martedì , 24 Novembre 2020

The 31st October UK Universities Strike: within and beyond the question of pay

Strike in the UKItalian Flag

by GABRIELLA ALBERTI

On the 31st October, for the first time in 16 years, academics, administrative staff, cleaners and librarians of British Universities united and joined picket lines at 149 campuses in protest against pay cuts. The three unions who led the strike are the University College Union (UCU) representing academic staff, UNISON, for all clerical staff including administrative personnel and librarians, and UNITE covering maintenance workers such as cleaners catering and security.

At Liverpool Hope University all lectures, workshops, tutorials and seminars were cancelled for the day while at Loughborough University, chemistry laboratory sessions were postponed. Rallies, marches and picket lines were organised around the country, including in Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. Despite only 5% of the overall staff voting in support of the strike, the level of participation and the composition of the struggle suggest a new wave of mobilisation against the current restructuring of Higher Education in the UK.

The strikers denounce the ridiculous 1% pay rise offered by the employers as a result of negotiations – implying a 13% pay cut in real terms since October 2008, the most sustained pay cuts since the Second World War according to the UCU leader. The refusal by employers to increase pay beyond 1% is particularly outrageous considering that their own combined surplus last year was more than £1.1bn; that there are billions of pounds of reserves, around £10bn (even after pension liabilities according to HESA) and that the salaries of chancellors and vice-chancellors have gone up to hundreds of thousands per year, resembling the more scandalous bonuses and benefits of top managers in the private sector. The strike is indeed part of a wider protest against the corporatisation of the university, which in continuation with the past years students’ mobilisations against the introduction of £9,000 fees for undergraduate courses. The classist nature of the tripling of fees in British universities, excluding the least privileged, imposing the logic of the debt onto the students’ population while extending it onto their future as workers, is cause and expression of an overall process of degradation of public education and its workers’ terms and conditions.

Most university workers are aware that the question of pay, while certainly easier to ballot on for industrial action, is only one among many of the issues that education faces.  While it is important to remember that a strike against wage cuts is crucial in a situation where many colleagues are struggling to make ends meet, the strike is about so much more than just the question of pay.  Indeed it is impossible to disentangle the question of pay from the overall degradation of terms and conditions, issues of gender equality, fairness, and job security brought about by the neoliberal restructuring of public universities, in the UK as well as internationally. A compelling issue about women academics is the gender pay gap (one of the highest across the UK public sector) but also the fact that the most precarious and lowest paid jobs, such as part-time and fixed term contracts, are disproportionately held by women, Black Ethnic Minority and migrant workers. Employers refuse to negotiate over other issues beside pays, including the disability leave, closing the gender pay gap and the increasing casualization of employment for both academic and non-academic staff. According to recent research Higher Education is, together with hospitality, the sector with the highest use of zero-hours contracts (one of the most precarious forms of employment currently growing in the euphemistically ‘post-recessionary’ UK, comparable with the ‘job on call’ in the private sector).

An issue which is talked less but which is probably the most pressurising for lecturers, as well expressed by Nadje Al-Ali, professor of gender studies at SOAS is “the fact that so many of us are incredibly overstretched in terms of workload. As the value of our salaries has fallen, our workloads have increased. So many of us are working every evening and every weekend at the expense of our health and our family lives. It is not surprising that between the increasing workloads and the pay squeeze, work-related stress is taking on epidemic proportions.” In other words it is the precarization and intensification of academic labour that is really the burning issue behind the publicly displayed question of the wage. This is why a wider movement is needed against the overall degradation of terms and conditions that involves the different categories of workers.

At Leeds University, in preparation for the strike, it was exciting to see for the first time in decades at the unions’ joint rally different categories of workers shoulder to shoulder discussing how the question of pay is only one example of the overall degradation and corporatisation of university education. The official discourse across the three unions emphasises the need for solidarity across categories and there have been increasing discussions around the need to introduce Living Wages as the minimum standard of pay on campus. This is also in response to the recent figures released by the National Union of Students according to which staff in more than 1/2 of UK universities is paid less than the living wage, with over ¼ having more than 100 staff paid less than the living wage.  The meagre pay for maintenance staff sharply contrast with those of vice-chancellors who earn around 15 times more than their lowest paid staff – one of the largest pay gaps in the public sector. If we consider the increasing outsourcing of services to the private sectors, especially those jobs done by migrant workers, then the demand for the Living Wage appears more central as well as becoming more controversial to apply for workers who are formally under a different employer. Both potentials and limitations of a Living Wage Campaign are emerging in the current organising at Bloomsbury Campus, including SOAS and Birkbeck universities in London, where workers are demanding holiday pay, sick pay and pension rights for outsourced workers in the name of equal treatment.

The current mobilisation shows how the question of solidarity across categories is of strategic importance in the struggle for labour rights in the neoliberal academy. The question of pay is important in itself and has the potential of bringing together concerns from our most poorly paid and most precarious co-workers among the clerical staff to those of academics who will continue to see their wages falling against inflation and their incremental career progression under threat if they don’t do anything about it.  The salary question should yet go hand in hand with the struggles against the corporatisation and managerialisation of public institutions and their effects in terms of shrinking of space for critical knowledge and the attack on academic freedom. The degradation of education is indeed consequence of the increasing dominance of private interests massively intruding into our students’ curricula, exploiting their early work experiences and turning them into providers of free labour for businesses selling them the dream of a supposedly increased  ‘employability’ in a context that has little to offer them beside poorly paid and insecure jobs.

Days like the 31s of October, although still very symbolic, remind us that ultimately it is only thanks to the everyday work of all workers of the university, porters, cleaners, administrative staff, librarians, teaching assistants, and lecturers that our universities can keep running. Only with a walk out across all occupational categories the University as a workplace can be shut down and have a major effects both in terms of increasing awareness and gaining support from the students who, while being presented as the ‘users’ victim of our ‘service-withdrawal’, are also the most proximate and natural allies in a struggle that demands a future free of debt, low-wages, work intensification and restriction of critical thought..

In this regard one of the most interesting events of the strike has been the participation of grass root movements such as the postgraduate research students doing work as Teaching Assistants (TAs) who, for a few years, have been organising and demanding their rights as workers. Differently from the Italian system TAs covering lectures and seminars and marking exams are at least paid by UK universities,  but similarly to any other academic system in the world they still  represent one of the most exploited and precarious forms of labour. TA’s are indeed an essential labour force covering the delivery of almost all seminars across faculties and being paid per hour while excluded from the statutory rights attached to the status of ‘employee’, a critical distinction in the UK system of employment relations.  Postgraduate Research Students’ (PGRs) self-organisation in Leeds is one of the most advanced in the country and their struggle has achieved some concrete results. Following a long battle over pay and fair treatment in March 2013 PGRs won the recognition of ‘worker’ status from the University. The implications of gaining a worker status are important because doctoral students taking on teaching roles are now entitled to paid holidays and teaching preparation time. Representing one among the most precarious category of workers in the University, increasingly central to the university system at a time when academic staff are over-worked and under-pressure, the Postgrads 4 Fair Pay has taken a key role in mobilising students in solidarity with the lecturers on strike and used the strike as an opportunity to create stronger links with the UCU union. The PGRs demand a fair and just configuration of pay rather than simply standardisation across faculties, i.e. defining contacts/office/marking hours, which should be implemented by virtue of a code of practice valid at the university level (currently under development). There is still a long way to go for PGRS fighting for fair pay and treatment. The negotiation process with management is still open and there are many issues to be solved in relation to sick pay, pay in arrears and issues of fairness in access and recruitment-which could be improved through expanding teaching opportunities to all PGRs through expression of interest forms (as in every other university ‘the right’ informal connections with individual senior academics tend to be the only way to obtain seminar slots). At least, thanks to the worker status students have a more solid base to negotiate their demands, and a fair pay for teaching postgraduates can now be recognised as a formal labour dispute. Still, the ‘worker’ status is more a ‘tool’ to organising than an aim in itself and should not be perceived as a concession from management, as argued by one of the PGRs involved in the campaign.

As a result of the strike the employers agreed to re-open negotiation over the pay dispute. Getting prepared for the worst however, all unions agreed that should the dispute not be settled a further national strike would take place on the 3rd of December. Meanwhile staff are working to-contract, that is, withdrawing the extra labour usually expected to accomplish all admin and teaching duties while keeping up with the harsh competition for publications. The indeterminacy of academic labour is quite high and there are no specific terms on an academic contract of employment, beside the general obligation that we should comply with our direct superior’s directions. This gives at the same time more power and increases ambiguity to the academic wage effort bargain.

Meanwhile at the grass root and branch level there are conversations of how to think within and beyond the strike and the difficulties attached to apply “action short of a strike’, by finding alternative and more effective tools to pressurise management. Considering the limitations of one or two symbolic day of strike and the shortfalls of withdrawing labour in any service related job with a dimension of care (still, for our students!) new strategic targets and points of weakness in the system need to be found, in order to tackle more effectively the corporatization of the University system. For instance, rejecting overwhelming and degrading  “paper work” and disrupting the increasing presence of big business marketing on our campuses would send a clear message against the increasing bureaucratisation of academic labour.

But most of all, if we start seeing again the University as a work-place beyond strict occupational/categorical interests, new solidarities and practices of resistance around and beyond the question of pay can be built for a more radical stance and powerful coalition of struggles against the casualization of university labour, for the freedom of teaching and for the right to free and critical learning.

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