UK higher education workers continue their strikes over pensions, wages and working conditions

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Over 50,000 higher education workers continue their strikes this week, with two days of action on Monday and Tuesday. The action began on February 14 with a five-day strike.

Employees are resisting attempts by the university management to cut their already devalued pensions by a further 35 percent. The cuts come on top of the £240,000 already lost from the average lecturer’s retirement income over the past decade.

University teachers’ wages have plummeted. This week, the University and College Union (UCU) found that staff salaries have fallen by more than a quarter (25.5 percent) in real terms since 2009, as the retail price inflation index now stands at 7.8 percent.

Teachers are also fighting against insecure employment contracts, unmanageable workloads and unequal pay. The union states: “Over 70,000 academics are employed on precarious contracts. The gender pay gap in UK universities is 16%, while the disability pay gap is 9% and the racial pay gap is up to 17%.”

The employers’ association of universities and colleges is offering a salary offer of 1.5 percent on existing salaries for 2021/22, which is well below the inflation rate.

The pickets at Glasgow University (WSWS Media)

There was solid support for the strike in conditions that saw the UK endure three nationwide storms in the first week of action. That determination to fight stands in sharp contrast to the UCU bureaucracy, which did everything it could to curb action from the start and wants nothing more than to end it with a rotten sell-off.

The UCU has split the strike into separate disputes, with the five-day strike of recent weeks only over pensions. This week, while the strike is widened to 68 from 44 participating universities over both pension and pay cuts, the action is being reduced to just 48 hours. For three days (February 28 to March 2), workers at 68 universities are on strike next week over pay alone.

The 68 participating universities are attended by over 1 million students. However, no joint action with students was organized, except very marginally last day of strikes on March 2 with a “student strike for education” called by the National Union of Students.

The UCU’s real agenda, despite having a strike mandate for the whole of March through May 6, is to end the dispute for good as soon as possible. In response to a provocation by six universities — encouraged by the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association — docking strikers paid 100 percent, and others said there would be partial cuts for employees taking action just before a strike. The UCU ensured no industrial action was taken.

Striking rally at Leeds University on Monday (WSWS Media)

Several industries voted to go on strike. Alarmed that the strike could then spread beyond their control, the UCU bureaucracy said that instead of an immediate strike, staff at the universities involved should declare another separate dispute. The UCU pushed through this dictate, knowing full well that anti-strike laws meant it would take months to organize a ballot and get employers the necessary notification by the time that term expired.

In a desperate bid to avert strikes in an economic sector that UCU general secretary Jo Grady noted was generating nearly £41bn in revenue. This was based on a promise of “a serious compromise on the part of the UCU and its members”.

The UCU’s proposals include an increase in maximum employee contributions from 9.6 percent to 11 percent in April, as well as an increase in employer contributions until a new assessment of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) program with riskier, more profitable investments can be issued in June. The £82bn Universities Superannuation Scheme is the UK’s largest private pension fund by assets.

As last week’s strike ended, Grady took up the pages of the City of London’s mouthpiece financial times. She complained that despite the UCU’s best efforts, “we don’t believe the UUK [Universities UK] are serious about finding a solution. When the UCU submitted its first proposals last summer, employers refused even a modest increase in their own contributions and refused to adequately match our proposed payments.”

Grady continued: “Now UUK appears to be persuading employers to reject our latest pragmatic attempt to resolve the dispute. In new proposals, which represent a significant compromise by our members, the UCU is calling for a sensible, evidence-based assessment of the financial health of the system as of March 31, 2022 and small annual contribution increases for members and employers to protect benefits…”

She pleaded: “We want to avoid further disruptive strikes…”

Strikers on picket lines at the University of Leeds (WSWS Media)

No appeal is made to students or other educational staff. As a striking lecturer told WSWS reporters this week: “I think the marketing of higher education is the biggest part of the picture of what we are fighting against and so we should find solidarity with the students because they are the ones paying the cost.” carry for it marketing”.

Instead, the UCU has launched an email campaign urging its members: “If your institution is among 44 where UCU members are striking over the devastating proposed 35% cuts to their hard-earned pensions, please send an email to your [Vice Chancellor]/Principal and urge them to look into the UCU.”

Another plea was raised on Monday ahead of further talks between the UCU and UUK taking place today at the Joint Negotiating Committee. This comes after employers said last week they would only tolerate a tiny extra 0.3 percentage point in contributions they would pay towards pensions. Employers also insist that inflation-linked annual pension increases be capped at a maximum of 2.5 percent, even if CPI inflation — the lowest measure of inflation — is above 2.5 percent. Employers are also demanding that the application of this cap be postponed to 2025.

The union said: “The JNC has until Monday 28 February to determine what changes to make to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension. The UCU has presented compromise proposals that have been confirmed workable by the USS Trustee, which operates the program. UUK must decide whether to push ahead with 35% cuts to university staff’s guaranteed retirement income, or whether to be willing to work with UCU and settle the pension dispute.”

This has only one endgame: another major defeat for college workers that will have dire consequences for workers everywhere as the Johnson administration ends all COVID restrictions and escalates its offensive on pensions, wages and working conditions.

University staff must turn to the formation of grassroots committees organized in each workplace independently of the UCU. Over the heads of the UCU and NUS, the utmost attention must be given to other education workers and students to reverse decades of assault on jobs and livelihoods and to stop the commodification and privatization of education at all levels.

We encourage university staff and students to join the Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee, attend our meetings, and receive our regular newsletter.

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