A strike against the neoliberal university

March 26, 2018

Some of the same issues that drove the rebellion of the teachers in West Virginia are at the heart of a militant struggle an ocean away in Britain, where some 42,000 staff members at more than 60 colleges and universities--including lecturers, researchers, librarians and technicians and other campus workers--are continuing their fight.

The main issue for members of the University and College Union (UCU) was pensions. Universities UK (UUK), the employers' body that negotiates for member colleges, wants to create a system more like the one in the U.S., where retirees' benefits are at the mercy of the financial markets. But many more questions--familiar to anyone who works or attends college in the U.S.--have emerged connected to the "neoliberalization" of the university.

Like the West Virginia K-12 teachers, the university workers rose up against a disappointing agreement negotiated by their union, forcing UCU officials to abandon it. The strike continued through its planned duration in mid-March. But the union is planning another four weeks of strike action in May, the middle of the exams period, if UUK doesn't back down. The university managers have made an improved offer--UCU members will consider it this week.

Neil Davidson is a long-time socialist, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Glasgow and member of the University and College Union, and the author of numerous books, including How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? and We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions, talked to Alan Maass about how this struggle took shape.

RIGHT BEFORE the first phase of the strike ended, there was an agreement made between the universities and the union leadership--but the rank and file basically rose up against it. Could you talk about why that happened?

THE STRIKE IS basically about defending our pension so that we get a defined amount out in benefits instead of us just defining the contributions we pay in. That was always the main issue.

The deal that was offered said there would be a three-year interim period in which both universities and lecturers would have to pay more in, and at the end of that three-year period, there would be an assessment about whether they could afford to pay for a defined-benefit system.

Now that was bad enough. But the agreement also said that we would have to try and reschedule lectures and talks and tutorials and so on that had been cancelled because of the strike.

Locally, a lot of the branches had actually managed to get deals with local management that we wouldn't have to do that. So it was a national deal that actually aimed to impose worse conditions than we had achieved locally. That really infuriated people as well.

Striking university workers on the picket lines in Surrey, southwest of London
Striking university workers on the picket lines in Surrey, southwest of London (@senseofplay | Twitter)

Everything moved very quickly at that point. The agreement was announced on a Monday. By Tuesday, 30 or 40 of the individual branches had gotten together and held meetings and online discussions, and then went to London to demonstrate against the deal outside union headquarters. To be fair, the union officials shifted very quickly after that and abandoned the whole thing.

I think the response to the agreement was a shock, not just to them, but certainly to the employers' organization, which I don't think had anticipated the strike being so well-supported in the first place and probably didn't expect us to reject the deal. This hasn't happened very often recently in terms of trade union responses.

So the strength we're feeling, the size of the picket lines, the solidarity we've received from both students and the public--all that probably made people feel that we might as well use this chance to try and win, rather than accept a deal that wasn't that great.

I was surprised at just how militant everybody was, especially among younger and badly paid people who wouldn't even start collecting a pension because they haven't started paying into the pension yet.

But for a lot of them, I think it was probably the experience of being on strike, which they'd never had before--particularly a strong, well-supported strike. There was lots of support from people driving by the picket lines: truck drivers, taxi drivers and bus drivers, for example.

There were cases of FedEx drivers refusing to cross picket lines. Since they're not unionized and quite precarious, that's really very moving. It shows that a lot of people doing these kind of jobs had once been in trade unions and aren't now, but they're actually getting some kind of strength and support from seeing what's happening.

CAN YOU talk about your experience of the strike?

FROM THE beginning, it was pretty impressive. For the first two days of the strike, a Thursday and a Friday, I think there were 250 people on the picket line outside the main gate, and we had enough people to do pickets outside all of the other buildings on campus where people were working. I would say it was two-thirds lecturers and one-third students.

A lot of politicians came down--Labour Party politicians, Scottish National Party people, the Green Party. John McDonnell, the Corbynite shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, came down and gave a very rousing speech. All the left parties are all recognizing that this is significant.

Equally significant, the Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, Anton Muscatelli, a very highly paid official, came down to speak and offer his support to the strikers. As this suggests, some local university managements are being much more sympathetic than the national organization, Universities UK.

They've made a lot of concessions locally: we wouldn't have to reschedule lectures, people wouldn't get their money docked for working to rule, and so on. That happened at other universities as well. That's put a lot of pressure on the central organization of the employers, knowing that a lot of their own members don't actually support what they're doing.

So the general atmosphere has been very positive, unlike most of the strikes I've been on most of my life. I'm 60 and worked in a load of different jobs--in the NHS, publishing and the civil service--before becoming an academic. I joined a union when I was 19 back in 1976, so most of the strikes I've been involved with have been part of the neoliberal process of defeat.

This doesn't feel like that. Partly that's because a lot of the younger people involved think they actually can win--not in a rhetorical sense, the way revolutionaries always say we can win, but they feel that it's possible because of the concessions they've already gotten.

So on the whole, it's been a really positive experience, even for old-timers like me. But it's definitely that for younger people, for whom this is the first thing they've ever done, so they want to be noisy and stop cars from crossing picket lines and so on.

WHILE PENSIONS have been the most visible issue, there seem to be a whole number of aspects of the neoliberalization of the university--something we're definitely familiar with in the U.S.--that are linked together in people's minds. Can you talk about that?

WE'RE RUNNING down the same route as the U.S., particularly in terms of lecturers not having tenure. We're much closer to the U.S. than most European countries.

Neoliberalism takes about four forms that are relevant here.

One is fees--actually having to pay to go to college. Although if you're Scottish, you don't have to pay to be a student here. The SNP brought that in, and it's one of their most valuable reforms. But everyone else has to pay.

So education is being treated as a commodity. You're basically paying to get one or two degrees in order to get a job, because most employers now expect you to have a degree. It doesn't matter what it's in as long as you've got one, because it helps them to sift people applying for jobs.

So the idea is that this is something you're paying for and you have to have it delivered. But we've stopped providing that commodity by going on strike.

A second aspect of neoliberalism is the way in which university lecturers themselves have to apply for grant funding. They're effectively making themselves self-employed by getting their own sources of funding. This is usually part of your contract now--you've got to seek this kind of funding every year or every couple of years. That again marketizes how we operate.

Then there's the whole process of the assessment of lecturers that happens every seven or eight years, based on what you've produced in terms of journals and books and so on. You've got to produce for the right journals and the right publishers--this is a kind of pseudo-market assessment of what people's output is

So a lot of people end up writing stuff that will fit into certain magazines or journals--it's not what you actually want to do, but it's the kind of thing that will get you a good mark in this assessment process. Again, that distorts the whole process of genuinely producing knowledge.

Lastly, there's the way lecturers are treated--short-term contacts, hourly contracts--by the wearing away of conditions that's general across the labor market as part of the process of neoliberalism.

A lot of the people who are out on the picket lines are the people who suffer worst from the lack of tenure and the number of hours that people have to work. Surprisingly, they're the most militant, even though they're going to lose the most money from taking strike action.

The general feeling is that this fight is a wedge. We've been able to kick back because they took it too far in attacking the pensions. But everyone I know sees the possibility of moving on to challenge other things. Obviously, if people feel confident and if we win, it will encourage us to make a list of things we want to pursue.

WHAT THE sense of the effect of this struggle on the wider labor movement?

I THINK most people believe that if we win, then that will have an effect because other trade unions will notice that.

This is one of the biggest national disputes in Britain in many years, and if it's successful, then people will start to ask questions of their own officials: Why aren't we fighting to get back some of the things we've lost or defending what we still have?

In a way, it's ludicrous to think that lecturers would be the vanguard of the British working class. But it's obvious that this strike is very important, and I think that's why a lot of people generally are supporting and encouraging it--because they see that our struggle is going on, and that's something that's very rare.

So I think this will have an impact beyond the university sector, especially if it's victorious, that just proves you can do it. If we can stay out for nearly four weeks, which is unheard of these days, then people could be encouraged to at least try something. I know from speaking to other militants that these discussions are already beginning to take place.

And even if we don't win everything, then at least the strike has proved that you can take action, and that people are prepared to take action.

And we're prepared to do it again. There's another 14 days of strike action lined up in May if we don't get any serious concessions by then. I think that's focusing minds among the employers. If we had appeared weak or had been partially supported, they would probably try have tried to laugh it off, but that wasn't the case.

I think it's becoming a problem for them. I don't think they're confident, and consequently sections of the bourgeois press are making noises about how going after the pensions wasn't a very sensible thing to have done. When that kind of division starts to open up, you can see that what Universities UK is trying to do isn't necessarily thought through or supported.

WHAT YOU'VE described is a different spirit to this strike compared to general picture in Britain. Is that unique to this strike?

ONE OF the things I've noticed since the fallout from the financial crisis 10 years ago is people wanting to find opportunities to resist, wherever they can.

The thing that brought this home to me most strongly was the Scottish referendum on independence. It was the most unlikely thing imaginable, but it came as a great galvanic explosion of social movements and demonstrations and mobilizations in working-class areas that haven't been seen for ages. It became a vehicle for resistance.

In a similar way, Jeremy Corbyn's election and re-election in the Labour Party was the English equivalent of what happened in Scotland. Again, it's quite weird that it would be a Labour Party internal election that causes this, but you had the same kind of impulse to resist going on.

I think this strike falls into that kind of category. It's clearly seen as involving social issues beyond just the question about our pension--like who is the university for and so on. And for a lot of people it's an opportunity just to do something, and they're using it in that kind of way.

Obviously, the issue of pensions is important in itself, but I think the strike falls into that category of people seeing an opportunity to hit back at wider issues of neoliberalism that we were talking about earlier.

CAN YOU talk some about the broader context of politics in the UK?

THE EXTENT of the crisis of bourgeois leadership in Britain at the moment is absolutely enormous. The main issue is Brexit following the victory of the "Leave" position in the UK referendum on membership in the European Union.

From the point of view of the British ruling class, this is a huge blunder. But now the Tory Party, which has been the party of British capital for 300 years, is stuck carrying out a policy that is opposed by a majority of British capitalists. I can't think of that happening in any other situation, which puts this up there with Munich, Suez, Iraq or any of the other great disasters of British ruling class history over the last century.

There's no easy way out of it for them. Having committed themselves to carrying out the voice of the people from the referendum result, they're forced to go through with this. The only thing you're seeing from the leadership of the Tory Party is a retreat into a fantasy of what they're going to get out of this.

The EU is treating them with absolute contempt, but that's not all. When Prime Minister Theresa May spoke at the conference of the Confederation of British Industry, which is the leading body of British industrialists and capitalists generally, she was received very coldly.

When Jeremy Corbyn spoke, and he was received with incredible warmth--by the leading organization of British capital! Why? Because he probably seems like a pretty sensible guy, with a team of people who are at least competent.

It was astonishing. Corbyn's top adviser John McDonnell, a self-proclaimed Marxist, spoke to them and talked about how Labour was planning to carry out policies which would not necessarily be incredibly popular with British capitalists, but nevertheless, he still got a fairly good reception.

In other words, a lot of these people must think that the Tories are so hopelessly incompetent in just dealing with the normal functions of running the state that they would rather have the Labour Party.

They also partly think that they'll probably be able control the Labour Party the way they have with previous Labour governments. But this clearly isn't the Blair-ite Labour Party any more. It's a Labour Party in which the Left are significantly stronger.

So if that is actually more attractive to at least some members of the British capitalist class, that should show how catastrophic this whole thing has been for them.

These are quite unprecedented situations, and I think part of the problem for Corbyn is that he now feels the pressure that he could actually get elected, and consequently, he's making somewhat compromised statements, particularly about migrants and the supposed threat that migrants pose to jobs. That's nonsense, but the theme is popular with large sections of Labour supporters.

That's not the only issue--there are a number of areas where he's retreated from some of his own positions to ones which are more acceptable to the Labour center and right.

Nevertheless, the Labour Party is still a very large body of 600,000 people or something--it's one of the biggest parties in Western Europe--and mostly those are left-wing people.

I would want to draw a distinction between the Labour Party membership and the leadership. That's always been true, but now, it's especially so because the people who have tended to join the Labour Party under Corbyn are on the left, whereas in the Blair years, they tended to be on the right.

Still, one thing that's happened because of Corbyn--and previously in Scotland because of the referendum--is that it's been possible to talk about socialist politics in an open way and as a viable thing we should be struggling for. It's been a long time since that's been possible in public discussion, so I think there's been a shift.

This hasn't yet been matched by organization. Union numbers have been dropping, although that's stabilized for now. But if we do have victories, the situation might actually reverse.

So it's obviously important to work in trade unions, and clearly, there are a number of areas where unionization is a key issue, particularly in the delivery or Uber or pseudo-self-employed situations where zero contracts dominate.

But at the same time, there's no point in imagining we're back in the 1970s, with a working-class movement led by engineers and coal miners, because they don't exist with that kind of power any longer.

So who are the people at the cutting edge and how are they involved in ongoing discussions? People are taking part in debates and discussions about socialism and a better future, but they're not necessarily doing that in the workplace situations where we would have previously expected for that to take place. A lot of it is more about movements than workplace-based.

So I think you've just got to start from that. You can't start from what you wish it was like--you've got to start from where you actually are and find ways to speak to people on that basis.

I'm sure it's similar in the States since the Bernie Sanders campaign kicked off a new interest in socialism. And now you get things like the schoolkids devastated over the shootings in Florida organizing, which is really inspirational for us, hearing these 17-year-olds making speeches.

To me, that's also about people looking for ways of to express their anger more generally, and finding an issue as a means of doing that, along with the issue itself being important.

Clearly, people are wanting to resist, and when they see something like the strikes here, it gives them something to focus on as a possible alternative.

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song and Jordan Weinstein

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