UCU Strikes continue on campus
This story appeared on the front page of The Gryphon on 3rd December 2021.
The University and College Union, one of the largest higher education trade unions in the UK, will continue industrial action for a third day in their fight for better working conditions for higher education staff. The University of Leeds is one of 58 institutions going on strike this week with 75.2 percent of its local UCU branch members voting in favour of taking strike action.
UCU’s dispute with University management is centered around four fights which according to their website are “falling pay, the gender and ethnic pay gap, precarious employment practices, and unsafe workloads”.
Speaking to The Gryphon on the picket line outside the Parkinson Building on Wednesday, Vicky Blake, the UCU President, spoke of her reasons for striking.
“Over the last 12 years, in real terms, a 20% pay cut across all, we have huge inequality in pay as well. I think it shocks people to hear this – the gender pay gap is 15.5%, the pay gap between Black and White staff is 17%, and there’s a disability pay gap of 9%. We have huge levels of casualisation – so where people are on insecure contracts. So over a third of academics are on insecure contracts, and increasing numbers of academic-related professional staff are also on insecure contracts. A lot of people who teach in universities including this one are hourly paid, and often end up on zero-hour contracts as well, which I think surprises people because they don’t associate that model of employment with universities.”
Pensions are also a key issue in the current strikes which continues the trend from the previous few years of industrial action in higher education. The UCU says that since 2011, university staff’s USS pension has effectively been cut by £240,000 and employers are proposing further cuts – amounting to 35% – to staff’s guaranteed pension.
Also on the Parkinson picket line, Mark Taylor-Batty, Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies and Deputy Head of School in the School of English, spoke of his despair at the current state of the university pension scheme.
“If you were to go to your parents and say, “would it be okay for you to lose 35% of your salary tomorrow and just live on that?”, they would say: “No, of course not!” But that’s what we’ve been told and what we have to expect after retirement.” He added: “Now the younger members of staff who are just starting out might lose 40-50%. Depending on inflation, they could lose 80%. That’s hundreds of thousands of pounds of our own money that they’re proposing to take away from us.”
“Why? Because they’ve done an evaluation of the pension in the middle of Covid, so historically one of the worst times that you might look at the stock market to value forward, and they predicted that the value of the pension scheme won’t reach 80 or 90 billion until 2250. And on that basis, we have to have a cut in our pensions because that money is obviously needed to pay pensions in the future. But it’s worth 80 or 90 billion today in reality, not 2250, not in a century’s time. It’s worth that now, and all we’re saying is “can we have an evaluation based on reality?”
After the strikes were announced, UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: “UCU has repeatedly asked employers to meet with us to try to resolve these disputes. But while we set out pragmatic solutions that could halt widespread disruption to UK campuses, university bosses refuse to revoke unnecessary, swingeing pension cuts or even to negotiate on issues like casualisation and the unbearably high workloads that blight higher education.
A resolution to this dispute is simple. But if employers remain intent on slashing pensions and exploiting staff who have kept this sector afloat during a pandemic then campuses will face strike action before Christmas, which will escalate into spring with reballots and further industrial action.”
Tim Goodall, Employability Office for the Faculty of Biological Sciences, concurred adding that “For some students, they see the change in higher education, and they understand that [the strikes] will benefit students in the long term. If we actually had decent workloads, we would have time to properly prepare our teaching and to give really detailed feedback that the students are looking for. I haven’t had time to do that this semester, and I feel awful.”
Throughout the three planned days of industrial action, UCU have invited a range of guests to address the crowds on the picket line including Leeds MPs Richard Burgon and Alex Sobel. Wednesday’s guest speaker John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington and former Shadow Chancellor, was unequivocal in his support for the striking students and staff.
“I’ve been on a number of UCU picket lines over the last few months. Everyone I talked to now has just basically said enough is enough,” he told the crowd. “They’ve had enough of pay cuts effectively, they’ve had enough of working themselves into the ground at times, and at the same time the insecurity. I was at the picket line at the Royal College of Arts and I was astounded at the number who are on temporary contracts at that college.”
He added: “What’s interesting for me is the scale of support that you’ve got. I’ve been talking to student unions, and students themselves have been supporting you, but in addition to that, I think you’ve got a large amount of support amongst their families in the wider community. They know what you’re up against. They know what you’re trying to do in terms of providing a good quality education to our young people and others and a lot of people have been given a second chance at education as well at a number of our colleges. They know what you’re trying to do and they support you and that’s why this dispute is so important.”
However, UCU has not found solidarity in all corners of campus. In a move that shocked many, Leeds University Union abandoned their traditional stance of neutrality to announce that they would not be supporting the UCU strikes
The LUU Student Executive said in their statement “the challenge we face as student leaders is that we don’t believe this current strike action is in the best interest of students, and our focus has to be what’s in the best interest of our members.”
They go on to describe the “added stress, lost learning and delayed teaching” that they claim the strikes will cause and further highlight that “those most affected by the strikes will be our marginalised students, specifically our disabled, international and working-class students.”
LUU’s stance was unpopular with many students and staff alike. Sharifah Rahman from the campaign group Leeds Student Staff Solidarity told The Gryphon: “We feel they made the wrong statement and that, in fact, our union as a student union should represent us and should stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the UCU.”
Rahman added that “LUU doesn’t work as a trade union; it works as a bureaucratic kind of organ and as a business and that’s what we don’t want. We want a democratically run student union that represents us. We will continue to put pressure in favour of the UCU. We recognise at the LSSS that the best interests of students are the same as the best interests of staff. It’s the same fight.”
The National Union of Students and the majority of other campus student unions have supported the strike. A poll of students conducted by the NUS this month found that 73% backed UCU’s action while 9% opposed it.
Upon request for comment, a spokesperson from the University of Leeds told The Gryphon: “Our priorities are to protect the interests of students, including minimising any disruption to them; retain the cohesion of our community; and protect the standards of Leeds degrees.”
“The future of the USS pension scheme (Universities Superannuation Scheme) can only be resolved at a national level. It cannot be solved by this or any other university alone, and we hope that all parties remain open to talking, despite the outcome of the ballot.”
“Many of the other issues in dispute are within our gift to address, and we are already taking action to address UCU’s concerns about workload and casualisation.”