This article was first published under a different title by internationalsocialist.org.uk on 30/10/2013. Please click on the link or see Publications & Contributions for the original text and other articles I have published elsewhere.
Barring the event of a highly unlikely eleventh hour deal the members of UCU, Unison, and Unite working in higher education will proceed with industrial action on Thursday, October 31 across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
The background to this strike like so many others is one of reluctant action against an unflappably disinterested employer. University staff – including technicians, administration staff, and lecturers – have been offered a derisory pay increase of 1%. This equates to a real terms pay cut of 13% over the last five years. Simply put, this is unacceptable.
Using the narrative of austerity to justify the degradation of public sector workers wages has become commonplace since 2010, and this is just another example of that most pervasive of concepts – cuts. Despite there being some dispute over whether the percentage of members who did vote was sufficient to carry the decision, this will be the first time all three unions have opted for action simultaneously. This fact alone highlights the weight of feeling against the current trends towards casual contracts and pay freezes for those staff already the hardest hit by the economic downturn.
Staff will be uniting across the UK on Thursday in defence of their right to a wage that reflects the hard work they have put in to build this country’s higher education network. Anyone who works within universities day to day either as students, researchers, or teaching staff knows very well that there is a significant contingent of low paid staff who cannot afford to maintain their positions with price rises as they are. Without a deal on wages we could lose a whole generation of early career academics and support staff. The deleterious effect this would have will damage the very quality of education we can rightly take pride in throughout these islands.
Today’s pay cut may well be tomorrow’s P45, and we owe it to ourselves and future generations of students to prevent this from happening. Whether you are a Scottish student paying zero tuition fees or from the rest of the UK and burdened with massive debts before you have even been honoured with a degree, there is a direct correlation between your treatment and how universities pay their staff. Such actions encompass a wider strategy of driving down wages, hiking up fees, and limiting the inclusivity of higher education in an attempt to create a model of education that is perfectly geared towards profit and only passively interested in social justice as an academic curiosity.
Remember that it is not staff on zero hours contracts or semi-employed lecturers who are responsible for hikes in tuition fees, but the policies which have seen vice-chancellors receive an average pay rise of £5000 in 2011/12. Their average pay and pensions package for the same year stood at £247,428. The highest among them, the University of Birmingham’s David Eastwood, took home £372,000 before even taking into account additional pension contributions. When told that this is in fact considerably less than they could earn in the private sector (presumably doing so out of their natural benevolent tendencies) then you garner a fairly cogent idea of how wages are distributed in this society of ours.
Higher education employees are not asking for any special treatment, merely the realisation of their expected pay increases as any hard working group of individuals would. It is important to remember that higher education staff have experienced one of the longest sustained wage cuts of any profession since the end of the Second World War. As always many sections of the press will attempt to present this as a case of public sector versus private sector workers, the former allegedly under the delusional belief that they deserve extra favour. This narrative falls so far short of any semblance of truth that it barely warrants mention. Unfortunately it is one that has been crucial in the past and remains pervasive. This is a concerted attempt to split social bonds and divide workers down lines which divert us away from the real culprits of working poverty nationwide.
The ISG like many other socialist organisations would like to stress that we stand behind the workers on strike. Using university facilities or attending lectures in defiance of the picket is a direct boon to the neoliberal ethos that has come to consume the higher education sector in the UK. Choosing to utilise the library or access your office for the purpose of work legitimises the pay structure of your university and suggests that the institution can operate without the vital service of their employees. At the very least please respect the political importance of the strike, and if you truly want to show solidarity with workers then join the picket line. Many a transformative political experience has been had at demonstrations such as this. Everyone is welcome regardless of affiliation, for in the display of unity the forgotten can be made enormous. It is our duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with striking workers wherever they may be, from Aberdeen to Plymouth, in canteens and lecture theatres – let us never forget which side we are on.
Please take some time to view the information surrounding the strikes and rationale for this decision. Here are links to the websites of the three unions involved: