Members of the biggest union in the Higher Education sector, UCU, are about to enter the biggest strike in the history of Higher Education in the UK. The Union called for a 14 days strike in order to fight drastic changes to the employees’ pensions. The employers’ association UKK wants to cut pensions by 40% and make them entirely stock market based. The UCU is resisting these cuts, fighting for better pensions. Pensions are earned and deferred wages, so cuts in pension are essentially wage cuts. Academics in the sector have already seen their pay decrease in real terms by 16% over the last five years. The union also sees the employers attempt as a wider attack on the education system becoming increasingly marketised and predicated on overwork by staff and drastic indebtedness amongst students.
Industrial actions are a last resort, when negotiations between employers and employees fail. They are not in the interest of staff who lose out their wages for each and every day they take industrial action. Nevertheless, employees are ready to take up this sacrifice in order to protect their interests and more broadly their beliefs of how employment should be organized, particularly in universities who have purported commitments to equality and inclusion and fair conditions.
In the current case, many employers are being extremely aggressive, threatening to dock between 25% to 100% of staff salaries indefinitely, if individual staff does not make up with the loss of labour due to the strike. In particular, they want employees to reschedule lectures that have been missed due to industrial action, some vice chancellors are even threatening to sue staff if students claim fees back.
As a research centre committed to examining contemporary employment relations, CERIC has received a number of comments from international scholars and trade unionists that show that an industrial action is never alone about a single issue but always also a civic act with broader social impact. Amongst others, these have included support from: The University of Aarhus, Denmark; KU Leuven, Belgium; University of Padova, Italy; and Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico.
Before ending this seminar I would like to say that I support your strike and I hope that this can also give greater power to a strike that some colleagues are organizing in Italy. Obviously nothing similar to your radical position, but just a one day strike that in any case has provoked panic in many colleagues. And this is very paradoxical in particular for people that study labour, sociology, employment relations, power and so on. In fact a strike is a very well-known situation even if we are usually studying it rather than doing it.
I think your strike is for the future, because pensions for many of us are the future. A pension is a crucial part of the wage, we call it deferred wage, but it is our wage. It is not a gift from anyone. I think it is a shame that people speculate about pensioners, because older people are in a particular situation: they are becoming weaker, sometimes they have health problems and maybe are not sure about the value of their pension. So in a sociological language we can say that pensioners are becoming precarious, but differently from the young, a pensioner has no longer the power to move in the labour market or to emigrate abroad.
Someone could describe academic lecturers as insiders, and someone could also say that we are privileged in the labour market. We may consider this to be true. But I think that our precarity will not solve the problems of others’. Quite the contrary: the worsening of our working conditions can only deteriorate the condition of precarious colleagues.
So I hope you can win your struggle and hoping that also in Italy this one-day strike can be successful. Remembering that the strike is important not only for the moment at which it happens, but it also has repercussions in the social relations that we are able to build after it. Inside and outside our workplace.
Associate Professor Devi Sachetto, University of Padova
I was a part of the British university system between 2008 and 2014. During this period I saw how working conditions – the conditions for good teaching and research – rapidly deteriorated. Not only due to government defunding, but also due to university managements attempting to transform institutions of learning and critique into corporations, rewarding themselves handsomely in the process.
So I consider it both just and important to resist the attack on pensions. Your students and non-academic colleagues at the university must know that your fight is a part of a broader fight. The pension cuts are a part of the construction of the defunded university, in which a precarious workforce is asked to serve heavily indebted “customers”, in order that the state can save money for noble causes such as bank bail outs and tax cuts for the wealthy.
In many ways, the British university system serves as a model for university development in Denmark. For this reason, your struggle is our struggle. Never forget that. When you are fighting to stop the downward spiral of British universities, you are helping your colleagues internationally too. And know that you can win: concerted resistance based on solidarity between lecturers and students has managed to stop some of the worst reforms of the Danish University system, including the introduction of student fees. In solidarity and friendship.
Dr Bue Rübner Hansen, University of Aarhus
Having done my PhD in the UK, I follow the debates about higher education there with great interest. I have been distressed to hear about the experiences of my friends and colleagues at UK universities who are facing declining pay and increasing precarity. The marketization and casualization of the university labour force is a trend we are seeing in North America as well, and it is one that we must resist. The proposed changes to the pensions scheme are unacceptable. I strongly support the strike action by UCU and from Ottawa, I teach and write in solidarity with my comrades in the UK.
Dr Megan Rivers-Moore, Carleton University, Canada
I send my full solidarity to the UCU strike, we have the same problem here in Mexico with the AFORE stock market-related privatised pensions introduced here in 2008, which our union opposes.
Dr Patrick Cuninghame, Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (UAM), Mexico City & member of the Sindicato Independiente de los Trabajadores de la UAM (SITUAM)
The Rutgers Executive Council of AAUP-AFT Chapters voted unanimously to stand in solidarity with University and College Union members in the United Kingdom on February 20, 2018
Whereas, Members of the largest union of university teaching staff in the UK, the
University and College Union (UCU), are fighting to stop an outrageous attack on retirement benefits;
Whereas, University administrators propose to end the current guaranteed pension plan, replacing it with individual investment accounts, on the pretext of a fictional deficit “crisis;”
Whereas, Workers in the United States, including New Jersey educators, are very familiar with the use of manufactured “crises” to undermine retirement plans, which attack workers’ long-term security by stealing their own deferred wages; Be it resolved that the AAUP-AFT chapters at Rutgers University call on Universities UK to give up their shameful attack on defined-benefit pensions and negotiate with UCU in good faith;
And be it resolved that we stand in solidarity with the members of the UCU, saluting their commitment to security, equity, and dignity in the workplace and in retirement.
Rutgers Executive Council of AAUP-AFT Chapters, USA
Working conditions and social rights of people are under growing attack all over the world nowadays. This strongly contradicts not only with a rationale of social democracy and social justice but also with the basic principle of decent working life within workplaces and society overall. In solidarity.
Professor Valeria Pulignano, CESO – KU Leuven
I would like to express my full support for the strike launched by the University and College Union in the UK Higher Education in response to the pension cuts related to the changes in the Universities Superannuation Scheme. I consider the lack of proper and good-will based negotiation around this issue with employers associated in the Universities UK unacceptable.
Decent pensions are essential for the quality of working live and retirement. In the context of ongoing, Europe-wide reforms of higher education institutions, the predictable situation of workers after retirement is crucial for their well-being.
Therefore, I would like to share my support and solidarity with striking University employees in the UK and Leeds Business School in particular.
I also support the call for immediate return to negotiations between unions and UUK.
I will share my support and information about the strike in my networks.
In solidarity !
With best wises
Adam Mrozowicki, Associate Professor, Institute of Sociology, University of Wrocław
Dear academic friends in Britain,
I was astounded to hear a few days ago about what is happening in British higher education. The employers association had proposed making pension payouts less generous by an average of ten thousand pounds a year and making them dependent on the stock market. You had voted overwhelmingly to respond with a 14-day national strike, the largest academic strike in UK history. Various universities had responded not only by docking pay for strike days, but also by threatening to reduce pay on non-strike days and taking legal action against strikers if students claim their fees back. Wow.
You need to win this strike, and the employers need to back down. You have already suffered more than enough. The squeeze on pay worsens your standard of living slowly but perceptibly. While attacks on pensions are not new in UK higher education, the current offensive by the employers really is astounding. It fills me personally with pride to see how you’re fighting back.
It is understandable that universities shift financial risk. But this attempt to shift financial risks onto academics has poisoned the workplace atmosphere in which research and teaching take place. Provoking this strike has already undermined the excellence of those institutions that the Vice Chancellors are supposed to be leading.
How do I know attacks on pay and pension are damaging to British universities? Occasionally, PhD students in the US ask me about the job market in Britain, because I worked there for ten years. Ten years ago I would have said that it’s a mixed bag. Pay is lower than the US, but for junior academics job security is higher, making it possible to pursue interesting and risky research agendas. Over the years, the situation has become less rosy. And now this conflict. International academics thinking of moving to Britain should know that it is a place where pay, pensions, and job security are under attack, and colleagues are angry and fearful. This is not an atmosphere in which the work of academics is apparently valued.
Britain’s universities are still among the best in the world, and Vice-Chancellors should be working to keep it that way. Instead, they have provoked a massive nation-wide strike. The employers need to bargain with the union, find a solution, and end the strike.
Prof Ian Greer, Cornell University, USA
To our collegues in Great Britain,
for ver.di department of science and higher education I send you our full support in your struggle against the changes and prospective cuts regarding your pension plans.
We know fully well the gap that lies between the countless political speeches about the importance of higher education and the utter disregard universities show for the employees, who are their backbone. Right now, the student employees here in Berlin are as well forced to take industrial action against their universities, which have not given them a pay raise in 17 years. The way they are treating us echoes your own experiences. But we will not let up and it strenghtens us to know, that you wont either.
Science is international. So is solidarity and our common struggle for fair working conditions. Keep up the fight!
Matthias Neis, Ver.di Resort Higher Education and Research