UCU strike in Leicester. Photo: Leicester SP
UCU strike in Leicester. Photo: Leicester SP

Bea Gardner, UCU member

University and College Union (UCU) members at 42 universities took strike action between 25 and 29 September in the ongoing national dispute over pay and conditions.

In the days leading up to the strikes, just under a hundred branches that had been set to walk out decided to withdraw from the action. This followed the decision by the union’s Higher Education Committee to offer an “opt-out” to branches, as we reported in the previous edition of the Socialist (‘UCU university strikes: We need a serious strategy to win’). As we predicted, this decision has resulted in the national character of the strike action collapsing.

This does not mean the dispute is over. Members are currently being balloted, posing the concrete possibility of renewing the strike mandate into the spring term.

It is clear from branch meeting reports and the picket lines that many members remain willing to fight. Some branches used the threat of action to push the employers back on the punitive pay deductions taken for participation in the summer marking and assessment boycott.

However, in response to the delays, retreats and general mishandling of the dispute, there is also a lack of trust and confidence in the current leadership. Some in the union, especially those organised in the ‘UCU Commons’ grouping, are seeking to feed off this mood to bring about an end to the disputes.

We need to achieve the 50% turnout threshold and renew our strike mandate to keep the fight on. Achieving this will require a campaign that builds members’ confidence in a fighting strategy. We call for a serious timetable of escalating action that is properly prepared for, including through increased strike funds.

Fighting leadership needed

The fact that we are entering the nomination period for the National Executive Committee, with a general secretary election following in 2024, is significant. Members have the possibility of replacing the current leadership with a fighting leadership that offers a serious lead and backs members in action.

There is also a general election looming. The union leadership should demand an incoming Starmer-led Labour government delivers full funding to adult education. The best way for our union to fight for that is both industrially and politically – including supporting UCU members to stand in the general election as part of a workers’ list of candidates that do stand on that programme.

University of Plymouth UCU members steadfast

Dan Felmlee, UCU member, personal capacity

Over the summer, the lack of sunshine was matched by the lack of clarity in the strategy of the University and College Union (UCU) leadership in the ‘four fights’ of equity, pay, casualisation, and work-life balance.

National strikes were meant to occur the week that students returned, but the union’s Higher Education Committee announced that individual branches could opt out if they wanted.

The marking and assessment boycott (MAB) had been a powerful tool, but also lacked the feeling of solidarity of other actions. The repercussions enforced by university managements were uneven and grossly unfair. I spoke with someone who had ten posters to score; if she refused, she would lose half her salary for the month, for perhaps two hours of work not carried out.

So it was important that we all came together against the bosses in the national strike. The directive to ‘strike if you want to’ was like taking a soft-serve ice cream to a gunfight.

At University of Plymouth, an online poll showed the majority supported a strike on 25 September. We had more than 100 on the picket, similar to previous strikes. The mood was largely positive.

The picket was advertised as part-student-welcoming, and several students supported us. One told us that, during the strikes last year, “I was angry to miss out on a significant chunk of my course, but I know it’s the administration to blame, not the lecturers.”

The action showed that, despite the national leadership wobbling, where there is a well-organised local branch with bold leaders, this is where the vitality of the union lies.

Birmingham uni staff fight the race to the bottom

Clive Walder, Birmingham South Socialist Party

Support staff at the University of Birmingham, members of Unison, took two days of strike action on 21 and 22 September to highlight during freshers week how important they are to the smooth running of the university. This is in continuance of their campaign against changes to terms and conditions, and attempts by the university to undermine collective bargaining.

Strikers told us that the university wants to remove enhanced pay for working anti-social hours, which would cause a permanent reduction in income for workers who regularly work them, potentially costing several thousands of pounds over the course of a working life. The workers are being offered a one-off payment of £700 as compensation!

The university is also trying to get workers to sign individual contracts to agree to the changes instead of negotiating collectively with the union. Workers won’t know what their colleagues will be earning, making it easier for the employer to divide and rule.

I spoke to Lawrence, an estates worker, who said: “This isn’t the employer I started working for 15 years ago”. The attitude of the pickets is determined, and more strikes are planned for 27-29 September.

Workers are fighting to prevent a race to the bottom in terms and conditions at one of Britain’s wealthiest universities.