Education workers and their unions are arising

Mary Senior reports on the on-going battle in universities for pay and pension justice.

This summer of unrest, strikes and union ballots is par for the course for the University and College Union (UCU), given our members in universities have been fighting back against punitive pension cuts, stagnating pay and inequality for some years. In August, the union embarked on its biggest and boldest ballot campaign ever: ‘UCU Rising’. Deploying social media, live streamed events, videos, direct mail, in addition to our regular tactics, UCU ran its first aggregate UK-wide ballot for years in two disputes over pension theft, and pay and conditions.

‘UCU Rising’ and these two aggregate ballots mark a step change in the union’s strategy: a recognition that previous disaggregated branch by branch ballots have delivered some rewards, notably at a local level for a number of branches. However, if we are to win big and get employers collectively to meet UCU demands on pay and pensions, we need the leverage of every university branch in Britain. And that’s what UCU has delivered with a resounding mandate, the first education union to deliver on a national mandate, and only the third union to deliver a UK sector-wide ballot result.

Our general secretary, Jo Grady, has been clear that ‘being right’ on pensions and pay is not enough: we need the leverage of UK-wide ballot mandates to get employers back to the negotiating table, and members have voted on mass to support their union. So, the potential for widespread disruption in virtually every university in every part of Britain is now on the cards, unless employers up their game.

In the pensions dispute, UCU is arguing that is entirely possible. The 35% cuts in guaranteed pensions that were pushed through in February are unnecessary. The Universities Superannuation Scheme posted a £1.8bn surplus in August, angering members and illustrating the cuts were purely ideological. We know too that the majority of employers could afford more that the derisory 3% pay uplift that has been imposed, and that the sector can work harder to address the scourge of casualisation, pay inequalities and unsafe workloads.

Employers know our members are ready to strike, many have seen disruption before and now know it can be replicated at every university. They need to make serious offers in both disputes to avoid Britain-wide industrial action on a scale not seen for decades in higher education. Striking is always a last resort but employers can make choices to avoid disruption. They need to return to negotiations with meaningful offers to resolve the disputes. They need to start valuing the workers that deliver the vital teaching, research and support services. If they fail, UCU members will take action.

Mary Senior is the Scotland official for the University and College Union

  • In the next issue (Jan/Feb 2023), we will have a report from the general secretary, Andrea Bradley, of the EIS teaching union on its ‘Pay Attent10%n!’ 10% pay campaign