Workers Hammer No. 241

Spring 2018


Victory to university strike!

Defend pensions!

For free quality education for all!

6 APRIL—From late February to mid-March, members of the University and College Union (UCU) and their supporters braved snow and freezing weather to picket campuses across Britain and Northern Ireland. What provoked this unprecedented walkout was the threat by Universities UK (UUK), the employers combine, to slash pensions by around £10,000 per year, replacing the existing defined benefit plan by a defined contribution scheme, which would leave pensioners prey to the vagaries of the stock and bond markets.

The bloated campus administrations thought they could replay what happened in 2015, when a pliant UCU leadership under general secretary Sally Hunt ignored a huge strike vote and allowed UUK to push through an earlier attack on pensions. But this time the bosses got more than they had bargained for, as an even larger, 88 per cent strike vote at 61 of the 68 affected campuses was turned into strike action. And before the picket lines went up, four of the seven other campuses re-balloted to join the strike.

Aided by an influx of new members into the union, the picket lines grew in strength over the 14 days of strike action. Solid turnout on the picket lines and widespread support from students and part-time teaching staff shook the UUK, with a number of university administrations decamping from its hardline stand.

The strike held firm even when the Hunt leadership entered negotiations under the auspices of the state’s ACAS arbitration service. And on 13 March, hours after Hunt emerged from the negotiations to announce a rotten compromise, the UCU offices in London were surrounded by hundreds of angry strikers demanding, “No capitulation!” A meeting of branch delegates that day resoundingly rejected the deal.

As we go to press, the membership is voting on a new offer, which would leave the defined benefit plan in place for another year until a panel of “experts” jointly chosen by the union and management pronounce on the plan’s “viability”. To debate whether or not the existing pension fund is viable is already to cede ground to the university administration. This investigation can only be a cover-up. The point is that there should be no cut in pensions — any deficit should be made up by the employers or the capitalist government. UCU members should have no illusions in class-collaborationist investigative panels or capitalist state arbitration.

The biggest strike ever in the university sector, this walkout by a layer of petty-bourgeois professionals is an object lesson for all trade unionists: union gains are won and defended on the picket lines, not around the bargaining table! Attacks on pensions and other benefits have played a central role in the capitalists’ one-sided war to drive down the living standards of all working people. Yet bureaucrats who preside over unions with much more social clout than university lecturers and librarians have prostrated themselves before the bosses and their anti-union laws, pushing impotent parliamentary lobbying, reliance on government “arbitration” and vote-herding for a future Labour government.

True to form, the Unite and Unison misleaders did not even bring out the tens of thousands of their own members who work in higher education to join the UCU on strike. Picket lines mean no one should cross — not cleaners or engineers or scabbing lecturers. The bureaucrats’ backstabbing points to the need for one campus union for all workers, lecturers and staff.

But while the union chiefs sat on their hands, students and broad layers of working people rightly look to the UCU strike, as millions did to the strikes by NHS junior doctors two years ago, as a beacon of collective resistance to decades of government cuts to public services. Thanks to the tuition fees introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government and tripled under the Tory/LibDem government, university students rack up enormous debts even as they are forced to work at low-wage jobs on zero-hours contracts in order to continue their education. Student fees now account for around half of universities’ income — and those hit hardest are poor, minority and working-class youth.

Vice-chancellors gorge themselves on salaries of £400,000 or more, as pay, benefits and job security for teaching staff and campus workers have been cut to the bone. Many jobs — from cleaners and porters to secretaries — have been contracted out to low-wage and low-benefits outsourcing firms. A 2016 study by the UCU reported that 54 per cent of academic staff are on casual or insecure contracts. We demand: Down with the two-tier system! All teaching staff should get permanent contracts, with the same benefits and job protections as full-time lecturers. What is needed is a class-struggle fight, led by the trade unions, for free, quality state education at all levels, with open admissions and state-paid living grants for all students.

However the universities are funded, under capitalism they necessarily serve the interests of the ruling class: training the future managers and technicians of the capitalist state and capitalist corporations and instilling bourgeois ideology, including reinforcing the elitist distinction between mental and manual labour. The notion that academic “ivory towers” can exist amidst a swamp of race, sex and class inequality is a reactionary myth. Our goal is the creation of a global classless communist society in which study and work will both be part of the creative development and forward progress of all humankind.