UK university workers send a defiant message

March 20, 2018

Some 42,000 staff members--including lecturers, researchers, librarians and technicians and other campus workers--are continuing their strike at more than 60 universities and colleges across the UK, after the rank and file rejected a deal agreed to by union leaders.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) had voted in favor of 14 days of strike action over a period of four weeks starting on February 22, largely in response to plans to end guaranteed pension benefits. Universities UK (UUK), the body that represents university managers, wants to change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) from a "defined benefit" system, which gives workers a guaranteed income when they retire, to a "defined contribution" system, where pension benefits are subject to fluctuations in the stock market. The union estimates that this could cut UCU members' pensions by an average of 10,000 pounds ($14,000) per year.

Strikers are receiving the support of students and other university workers on the picket lines, as well as at solidarity rallies and protests over the last few weeks. Students in Bath, Exeter and Liverpool organized occupations of their universities in support of the UCU, and in Bristol, students forced the vice chancellor to agree to a number of concessions after a three-day occupation of his office.

Here, we republish an article from the USS Strike Solidarity website written after workers rejected UUK's latest deal on March 14.

STRIKING UNIVERSITY workers woke up on Wednesday, March 14, with an increased sense of their own power, having spectacularly rejected a management deal through a series of mass meetings and mobilizations that left Universities UK dismayed and the strike emboldened.

The previous day had begun with national news bulletins proclaiming their strike was on the verge of collapsing under a deal which had been agreed between their union leadership and management on Monday.

But the deal--released to members by the University and College Union (UCU) on Monday afternoon--generated an enormous backlash from the moment it went out. By Monday night, 5,000 union members had signed an open letter calling for it to be rejected. Messenger and WhatsApp groups of strike activists instantly began discussing the offer and planning against its acceptance.

Many members were furious with a deal they saw as offering very little concession by management. Following a meeting of over 100 members, the University of Liverpool UCU branch put out a statement on Monday evening that read: "Members in our branch and across the country did not join one of the most impressive shows of collective solidarity in the face of restrictive trade union laws for a compromise offer that does not guarantee them decency in retirement."

Striking university workers rally to defend their pensions and working conditions
Striking university workers rally to defend their pensions and working conditions (USS Strike Solidarity)

A coalition including individual UCU branches, UCU left, rank-and-file group Notes From Below and student solidarity bodies declared their intention to gather outside UCU headquarters in London where the deal was due to be voted on by a meeting of branch delegates.

ON TUESDAY morning, however, the level of determination among union members to reject the deal became even clearer. Picket lines broke off early so that striking workers could meet and vote on the offer. In some areas, these meetings were the biggest the local branch had ever hosted. In several cases, the rooms were too small for the hundreds who wanted to attend so they had to hold the vote outside instead.

These effectively became open-air rallies with homemade placards--made by striking academics the night before--held aloft stating their opposition to the deal. At a huge outdoor meeting in Cardiff, strike committee member Andy Williams spoke against the proposal:

They are deducting full strike pay, they are making us reschedule all of our teaching and they are telling us not to complain about that. If we reject, there is no doubt from now on that our strike will be a more difficult strike, but we thought it was going to be difficult in the beginning. We never imagined we'd get such political, student and support among ourselves in the strike so far. I think if we reject we will be surprised again.

The meeting voted almost unanimously against the deal.

By lunchtime, the scale of the revolt was overwhelming. Out of the 64 UCU branches involved in the dispute, every one that held a vote--45 in total--had rejected the deal by huge margins. Already, thousands of academic workers across the country had involved themselves in this process one way or another. In Sheffield, it was reported that the vote was 350 to 0 against acceptance.

Meanwhile, outside the meeting at UCU headquarters, a huge crowd had already amassed demanding that the strike continue until nothing less than the current pension arrangement was put back on the table.

Inside, almost all delegates had arrived. One after another, they got up to report that their branch had "unanimously" or "very strongly" voted to reject the deal in emergency mass meetings held either that morning or in some cases the evening before. They commented too on how many e-mails and messages they had received that were in opposition to the proposal. Many spoke about specific parts of the deal that were so unacceptable to members, including the rescheduling of classes where locally branches had been fighting hard to resist this.

BY THE time Sally Hunt appeared before lunchtime in front of the crowd, the national mood was abundantly clear. It was too late for the deal to be presented as a credible option. It was already dead. The delegate meeting withdrew the offer from the table and no vote was held because in the end there was nothing to vote on. The only vote that mattered was the one that had been delivered by ordinary members who had successfully mobilized to maintain their strike.

National news outlets--expecting the strikes to be cancelled--were caught unawares and forced to report the opposite. Universities UK announced in a statement that they were "disappointed" that the deal had been withdrawn.

A further 14 days of strikes that had already been announced but would have been called off had the deal gone through were put firmly back on the agenda by the UCU. Attention has now turned to when the exact dates will be and what the next round of strikes will look like.

UCU left has launched a petition demanding that nothing less than the current pension status quo is accepted. Several initiatives have been set up with the aim of developing the strength of rank-and-file organization. Having fought so successfully for the continuation of their historic strike, members have been vindicated but they also know there are further battles to come.

First published at the USS Strike Solidarity website.

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