We’re Striking to Save Britain’s Universities

The University and College Union has called an eight-day strike across Britain’s universities starting on November 25. Inspired by teachers in the United States, British educators are fighting to save the education system — and put a stop to privatization.

University workers and UCU members attend a rally outside the Scottish Parliament on March 8, 2018 in Edinburgh, Scotland over pension changes. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

The wave of strikes in the American education system hasn’t just influenced US politics — it’s changed the agenda internationally. The news of action taken by teachers, most recently in Chicago, highlighted the deplorable conditions in the education system. But it’s also shown the power of organized labor — an example now being taken up by educators in the United Kingdom.

After a ballot result announced last week, on Tuesday, November 5, the University and College Union (UCU) called an eight-day strike in higher-education institutions across Britain, from November 25 to December 4. The strike will bring the privatization and neoliberalization of education back to the heart of discussions in the academic community — as well as the failure to keep wages and working conditions adequate to the realities of Britain in 2019.

Beginning of the Storm

The strike didn’t come from nowhere. Questions of pay, working conditions, and education’s place in the wider economy have long been debated across all levels of the UK education system, and already in February 2018, UCU members took to the picket lines in a dispute over pension changes. In that action, some forty thousand lecturers, librarians, researchers, and other academic staff walked out, bringing campuses to a halt in an unprecedented wave of strikes.

That action was focused on proposals to change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) — education’s largest private-sector pension scheme, with 400,000 members in 2017 spanning sixty-seven higher-education institutions. The changes would have ended guaranteed pension benefits for university staff — with many losing up to £10,000 a year in retirement. Coinciding with a wave of cold weather known as the “Beast from the East,” the picket lines set up in freezing conditions were, however, just the beginning of a much larger storm.

Indeed, today the British higher-education sector is bracing itself for another wave of strikes. This time around, the UCU goes into the fight with a firm leadership, born of the previous dispute — and, decisively, it will be representing an even wider array of members’ interests.

Changing the Union

One of the consequences of the February 2018 strike was the creation of “USSbriefs,” a grassroots research project designed to inform UCU members about the background for actions and the consequences of disputes. All USSbriefs members contribute as individuals on the basis of their expertise, not as representatives of any particular UCU branch, committee, or other interest group. One of its founders was Dr Jo Grady, a senior lecturer specializing in industrial relations.

After that strike, in February 2019, Grady announced that she would be making a rare move for a rank-and-file member —running to be the union’s general secretary. Much ink has been spilled about the (in)efficacy of trade unions, often critiqued for bureaucracy and a seeming detachment from their members. But here, a grassroots leader, also armed with expert knowledge from her own research, was seeking to change the union from within.

Grady had already made a name for herself within the UCU as she advanced from the ground up. Decisively, her agenda for the union was explicitly intersectional, not only addressing pay gaps between different categories but highlighting the continuity between repressive policies in higher education and those outside of it. This also meant a strong stance against the Tory government’s “hostile environment” immigration policy and the exclusion of voices of color and non-cis voices from white feminist discourse. Ultimately, following a campaign that mobilized grassroots members across the country, Grady was elected with an overwhelming majority.

This has allowed Grady to shift the agenda both within and outside UCU since becoming general secretary this summer. Indeed, for the first time in the union’s history, the general secretary went on a tour of UCU branches around the country in order to explain what would be at stake in the forthcoming dispute.

As members voted on taking action, the specific grounds for the dispute had to be covered by two simultaneous ballots — one on defending pensions and another on securing a fair deal on pay, workload, equality, and job security. Yet the action is also focused on casualization more broadly, tapping into the struggles of other university workers, like cleaners and catering staff. These latter jobs are often heavily staffed by migrants and others who experience multiple oppressions.

After the 2018 strike, in which many had taken to the picket lines for the first time, a lot was riding on these strike ballots. In two previous votes, UCU had fallen short of the 50 percent threshold for strike action. Yet Grady’s campaign secured levels of support like those seen in the 2018 pensions dispute — with the addition that this was also won on an explicit agenda of supporting low-paid, casualized staff and those affected by gender and racial pay gaps. Members gave a larger yes vote than ever before (ranging from 74 to 79 percent, depending on the type of institution), with a turnout ranging from 49 to 53 percent.

Braced for Strikes

Already in the February 2018 strikes, there was a remarkable development in the UCU’s culture. Teach-ins on campus as well as teach-outs among the wider community tied the issues affecting higher-education workers together with the broader processes of austerity and neoliberalization in British society. Indeed, these themes have clearly been linked since the Tory–Liberal Democrat coalition formed in 2010, which tripled university tuition fees and pursued further neoliberal reforms across the education sector.

Last year’s strike was also important because it brought together members of the higher-education community who would usually not organize or share spaces together. Thanks to the teach-ins and teach-outs, a range of issues were hotly debated as part of the strike action, from decolonizing the university to neoliberalism and intersectional feminism. Through this mobilization, there emerged the radical possibility that the change achieved on the picket lines could tie into the wider political agenda taking hold of Britain.

This combination of struggles is reflected in Grady’s bold proposals for the upcoming strike, taking action on casualization as well as fighting a multifront battle against the pay gaps discriminating against women, disabled people, and people of color. In her tour of branches, Grady forcefully showed that the threats looming over the sector really can hurt all members, no matter how senior they are and how safe they may they feel. Uniting workers across any other divides, this strike is based on the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Unsurprisingly, there’s rather less solidarity coming from the British media, which pitches to the right. It has long demonized trade unions in any and all sectors and has already spewed a great deal of venom against the UCU during the last strike and with regard to the current dispute. Yet for all their efforts to damn teaching staff, this message may not be convincing students themselves. Research presented by the UCU shows that students understand well the conditions in which their staff are working and overwhelmingly support the strike. They support rechanneling resources toward better pay conditions for their lecturers rather than building vanity projects or hiring vice chancellors with six-figure salaries.

In the last strike, many students came to sit-ins and teach-ins and supported staff. Indeed, educators made the difficult decision in favor of striking precisely because they know that it is the students who will suffer most if the sector descends further into privatization.

Today, the UK education system is bracing itself for another storm. Not only have we been inspired by the actions taken by teachers on the other side of the Atlantic, but we have shifted toward a more grassroots organizing approach, backed by a radical leadership that of educators who understand the sector better than many of their predecessors. This strike, even more than the previous one, is truly a remarkable moment — and one that’s changing the discussion around higher education in the UK. A new belief that change is possible is taking over Britain — and it’s matched by a new sense of solidarity, putting the welfare of staff and students above the interests of profit. Our pickets are ready.