South Tyne College UCU strike. Photo: Elaine Brunskill
South Tyne College UCU strike. Photo: Elaine Brunskill

University strikes break out against pay deductions

In previous issues of the Socialist, University and College Union (UCU) members have reported on the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) being undertaken by university staff, backing up the union’s national campaign of strike action over pay. 

We argued that “It is essential that the union makes it clear it will back up members against any attacks by university bosses. For example, if management tries punitive pay deductions (such as deducting 50-100% of pay when all the rest of the work is being done), that must be met with immediate strike action.” (‘UCU embarks on first-ever national marking and assessment boycott’)

That is now coming into play, with UCU branches agreeing strike action in response to grossly disproportionate pay deductions. These include five days of strike action at Sheffield Hallam, and indefinite action at Leeds, where a UCU member who spoke to the Socialist wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

 ‘We’re strong’

Leeds UCU member

It really is a ridiculous situation to be in. Management are threatening 100% pay deduction for every day an academic partakes in the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) – at which point we might as well strike and not lose any more money.

The branch has produced a fund for those whose pay would be deducted. After literally months of trying to communicate with management over the threat, the UCU branch has decided to stand in solidarity with participants of the MAB, and all go on strike.

It is galling that management are willing to punish the hardworking staff over this.

Mrs ‘Several-hundred-thousand-a -year, with house, car and travel expenses’ (the vice-chancellor) can’t stand that we’re fighting and winning, and so has to up the ante. It’s despicable, but she’ll lose. We’re a strong branch, and she’s a weak leader!

Action building in Further Education

The recent UCU congress agreed to prepare for a national ballot in September for strike action in Further Education (FE) colleges. It follows an e-consultation of 18,000 UCU members at 190 colleges, in which 87% voted for strike action. UCU is demanding a pay offer in excess of RPI inflation, a national workload agreement, and national pay negotiations.

In the meantime, as pay is currently negotiated college by college, strike action has broken out in a number of FEs.

Fighting for pay and against closures at Tyne Coast College

Elaine Brunskill, Northern region Socialist Party

Strikers at Tyne Coast College held up placards showing the pay discrepancy over the past decade between the massive 100% awarded to the college CEO, and the paltry 3.5% to staff during the same ten-year period.

The initial offer from the college was below even the recommendation from the Association of Colleges (AoC), which had already been rejected nationally. The college then put forward (in line with the rejected AoC recommendations) a below-inflation 2.5% offer. With less than two weeks to organise a ballot for industrial action, and straight after the Easter holidays, a magnificent 94% voted to take strike action.

Alongside the pay dispute there were strikers at Tyne Met (part of Tyne Coast) who were angered over plans to close Queen Alexandra Sixth Form College. Strikers told us that during Covid, while teaching staff were furloughed, the sixth form college was moved into Tyne Met. By May 2023 the college announced they were closing the sixth form.

There was a public outcry. The announcement came just five days before the first AS-level exams. Lecturers on the picket line told us there were kids crying in the corridors. By the end of the week, after an emergency meeting, there was a U-turn and the closure was postponed until 2024.

One of the strikers commented, that to date, even though the college have admitted to making mistakes, they have not committed to an inquiry. The Socialist Party calls for education to be under democratic control, including participation from teaching unions and students – not the edict of an unaccountable college CEO.

Yorkshire colleges join the strike wave

Iain Dalton, Leeds Socialist Party

There were over 50 pickets outside Leeds City College as UCU members took strike action for the first time in many years. The strikes on 5 and 7 June were coordinated with strikes at three other colleges in Yorkshire, Bradford, Kirklees and Harrogate, with further strikes scheduled for the following week.

One striker said: “Initially I think some staff members felt uneasy about striking on GCSE exam days, as we all care about our students. However, for over a decade staff have seen their wages decrease in real terms due to inflation. We have food cupboards at work, essentially mini food banks, for people who are struggling to buy essentials, whilst we have a principal on around £250,000 a year. When you look at it like that, I think it has made everyone realise it is time to make a stand.”

Strikers at Bradford College have told Socialist Party members visiting the picket line similar things.

At Bradford College, Socialist Students has run campaign stalls with petitions demanding college management give an inflation-proof pay rise to staff, as well as putting up posters to show staff there is student support for them.

Socialist Students aims to do the same in Leeds.

The Socialist Party is hosting an open meeting about the college strikes and the indefinite action about to begin at University of Leeds, on Monday 19 June, 7pm at the Adelphi pub in Leeds. I teach in a big FE college with four sites across West London.

Why I’m going to NSSN conference

Looking for inspiration to transform our union branch

UCU member in FE

My college has been in formal intervention for five years thanks to appalling mismanagement by a series of CEOs, but equally to chronic underfunding. Never-ending staffing cuts, crumbling infrastructure, dying student support services, and so on – it’s a well-known story.

Staff morale is at an all-time low. Many members have listened to our employers’ mantra, ‘We’re broke, striking will get you nowhere!’ for so long, they have come to believe it. My UCU branch has not been active – two branch meetings only have been called in a year, with little more than 5% of members attending. On those occasions, the possibility of striking over pay (in FE amongst the lowest in the education sector) and over unsustainable workloads wasn’t even discussed. It feels like the wave of generalised strike action that has engulfed the UK over the last months has rolled past us almost unnoticed, as if in another country.

So I’m going to do something about it! As a UCU branch committee member, I am going to the NSSN conference on 24 June as one way of breaking out of the lack of action and isolation I feel we have fallen into. I want to connect up with the world of trade unionists ‘out there’, exchange experiences with them, get some ideas, be inspired to action.

I am also taking another branch member with me, so am hoping for two further outcomes. First, that together we can then trigger some lively discussion back in the branch. Second, that talk of the crucial importance of building networks of resistance and of coordinating action will rub off well on both of us. Two people on a same wavelength will surely have more leverage in branch decision-making than just one!

Come to NSSN conference

11am – 4.30pm, 24 June at Conway Hall, London. Registration fee £6

Confirmed speakers so far: NIPSA General Secretary Carmel Gates, BFAWU General Secretary Sarah Woolley, POA General Secretary Steve Gillan, NAPO National Official Annoesjka Valent, GMB Officer Gary Palmer from the victorious #GMBThree