University staff strike to defend pensions, pay and conditions

Members of the University & College Union (UCU) are to strike for up to eight consecutive days at sixty universities across the UK, beginning on Monday 25th November, including at Queen’s University and the University of Ulster. Although obviously linked, formally there are two separate disputes – one over pensions, and one on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. UCU members backed strike action on these issues by 79% and 74% respectively, reflecting the anger that exists around the conditions facing academic staff. This action follows 14 days of strike action by UCU members last year to hold back attacks on their pensions.

Proposed changes to the USS pension scheme would see a typical staff member pay £40,000 more in but get £200,000 less out over their lifetime! Meanwhile, staff have seen their pay fall in real terms, as well as continual erosion of working conditions. Growing casualisation means 65% of research staff in higher education are on fixed-term contracts, with many more dependent on short-term funding for continued employment. These contracts mean that staff can be denied key employment rights. Without a guaranteed income, they are unable to make financial or employment plans year to year, or even month to month. This is an attack on stability at work – forcing many people out of the job and having an adverse effect on the mental health of workers.

Build united struggle of workers and students

Of course, similar conditions are faced by workers across many industries, as bosses – aided and abetted by the political establishment – seek to sweep away hard-won rights and squeeze every penny possible out of workers. It speaks volumes that even higher education is now run on this ruthless basis, with management focussed on the bottom line, rather than it being invested in as a crucial resource which benefits society as a whole. This is reflective of the commercialisation of higher education under both New Labour and the Tories. Only struggle can turn the tide against the race to the bottom in pay and conditions. We have recently seen important examples of what workers can achieve when they stand united, in the battles to save jobs at Harland & Wolff and Wrightbus and the victory of striking workers at ABP Meats in Lurgan. Every victory against job losses, on pay, pensions and conditions is a victory for all workers. Therefore, the UCU’s fight is a fight for all workers, including the workers of the future – students.

The students’ movement must resist attempts to turn students against striking university staff, as we saw in last year’s dispute. Students’ unions should explain why students have a vested interest in having lecturers and tutors on decent pay and conditions, and the connection between this dispute and the working conditions they are likely to face in the future – and many already do face in low-paid, casual jobs. Students should be called on not to cross picket lines. Joint rallies should be organised in support of living wages and secure conditions for all workers, as well as free education with a living grant and the abolition of student debt.

As UCU members go on strike, civil servants and health workers in Northern Ireland are also engaged in disputes over pay and conditions, while Royal Mail staff have voted to strike against management bullying and the dismantling of the enterprise. These struggles should be linked together as far as possible, with coordinated protests and action. Maximum unity will strengthen the hands of all these workers, can raise confidence and point towards the need for a generalised fight-back against austerity, poverty, casualisation and the capitalist system which drives them.

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