By Rowan Gavin
We are the morning greeting. We are cold boots on colder ground. We are the smiles in the winter sunshine. We are the chants and the songs and the stiff-limbed dances. We are the fascinator of freedom, the little red coat of resistance and packet line soylidarity. We are the educators, learning in a new classroom. We are the outrage, and the laughter. We are here to fight the power. We are power.
On October 31st, the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) published ballot results that mandated 43 union branches to take industrial action over the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions dispute, and a record 55 branches to take industrial action over the ‘pay and equality’ dispute, a multi-issue campaign covering wages, workload, inequality and casualisation. Strike action duly commenced on Monday November 25th at 60 institutions, including my branch at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
Coming into this strike action, we at UEA found ourselves in a unique situation, as a result of two specific developments. The first was the ballot results: although the ballot to take action on pensions was successful, and over 70% of voting members supported action on the pay and equality dispute, the branch fell one vote short of the 50% minimum turnout for that second ballot. Heavy-handed Tory trade union regulations mean that as a branch we are unable to legally strike on the plethora of important issues that latter dispute encompasses. Our colleagues and comrades up and down the country are raising their voices about a 17% real terms pay decrease this decade, about the sector’s disgusting gender pay gap (over 12%) and BME pay gap (as high as 26% in some institutions), about the unpaid work that over 60% of higher education staff report doing, and about the casualised contracts designed to keep massive numbers of teaching and research staff in precarious conditions. We must bite our tongues on these issues – officially, the action at UEA is only about the pensions dispute.
The second important development was UEA’s response to the declaration of strike action. The university has chosen to harden its position relative to the 2018 strikes in a number of respects. Most egregiously, it has stated its intent to deduct 100% of pay from staff who refuse to reschedule teaching sessions that were cancelled due to strike action – a common practice during the action short of a strike (ASOS) that frequently takes place during industrial disputes in HE. In 2018, they only deducted 25% of pay for staff taking such action. On top of this, they have declined to follow the lead of various other universities in spreading out pay deductions over 2-3 months, which again diverges from their 2018 policy.
UCU, the Students’ Union and striking staff would all love to know why exactly the UEA executive team have made these decisions, but they’re not telling. Neil Ward, the Pro-Vice Chancellor Academic known to many as the executive team’s enforcer, declined an invitation to a public Q&A with a UCU rep on Monday. In his absence, staff and students raised a number of important questions. How will UEA categorise strike-related non-attendance of students on visas that require them to attend a certain number of classes? What proportion of pay will precariously employed Associate Tutors have deducted for those duties that do not have formally contracted hours, such as responding to student queries? It is the university’s legal responsibility to provide comprehensive guidance on what the repercussions of strike action will be for everyone involved and affected. Instead, they refuse to engage in dialogue with the strikers themselves, and the guidance they do produce has had to be corrected by the union multiple times. This is a gross dereliction of duty, and a peek behind the mask of a supposedly compassionate public institution, revealing the uncaring, corrupt, corporate visage that we who see its inner workings are all too familiar with.
The truth of UEA’s continual abuse of power has reared its head many times in the six years that I have been involved in the institution, but it is no less distressing for that repetition. Joining the picket lines these past days as a first-time striker I have been part of a different, kinder way of exercising power. The picket line has been a place of warmth on bitter-cold days, startling unsuspecting students into smiles with rounds of ‘Good morning!’ It has been a place of laughter in frightening times, at the gotta-keep-warm shuffle and the elusive picket kitty and the audacity of Vice Chancellor David Richardson claiming 10p on expenses for two packets of soy sauce that his £300k+ salary apparently wouldn’t stretch to. Most importantly, it has been a place of conversation, of sharing and processing and commiseration between colleagues who are each mistreated in their own unique ways by the institution that claims to have their best interests at heart.
I have spoken to a member of staff who teaches on UEA’s course that teaches new lecturers how to teach, and who is being threatened with redundancy as the course is being replaced by an online tick-box exercise. I have seen the frustration of many younger picketers who, like me, do not earn enough to be able to contribute to the USS pension scheme at all. I have heard the succinct fury of a colleague’s response to the policy of deducting all pay from staff who refuse to reschedule teaching, broadcast across Earlham park in a voice that speaks for all strikers: “Fuck off!”
The USS pensions dispute has become symbolic of the structural power imbalance in HE over the past couple of years, and is definitely a worthwhile issue to strike over in itself. Shouts of ‘We deserve secure retirement’ and ‘We don’t want to die in poverty’ have served as cutting reminders to those crossing picket lines that this is an emotive issue, not just a bureaucratic one. That said, much of the conversation between strikers has focused on the failure of the local ballot on the pay and equality dispute. Each of us stands in solidarity with others’ struggles as much as we stand up for our own rights. Nonetheless we must recognise that our union is not single-minded. There is a great deal of anger about inequality and casualisation on the picket lines. For now, we keep to the law and keep that anger simmering rather than serving it up, but these issues are a reality of far too many HE workers’ lives for us to ignore them entirely. There is internal work to be done if the branch is to live up to its duty to do right by these workers – starting with a reballot to join further any action on pay and equality, which opens tomorrow.
So you want to know what this strike is about? Here’s what I’ve learned, standing in a new place of education over the past week. This is about pensions, but it is not just about pensions. This is about depressed pay, and inequality, and excessive workload, and precarity, even though the law ties our tongues on the picket line. This is about people – about staff who make the intensely personal choice to strike, about colleagues who do not feel able to make that choice, and about students whose rights are being eroded as surely as those of their teachers and support staff. This is about power. UEA’s executives are abusing their power, presuming to issue diktats that damn thousands while they recline in their palatial ‘grace and favour’ accommodation. We exercise our power by smiling, and shouting, and standing firm in anger as cold as the December dawn. When they take from us until we can give no more, we strike back. Stand with us.
Featured image credit: UEA UCU
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