratic plan of production – we could provide the investment into jobs, housing, and decent public services for all that society needs. This – a bold socialist programme – needs to be at the forefront of the fight against the Tories, as a genuine alternative to their austerity.
Fight back now! Unions must call a general strike!
All the speakers today emphasised this need for a fight back. The task now is for the trade unions leaders to show the way. The first step is to build for the national demonstration against austerity on 20th June in London, and the unions should be throwing their weight behind this protest in order to maximise the numbers present.
But demonstrations and isolated strikes, are not enough. As one speaker at the rally reminded the crowd, the union leaders had the opportunity to bring down the Tory government back in 2011, when around two million public sector workers came out on strike together over pensions. The need then, as now, was for the trade union leadership to utilise this momentum and militant mood by calling for a one-day general strike. Criminally, the union leaders accepted the pitiful compromises offered by the Con-Dem government then, and the opportunity to escalate further was lost. Such a backtrack only serves to sow demoralisation amongst the ranks of the labour movement.
Now, with workers and youth angry at the re-election of the Tories, the opportunity is once again ripe to call for coordinated action – action that would galvanise the labour movement and provide confidence to workers in all sectors to go on the offensive. Through mass militant action and armed with a bold socialist programme, we can win. Workers and students: unite and fight!