The UK’s University Strikes Are in Lockdown

Since last year, the UK has seen sustained and powerful industrial action across its higher-education sector, with the latest strike wave only interrupted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the crisis sure to be exploited by the Tory government, universities and colleges are more under threat than ever, and union strength has never been more vital.

Passenger on the London Underground wears a surgical mask during the coronavirus pandemic in London on March 12, 2020 in London, England. Ming Yeung / Getty

In the United Kingdom, the COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with the most sustained period of industrial action in the higher-education sector in history. Between November 2019 and March 2020, members of the University and College Union (UCU) undertook twenty-two days of strike action. They raised a comprehensive set of demands against a university model that increasingly relies on low pay, casualization, unmanageable workloads, and racial and gender discrimination, and does not guarantee security in retirement. Their set of demands are articulated around the “Four Fights” against casualization, unequal and declining pay, rising workloads, and the dispute over pensions that had already provoked a fourteen-day strike in 2018.

The strike showed the strength of our grassroots movement, and put some employers on the defensive. In the face of this strength, our employers have fought back, echoing the Tory government’s hostility to industrial action. More disappointingly, moderate forces within our own union have sought to dilute our demands. During negotiations, UCU’s general secretary, Jo Grady, sent conflicting messages to members and discussed her willingness to reach a deal. This caused concern among some members of the negotiating team, who feared that by signalling compromise, she was risking lowering the bar of our demands, and encouraging the employers to offer even less. The resulting impression was that our union desperately wanted a deal.

Missed Opportunities

As COVID-19 took root in the United Kingdom, the UCU lacked any independent initiative on how to respond in colleges and universities, a strategic lack that did our union damage. When the second part of our strike started in mid-February, COVID-19 was already an international health emergency. On March 9, at the beginning of the last full week of strike action, there were more than 300 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom. Despite activists’ concerns and the evidence from Asia on the effectiveness of social distancing, union guidelines simply invited us to follow government advice, which at the time constituted washing your hands while singing “Happy Birthday” twice.

Even when the government openly declared its criminal “herd immunity” strategy, disregarding World Health Organization recommendations, the UCU did not voice its criticism, nor did it criticize the approach taken by higher-education institutions, which up until March 12 (the end of the last full week of action), continued to schedule lectures, events, and open days. The union too adopted a business-as-usual approach, with no advice for comrades holding picket lines, rallies, and teach-outs.

It is now clear that those weeks of official inaction have caused social tragedy. If UCU had distanced itself from the government and employers, it could have condemned the latter’s behavior as yet another example of poor leadership, of indifference to the health of students and staff. This could have strengthened our demands to democratize the universities, and attracted the sympathy of other workers and students, particularly those from Asia who were facing increasing racist attacks, and returning home en masse because they mistrusted the British government’s handling of the crisis. But because this did not happen our strike paradoxically helped employers delay their response to the pandemic.

Without any democratic discussion, moreover, a “national solidarity” line prevailed within the union. At the end of the strike, UCU members were asked to make an “orderly” return to work, without being informed of their right to refuse to do so if they thought their health was at risk. Some late-joining branches were encouraged to call the final strike days off, overriding normal decision-making processes. The union also postponed the planned re-ballot for further industrial action. Even if the General Secretary has since argued that the dispute is “not over,” it seems to have disappeared. In her recent Guardian article she simply urged that “colleges and universities work together in the national interest.”

Pain Ahead

In reality, the rhetoric of “national solidarity” doesn’t stick: the antagonism between staff and employers is as pronounced as ever. Even during the strike, and after the first COVID-19 cases had appeared on campuses, it was local activists — not management — who began the fight to shut buildings down. It is thanks to this pressure, as well as the specter of fleeing international students, that university bosses eventually decided to announce closures and move teaching online. Nonetheless, in many institutions, cleaners were still required to go to work in this period — and in some cases still are.

Cleaners and hospitality workers on zero-hour contracts – predominantly women and workers of color – were the first to be targeted for layoffs. But they are not the only ones at risk. The sudden transition to working from home has forced academic and administrative staff to create office spaces — at their own expense — in their own homes, and without any health and safety assessment. Teaching staff have had to learn how to use virtual learning technologies with no guidance and amid great anxiety.

Local union activists soon started to question the pedagogical consequences of online teaching and discussed how to protect jobs and conditions, preventing online teaching from reinforcing already unacceptable gendered and racialized inequalities. They also questioned whether “normal” or even reduced work patterns can be followed, in the middle of a pandemic, while taking care of our loved ones and ourselves. Another pressing issue is how to stop employers from using teaching technologies to increase control over our lives and undermine future strike action.

Universities UK’s (UUK) Chief Executive Alistair Jarvis recently announced that employers expect workers to bear some of the costs of universities’ financial difficulties: “There will be some pain on this.” The already apparent drop in (high-fee paying) international student numbers has generated talk of shrinking income, and several institutions have already announced recruitment freezes, in addition to the sacking of casual staff and the nonrenewal of fixed-term contracts. This has happened despite the universities minister Michelle Donelan urging institutions to take advantage of government schemes to prevent redundancies.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), moreover, announced increases in members’ contributions due to the negative economic outlook and has pushed ahead with a new valuation — based on a flawed approach, contested by UCU — that estimates an increased USS deficit, jumping from 3 to 11 billion pounds.

This figure, however, along with the projected dip in student enrollments, is far from certain. An economic recession might in fact push more school-leavers into higher education, while flexible admission policies and workforce retraining programs could boost demand for university courses. The pandemic might even help draw international students toward the United Kingdom, and away from worse affected countries like the United States. Some universities, moreover, have already announced their intention to move permanently to online teaching, close down “low value” courses, and offer fully flexible degrees, thus expanding their international markets in a scenario of “fierce” competition. UUK even asked for the creation of a government fund to enable universities to reshape operations through federations, partnerships, and mergers.

Now More Than Ever

If the future is uncertain, what is clear is that universities are exploiting this crisis to impose “shock therapy” and further attack jobs, working conditions, and pensions. The threat of further restructuring shows that it’s not only precarious university workers, but also permanent staff who are under threat: our fates are inextricably linked.

Despite the gravity of our situation, the UCU leadership has refused to campaign on our strike platform. It made a series of demands on the government mainly to safeguard precarious university staff, but issues of workload, pay, pensions, and inequalities have been side-lined. Branches are working hard to prevent harsh consequences for members, while a new campaign is demanding two-year contract extensions for precarious workers presently “on the books.”

At a time of crisis like this, we need a mobilized membership. In these new conditions, we’ll need to use new technologies to reinforce rank-and-file democracy, and discuss how to organize at a distance.

We need to demand the repeal of UK laws that only allow postal ballots for industrial action, which mean workers have currently no lawful right to strike because the pandemic prevents official agencies to organize ballots.

The UK’s emergency Coronavirus Act, passed in late March, shows that the government is using the pandemic to attack democratic rights and increase its repressive powers. As previous experience of emergency legislation suggests, it is likely that measures introduced to tackle the crisis will remain in place for the long-term. In addition, if it survives, the government will certainly attempt to claw-back fiscal expenditure and implement new austerity measures, with an increased risk of downsizing and redundancies in the higher-education sector.

The government and employers know that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. UCU members should do the same. The current crisis has increased universities’ reliance on staff’s “good will” to help them balance the books. Such a dynamic increases our bargaining power, which we should use to maximum effect.

In this effort, we need to link up with other unions, on campuses and across society more broadly, to reinforce rank-and-file union democracy, resist the government, and impose policies that put workers’ lives before profit.