giovedì , 30 Maggio 2024

UK: the biggest strike ever (in the history of Higher Education)


→ Italiano: part Ipart II

The first phase of the longest ever strike in the history of Higher Education in the UK has just come to an end: 14 days spread througout 4 weeks following an escalation strategy to say no to proposed changed to academics and academic-related staff’s pension scheme called USS. This scheme is one of the few in the country still maintaining some elements of security in terms of accrual of benefits during one’s career and in terms of equal spread of contributions from both workers and employer’s sides. As of today the scheme has also been very healthy and its alleged crisis or non-sustainability presented as reasons for the ‘reform’ have been questioned by academic experts and accruarials even outside the union ranks.

Our Pensions: can we save them?

The proposed changes have included the end of defined benefits, that is a system with financial guarantees of accrual for individuals upon retirement, towards a model based on ‘defined contributions’, where in essence the value of your final pension payment is left to the vagrancies of the stock market. It was the first time that the national leadership of the union University and College Union (UCU), had ventured into such a determined and confrontational strategy by planning 2 weeks of strike action (in fact felt as a whole month for their distributed pattern). For many HE workers and union members this was a long due move by the Head Quarter of the national union, given the ongoing degradation of terms and conditions in the sector with a real cuts in wages of 14% in the past few years when compared with inflation rates, intensification of work, a growingly casualised and insecure workforce, in addition to the various qualitative aspects of degradation of knowledge and student education as a result of the marketisation of HE; increasing monitoring of performance target and the «metric-sification» of academic production through systems such as the REF.

And indeed, all these other elements of discontent in the background, looming behind the core question of financial security upon retirement, have made the 2018 USS dispute not only the longest but also the bigger ever. The richness of the strike springs from the many unexpected social dynamics that spurred across UK campuses, from Glasgow to Essex, Leeds and London. It broke away from the long-lasting apathy that has followed the imposition of high fees since 2010 and the void of solidarity between teachers and students, as much as between academics and administrative staff, and even between colleagues that for too long have remained «woefully isolated» (to cite one of mine), and extremely atomised by a system that cynically demands the impossible: applying a business model to education.

One struggle against marketisation: pensions in, fees out!

Developing political relationshis between teachers and students is far from being taken for granted in the marketised British universities. ‘Leeds Students support UCU’ has emerged independently from the university’s student union as grassroot group of -politically lefty students in support of the strike. These students understood before any other that this was going to be a common struggle.  Every day the students would come to main university building’steps, where our rally was held after the strikers’ pickets, to show their solidarity. They have marched with us, joined our teach out, led part of them, organised independent meetings, wrote petitions and met the executive management of the University in support of the strikers, to put pressure and help moving forward with the dispute. Students have been extremely helpful, supportive, caring, and still carefully maintaining their own autonomy from their teachers’ struggle. We are both aware of how marketisation has pitted one against each other. That each day of our strike is a robbery from the £9,2050 tuition fees that they are indebted with. But we also both know that only leveraging this contradiction we may win by making this struggle one.

Post-colonial dis/connections

There have been discordant views as to whether to incite our students (especially international students who come here just for a year paying tons of money for a degree that is expendible once back in their country) to demand their money back, to write to their embassy, to use their leverage as ‘highly paying customers’. Those students concerned and well aware of the trap of marketisation, appeared to have opposed this complaints, their argument goes: you cannot separate the means from the aims, if you want a market free-education you cannot embrace the customer’s identity to exert pressure on the business owner. You have to simply practice solidarity while reminding every time that «your teachers’ better working conditions is your quality education». On the one hand my political instict is with these students, and perhaps not immediately alongside colleagues who have cynically encouraged students petition to claim their money back.  Indipendenlty from the potential legal backlash on the striking workers if the student sue the University, as a semi-marketised educator teaching HRM in a business school ‘recruting» many international students every year, I understand though that we may be realistic rather than cynical and realise our increased power in the corporatised university. This demands a series of difficult re-thinking in our communication strategy with these students where we remind them how we are all in this together while at the same time we remain on the opposite side of the ‘service barricade’.

We are taking away the  product they bought, but the fact that someone else will have to take responsibility for their loss, indicates that winning (together and separately) is even more possible. We produce value and are exploited in different ways: student debts is our stolen pension, my gender pay gap is my student’s lower level of satisfaction in the next survey, the VC’s exponential salary is my anger and so it is yours. Let’s take the value of learning that we co-produce back to oursleves.

Singing in the snow: re-producing the strike

You cannot afford to get bored when you fight. Every day we have been inundated by new proposals from members for what to do at the pickets and during the rally, being it songs (often members’ written lyrics based on popular worker songs tunes), instruments, placards, leaflets, speeches, poetry, videos and dancing. «Strike up your life» for instance, has become the soundtrack of the strike. Some real silly poetic creativity never felt redundant and was rather a key component to make it possible to reproduce the everydayness of the strike.

But the strike is not reproduced only in the visible moments of the picket lines, or at the singing rally. The continuation of the strike would have not being possible without keeping working for the strike beyond the time of pickets through the ongoing work of institutional media and social media communicaiton, strategising about the next steps, bringing new people in, making sure tensions did not become fractures, collecting solidarity from abroad, writing the next strike bulletin, listening to the criticism, eating, cooking, hugging, asking if anyone is still all right. I was already being too ‘striking-re-productive’ to fall under the temptation to do any work for the University once back home: how liberatory!

The picket line in your head: trespass!

One of the fall outs of the strike has been over the ‘borders’ of the struggle. The strong tradition of not crossing the picket line has become a quasi-religious dogma for the British labour movement especially since the violent repression of the miners strike in the 1980s: ‘You have to drag me dead through it, I will never cross a picket’ is the most popular feeling across trade unionists here. While such a belief may be quite a universal one-especially if the purpose is to actually make the strike effective (i.e. not allowing your co-workers or any scub to cross the factory gate to really stop production), some who do not feel so emotionally attached with its peculiar national history (some from the South of Europe, have actually an image of the picket line as being actually a cordon, a more confrontational frontier that really attempts to block out production, something that has been made illegal by Thatcher), may dare challeging this belief, or suggested at least to re-think it to make it more flexible and strategic boundary that we control as workers. Sadly, the couple of proposals to organise marches and protests technically ‘inside’ the (management-drawn) external border of the campus have been ostracised and accused of transpass. (Besides, the police would come and drag us out because the campuses have now become private soil. One more reason to trenspass!)  «This is the only remarkable difference between me and you» says the immigrant member to the British one- or may be the other way round.

It was interesting to see that in other campuses it was not necessarily the locals vs the migrants to show different views and emotions over the picket. At Warwick it was proposed quite spontaneously to use  the students union building in the middle of the campus to host the teach out. Some suggested how much more strategic and visible would have been to have pickets outside the refectory in the middle of campus also in our University. Instead we often prefer to stay at the margins and incorpoate them, without realising that someone else has imposed them on us.  The multiple legal constraints to trade unionism since Thatcher might have been internalised to the point that people don’t see when workers own strategies can be turned a cage. Cross the border in your head: «Go where you are forbidden to go».

Collective rejection: the (im)possible time of direct democracy

There were so many people who wanted to decide about the UUK proposal of March 12th  that the room did not fit us, and so members were intervening from the outside. The woman striker passing the message from the window that the proposal was just unacceptable because it would have left women and the more vulnerable in a much worse position, was just one of those remarkable moments of that unforgettable day of direct democracy as we rejected unanimously the proposal.

We have been pushed to make a decision across 48 hours, no, even less: the previous week we learn about the UCU proposal (on which we did not have a say) and after few days we read the results of the agreement. ‘Ordinary members’ are left without thr leaders and delegates, who are meanwhile debating on our behalf at the Head Qarter of the union in London, but still we manage to build a bridge and deliberate democratically. #No to capitulation!  But thanks to social media real time communication even the boudaries of delegates’ democracy are made fluid and annihilate space. It is not anymore just about delegating and representation, but direct democracy, is partial because there is no time to become more specific and make counter-proposals. What will happen after rejection? And what would the new proposal look like, and who will decide the red herrings?  Democracy is about event, but is also about clear protocols and internal trasparent and inclusive rules that take accountable those who ‘represent’ us. In the general «ruins of represention» our union does not have democratic protocols or least has to improve them quite a bit.

And this is one of the main victories of our strike, even if we don’t really win a decent secure pension for the long term. After having realised that « #wearetheuniversity», it comes the discovery of the demand for democracy through increased participation from the ranks and files. We are indeed unrepresentable. Because things are changing as we speak. One of the main victories of this strike, even if we don’t win everything, is that realisation that there is no democratic governance and that our own movement needs a big shake in its bureucratised and boring structures: so, you go, #Re-thinktheunion.

Democracy within and lines of division: women, precarious workers…

Women are certainly going to suffer more from the pensions cuts simply because their salaries are lower than men and they have already a smaller pension upon retirement ( But there are also other factors linked to shorter career length and continuity, gaps in pension contributions, lesser promotion opportunity upon return from maternity leave and women overall over-representation in lower paid part-time work. All these aspects make the pension dispute a struggle for equality in our Universities. This is something that has been repeated several times, and especially by minority ethnic and migrant women in our union further disadvantaged by the intersection of the race and gender gap, which are particularly high in UK academia. My best teach out was actually on International Women Day: it was an inter-generational encounter, where elderly local women activists talked about the ‘Feminist Archive North’, the archive of feminist history in Leeds, their struggles and social experiments during the 70s. We also had an amazing self-managed discussion on ‘sexaul consent’ with the undergraduate students, and the challenges of re-thinking sexual politics and ethics in the context of blending gender identities and practices.

Most of all, it has been the first time in the UK that I stroke as woman worker on the 8th of March. This year was marked indeed by the Global Women Strike, organised in many cities in Europe and across the world including in London. The Global Women Strike this year has fundamentally changed the hitherto mainly ‘celebratory’ exercise of remembering Women’s day, rather brining to the fore the uncofortable questions of the necessity of women’s labour, whether paid or unpaid and the ‘impossibility of the strike’ in the field of social reproduction for women. Our Special Women’s picket rally was joined by those among the ‘Womens’ of Achievement’ in our university who refused to get their prize on the day, to bring attention to the impact of pension cuts on women in particular and in defiance of the hypocritical, tokenisitc corporate appropriation of the women’s achievement in our workplace. On the pickets we rather talked about the intersections of shaping current forms of women oppression, including in academia, and that we cannot talk about ending the gender pay gap without fighting also the many other forms of oppressions faced by women as workers, migrants, precarious and over-exploited teachers.

Another issue discussed by women during the strike has been unsurprisingly that of the growing casualisation of HE sector: while many and more precarious workers variously divided along types of hourly paid/fixed term/temporary researchers and teaching fellows have actively participated in the pickets, assemblies and other initiatives, many of course have asked themselves if the securely employed and better paid senior colleagues’ struggle for pensions would have ever translated into a form of direct solidarity with them as  precarious workers. Pensions are not just a question for protected categories or those closer to retirement, on the contrary those who have most to lose from current pension reforms are precisely those who may not yet afford to pay into the scheme. Pensions are are about everyone’s future and the right to be protected when reaching erderly age, that is the most fragile phase of human life, precarity in the purest form. While we have seen many precarious workers involved mostly on the basis of solidarity and the strike operating as an opportunity and springboard to develop and organise the voice of the universities precarious workforce, in various forms, still not enough support might have been perceived by these workers from the leadership of the unions. The strike «hardshipfund» set up at Leeds has instead given a clear signal of solidarity to these workers and material acknowledgement of their position of greater vulnerability. Unfortunately some other ‘categories’ have still been undefendable in terms of the attack on their right to fully participated in the struggle, this time because of their legal status as migrants in the UK (see below).

and migrants

Indeed, now that we come at the end of this first stage of the dispute it is critical that, precisely in the field of mobility and migration it emerges one of the major contradictions of the strike. Just in the last few days of the strike international staff on working visas of all UK Universities involved in the dispute are made aware by the unions or the HR department of their Universities that their right to take part in further action may be hampered by the fact that the security of their sponsorship and visa depends on a maximum days of ‘unauthorised absence’ after which their employer is required to report the unpaid leave to the Home Office (The guideline goes: «For staff employed under a Tier 2 visa, you should be aware that your sponsor is required to report unauthorised absence (such as strike action) if it continues for more than 10 consecutive days. This does not mean your visa will be revoked, just that your sponsor must inform the appropriate government department). Employers’ reporting therefore put international staff at risk of deportation for having overcome the allowed amount of unpaid leave days. However, the union guidance adds: «giving general advice is not straightforward since Tier 2 sponsored staff also cannot be absent from work without pay for more than four working weeks (other than due to maternity, paternity, shared parental leave or long term sickness) in total in any one year from 1 January until 31 December. If you have already taken a period of unpaid leave for other reasons you will need to consider your own position as to whether your participation in industrial action may take you over the permitted threshold». Also having gone below the minimum earning treshold linked to their ‘Tiered’ visa may count as a further barrier to taking strike action-at the moment, those thresholds stand at £20,800 and £30,000 for specific Tier 2 occupations and the union has expressed concerned that «a handful of striking staff may already be affected, unknowingly, by this after 14 days of leave from contractual obligations».

While there has not yet been reported case of such a prosecution, as usual even the experience of being under threat of deportation and the realisation once again of occupying  ‘the margins’ reveals much more than an exception. It rather sheds light on the ‘elephant in the room’ of this whole dispute: the extreme fragility of the right to strike in the UK. While not being officially protected by the law, it is only participation in an official dispute that protects workers from threat of dismissal (in other words wild cat strikes are punishable with sacking). While being part of a trade union only provides some kind of guarantee to individual workers in terms of the right to be protected in court in case of a disciplinary action by the employer because of participation in industrial action, according to British law there seems to be no ultimate absolute  legal protection of the right to strike per se, which goes back to the very unregulated but also voluntary tradition of IR. ( Voluntary industrial relations systems in some European countries such as the UK but also Sweden, mean that collective agreements are not legally bounding, which may be bad for workers in period of overall weakening industrial strenght for labour organisation, whilst in contexts of stronger bargaining power for labour it means that workers may gain much higher terms and conditions than for instance statutory minimum standards at sectoral or national level).

The bigger ever strike in British Universitiy thus brougth to the fore how the routes to union victimisation are wide and open, and in the immediate this is the crude reality felt by the quintessentialluy unproetected: migrant workers. In the case of non-citizens who are subject to immigration controls, that is all migrants from outside the EU (yet! But after Brexit?!) dependent on a visa to reside in the UK, the dependence of their collective rights on their economic dependency on the work permit and sponsorship is made blatant.

This ‘struggle within the struggle’ witnesses in the most brutal ways the argument long exposed by the concept of ‘migrant labour’ as being paradigmatic of precarious work more broadly: in this case the threat has become more tangible in terms of constituting an impediment to participate in a traditional act of workers’ refusal: the legal withdrawal of one’s labor.  Our strile has this brought to the fore the cynic violence of a law that does not dount to overtly differentiate between citizens and migrants on a very fundamental issue such as the right to strike, which until now seemed to have been protected at least on paper in terms of  the principle of equality of collective social rights in the EUon paper still protected by the Charter of Fundamental Right of the EU. Sadly the national union has demonstrated not to have thought about this and was not prepared to protect these workers. Only in the past few days grassroot action has started to provide guidance for those who wish to be involved in new strike.

The local and the national: reclaim the union!

Ironically the tensions around internal union democracy locally made a jump to the national level determining a new phase of the struggle. On the 28th of March the Delegates of all universities on strike met in London to give indication of what their branches wanted to do in light of the latest offer by UUK. While initially the latter appeared as a step forward as it promised the setting up on a new joint ‘expert panel’ that would carry a new recommendation to the valuation of the pension of November 2017 (which was the trigger of the industrial dispute) and a suspension of the status quo until April 2019, soon workers realised that the offer did not contain anything certain or susbtantial in terms of its guarantees: no reassurance about the principle of no detriment and no guarantee that the final outcome could be worse than the present.

Lack of clarity on the timetable of the committee with a view of influencing the actual valuation process, hints to the fact that alternative options away from defined benefits may be introduced. Instead of taking the many revise and resubmit claims on board, the national executive decided to bypass the democratic process from the local branches and call for a ballot of the whole membership on whether to reject or accept. While the decision was judged premature by many, who believe that was just the beginning of a more fruitful negotiation on substance, the General Secreaty of UCU did not wait too long to express her view and recommend everyone to accept. This has been perceived by some as a betrayal of democracy within the union. But members are not afraid in the main of being completely de-mobilised, only being ‘played around’ because our embodied struggle is a point of non return.

Onwards, or Suspension?

On the 13th of April, the strike ballot was closed. The majority voted to accept the offer by UKK on the 23rd of March, after several prompts by the General Secretary to believe the employers’ good faith, accept the offer and return to work: «Members have participated in record numbers in the consultation, with a clear majority voting to accept the proposals. The union has come a very long way since January when it seemed that the employers’ proposals for a defined contribution pension were to be imposed (…) Now we have agreement to move forward jointly, looking again at the USS valuation alongside a commitment from the employers to a guaranteed, defined benefit scheme. USS, the regulator and government now need to ensure that UCU and UUK have the space to implement the agreement effectively». The result has shown a relative divided membership (Yes to accept the UUK offer 64% No to reject the UUK offer 36%) but still a majority willing to follow the leadership ballot indication and expressing positivity for whatever was already won (in my view no more than a postponement of the status quo until the 2019 April, with a mere and not better substantiated ‘word’ from the employer not to move away from defined benefits of ‘broadly comparable pension guarantees’[1]).

The Turnout to the ballot has been 63.5% and it is more or less average if not more, the «tacit majority» has (half) spoken. While all planned strike action is suspended, UCU is formally maintaining the strike mandate live (which anyway expires in June according to the new draconian UK trade union laws that require new balloting of all members with at least 50% voting) until the scheme and regulators have agreed to the agreement.

Both strike action and action short of a strike have been called off, leaving the membership, and especially those who had remained critical of the offer, in a state of suspension and insecurity about the actual achievements of a negotiation that seems to have been mainly managed behind closed doors (or better on the phone!) directly by the General Secretary with the relevant UUK representative, in without following a clear democratic process where negotiators should have been kept accountable throughout. This crisis of union democracy stands precisely in contrast with the impressive grassroots mobilisation ever seen on the pickets, and this is perhaps the most remalrable aspect of the bigger ever strike in HE.

What remains suspended is not only the strike action, but a series of questions toward the internal functioning of the union that in these latest phases of the negotiation has revealed/confirmed its ‘partnership approach’ to a quick and amicable solution to the dispute, together with a weak commitment to listen to the quite reasonable and certainly more rigours proposals and conditions for acceptance put forward by the grassroots.

This may be the end of ‘a phase; but it may be still a suspension in the middle of a process that will continue. Such union revitalisation and re-invention of conflict in the politically moribund university context in the UK has multiple reverberations, much beyond the «bread and butter issues» it started from. Pension cuts indeed are at the core of wider processes of financialisation of our future and the other face of the precarisaition of our terms and conditions. Indeed pensions are about social reproduction and the shifting of risk from the employer to the worker via the marketplace is a typical pattern in the outsourcing/downscaling of the «costs of social reproduction» to the worker 9and its owngoing ‘insecuritisation’).

Meanwhile and perhaps most importantly, the groups most marginalised in the union movement and in our universities, have come forward, and these are migrant women, precarious researchers/student workers until now with not very much a voice in the HE sector union. The new members of the local union committee (recently re-elected)  are mainly women and international workers from outside the EU.

Thus, while feeling «suspended» new conflicts are ahead of us: «the University of Alternatives» (alternative to our neoliberalised/bureaucratised/marketised campuses); the battle for free movement and freedom to strike for international and migrant staff; the renewed challenge to the repressive and lean-university organisation where many more people are aware of the unilateral aspects of decision-making and where democratic governance becomes something to reclaim. These processes have emerged organically and they will not be stopped, and they emerged from the midst of all the financial and psychological pressure that strikers have borne on their shoulders, let alone the long-lasting questions of how to strike when the strike affects primarily those you love, those you want to change the world with. Despite universities management are trying really to turn students into the other side of the contractual agreement, or mere agent in a cynical economic transaction, spoiled of any  passion for knowledge and driven by dry measurement of learning outcomes, and despite some may have come here paying loads of money or indebting themselves, to exploit to their advantage the degree=sausage factory, we still want to change them and ourselves through our experience of struggling and learning, and turn our university into an equal, just and liberated place for learning.

So strike is called off. For some time. Back to a different type of work now. Eyes closely on the union leadership and into our structures as my Leeds union fellows say. And yet, so many things that have been triggered by this struggle won’t go back to normal: a new sociality in the neoliberal University; processes of self-organisation among migrant +precarious colleagues; everyone realising withdrawing labour actually has an effect; support from students also when not expected/need to challenge lack democracy in our uni governance; people realising there is no democracy without participation and without constantly challenging the managers of our dissent.

 [1] In the words of the union national Head Quarter: «The employers have also stated that they do not intend to return to their original proposals to end the guaranteed pension, have made a clear commitment to defined benefits and agreed to discuss a wide range of issues raised by UCU. These will include inter-generational fairness, comparisons with the Teachers’ Pension Scheme and the role of government in providing support for USS». Pity that the government has already said they had no intention to take responsibility for any element of the scheme and that this comparability with the TPS is far from being defined!

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