A strike that was forced onto the union UCU (University and College Union) by intransigent employers and a determined membership became one of the largest and most important strikes in the academic sector of the imperialist countries, with around 64 universities in the UK participating in strike action. Large labour conflicts are quite common in universities in Brazil and South Africa (for example), but seldom affect a huge number of universities in core countries. In the first meeting of UCU I attended in January 2018 my local branch officer explained to us that the strike ballot of 88 per cent would be used by the union to engage in negotiations and get a good deal. A strike was not really on the agenda, or at least only somewhere on the horizon. But Universities UK refused to negotiate initially about the pension plans – a cut of about 30 percent and a transition from defined benefits to defined contributions, the outcome would then depend on the performance of stock markets. These new plans came all on top of a 12 per cent real wage loss since 2009 for university employees.
Thus, in the first phase of the strike there were 14 strike days spread over four weeks. Media coverage was positive, even in The Times, students acted often as the vanguard of the strike with blockades and other actions, and a good number of university bosses spoke out against the pension cuts. Finally, negotiations resumed after two weeks, but without much progress. In the fourth week, the negotiating team of UCU presented a proposal that would have not changed much in terms of cuts and was only a three year interim agreement. The tip of the iceberg was that lecturers would have been forced to repeat classes that were not taking place due to the strike. While the negotiators and the union leadership were ready to do the deal, the response from all branches was so negative that the offer was scrapped and is not even going to a ballot. This was the first dramatic moment in the strike – and it seems that this critical moment has come with more determination among the membership, as can be told by messages on social media and the mood at strike rallies. In the meantime, a third of the universities on strike have seen occupations of larger and smaller buildings, sometimes blockades of the Provost office by students supporting the strike. UCU supports the student actions verbally on the local level, but is careful not to even mention student occupations in its official communication apart from a few Tweets. While student support is much welcomed by the union, there do seem to be strong traces from the earlier timid and conciliatory approach. The prehistory of this strike are several bad compromises made by the union over the past years, with members that were ready to strike – and that regularly saw themselves sold out.
But with these traces of timid leadership we will come to the enormous elephant in the room: how the union thinks it can win this conflict. There are fourteen more strike days planned for the next few months, focused on blocking exams which gives some leverage to the union. Since exams are not synchronised, every branch will strike on different days over this period. The losses for striking staff will add up to almost a months’ salary, so there is a real danger of fizzling out, also given the fact that there will be some discontinuity due to the academic calendar and upcoming Easter holidays. Universities UK will not really be under financial pressure since universities save a lot of wages – unless students are able to reclaim fees which is quite unsure.
So a probable scenario is that the number of strikers will fizzle out, the union leadership gets nervous and offers a deal that will not be much better than the last agreement. Strike history is full of first offers rejected by members which are then succeeded by the acceptance of a similarly bad deal, the last example being the care workers strike in Germany in 2015 – which started as a fighting strike with huge public support, and ended with a depressing defeat. Such a scenario could not only strike a blow to workers’ confidence in UCU, but would also cement the degradation of academic workers to precarious temporary workers. At a strike rally today (March 16, 2018) a speaker said that the aim of Universities UK is to transform the academic sector into what the NHS is today – dysfunctional, marked by a constant lack of staff, involving underpaid and overworked employees, and existing with a lack of institutional stability. Lectures would be probably employed by something like “Virgil Academic” or some other subcontractor on zero hour contracts and teach at three different universities at the same time. Such dystopian scenarios already do exist in other countries (last year I met a comrade in Taiwan doing this), so this is not totally far-fetched.
At the danger of repeating the same thought: if the union wants to win this fight that went much better than anyone could expect until now, it has to seriously think about some unconventional tactics and should not wait for members to come up with proposals since time is running out. A more confident way of dealing with student support would be one of those elements, but this is surely not enough. Strikes with a motivated membership and huge media support can be lost. Labour relations in capitalism are not decided by consensus and there is nothing democratic about it. If a union – especially in a non-profit sector – does not take this element of force into account, it can quickly run out of steam if it does not have a strategy on how to use its own force and that of its members and allies.