Yet Another Strike Day

June 22, 2016

A university is a community: staff and students, graduates and families, people in the town and people around the world. The university is its people. Buildings are more iconic; the physical environment conditions all our experiences and memories; but a university’s mission is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and all knowledge exists in the people and communities that know it.

My union, the University and College Union (UCU), is in dispute with a large number of universities, and my local and my university (the University of Manchester) are part of that dispute. We are on strike today.

Strikers stand by the UCU banner with the slogans "Knowledge is Power" and "Unity is Strength".

Strikers by the UCU banner.

The Reason

It’s a pay dispute. The capsule UCU summary:

The dispute has arisen following a pay offer of just 1.1% from the universities’ employers, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. UCU said universities could afford to pay more and the latest offer did little to address the real terms pay cut of 14.5% that its members have suffered since 2009. The squeeze on staff salaries comes despite vice-chancellors enjoying a 6.1% pay hike.

The union has also called for universities to commit to closing the gender pay gap and reducing the proportion of staff on casual and zero-hour contracts. On average, female academics across the sector are paid £6,103 per year less than male counterparts while 49% of university teachers are on insecure contracts.

Since 2010 the amount spent on staff by universities as a percentage of total income has dropped by 3%. However the total of cash in reserves has rocketed by 72% to stand at over £21bn.

(It started as a 1% offer. We pushed back. The Universities came back with a 1.1% offer. The faith is not good here.)

Note that we are in the midst of a £1 billion building spree  (after spending £750 million since 2004 on 10 buildings some of which are already falling apart and were hideous and misdesigned in the first place.

Now, I know not all money is the same, yadda yadda yadda. However, where is the billion pound effort to improve staff? Staff development, better pay, better recruitment…these are things that are not part of a giant, well funded master plan. Instead we get stagnant pay, increasing work loads, onerous busywork, metrics, targets, punitive measures, pensions slashed, etc. etc. etc. Less academic freedom and more centralisation of functions for the sake of centralisation.

The administrations should be actively figuring out how to “build up” staff which includes building up staff pay instead of having every drop wrung from them by disruptive action. Until they do, they are failing at their jobs.

The Tactics

This is part of a second round of targeted strikes after a national two day strike. Each local is picking a day designed to be maximally disruptive for their university. We are focused on exam boards (where we make final decisions on student grades). Oxford is targeting honorary degree and graduation ceremonies.

This is serious stuff. Disruption is disruptive. Student degrees may be delayed, complicating their job starts. Ceremonies that normally generate cherished memories are marred. It’s not something the union takes lightly. But there is really little choice. The administrations are not negotiating with us. Nor are they performing the basic function of nurturing the university. Neglecting staff issues is neglecting the foundations of the university.

It’s disruptive to staff. It’s not a “day off”. People are picketing. There’s work that’s delayed or created. Our pay is docked by the university. It costs us to go on strike (though often that is returned as a negotiation sweetener). It’s emotionally draining both to be faced by this situation and to engage in the action.

Simon Harper et al picketing one of the entrances to University Place.

Simon Harper et al picketing one of the entrances to University Place.

It is in the power of the adminstrations to prevent this disruption, to have prevented the risk of it. Coming in with 1% and “moving” to 1.1% isn’t a opening move in a sincere negotiation. Having no long range plan to address wage declines is not the background of this “discussion”.

As I often do, I look to Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

MLK was fighting a much, much more serious fight with dramatically greater stakes. but his description of direct action is applicable in a wide range of circumstances, including labour disputes.

(Read the whole thing! Read his books! It repays the effort many times in many circumstances. It is not merely of historical interest. King’s thinking is live, complex, theoretically interesting, and practically helpful.)

What you can do if you aren’t staff

Students and families can show solidarity. Write your university in support. Call for administrations to look toward staff development as the central part of their job, worthy of big efforts and active work. Stop and say hi to picketers!

Place the blame for the disruption where it belongs, with the administrations. Turn the situation into an opportunity to stand with others in your community. Instead of a marred experience, make it a proud moment.

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