This campaign is a crucial test for our union
Higher Education staff have seen our pay slide backwards in value over the last decade. UCU calculates that like-for-like, measured against the Retail Price Index, our pay is now worth 14.5% less than in 2009. Even if it is ‘only’ by a percentage point a year, we are all getting poorer.
To put this in an historical context, the only comparable post-war period that saw a real-terms decline (1975-79) comprised a real-terms fall of 8%. The Labour Government that brought this pay freeze in collapsed in the Winter of Discontent and paid the price for three more elections.
We are not alone. Across the public sector, workers have had cuts of around 20% in wages since the self-destructing banking crisis of 2008.
Yet cutting wages has not boosted the economy. Osborne missed his own targets, and the Tories have more austerity planned. The banking-led housing bubble has re-inflated, and the Chinese economic crisis threatens overseas student recruitment. If we don’t fight now, it will be harder to fight next year.
Unlike most of the public sector, UK Universities are not poor. Indeed, they are increasingly banking on below-inflation pay rises. Many are actively siphoning funds into speculative capital projects. They want to expand teaching to compete for high tuition fees.
Not everyone is suffering. The conspicuous consumption of greedy VCs highlighted by UCU rightly grabs headlines. But it is the voluntary expansion of corporate capital expenditure (up 8.2% in five years) and the expansion of annual surpluses (by a whopping 74.7%) that explains the overall decline in the proportion of turnover spent on pay. Defending members pay means pushing back against the corporatisation and privatisation of HE.
We need to get organised
Within the UCU, the pay campaign stalled since the last set of consultation meetings last summer. It is good that materials are going out to branches over the next couple of weeks, but HEC unanimously agreed on 13 January to immediately launch a campaign amongst members!
This is becoming more urgent with the potential that the imfamous Trade Union Bill will become law. Ballots that take place before the enactment of the Bill will be subject to existing legislation, at least regarding notice and time periods. Delay will mean a much more difficult national dispute.
The conclusion has to be we need a member-led pay campaign. We need to build the campaign amongst our members in branches. We need to rebuild some confidence in our organisation and our arguments. We need to campaign together, ballot together and strike together.
From the point of view of gathering feedback from members, these ‘consultation’ meetings are premature. But we should use them to talk through what we need to do.
Build the campaign
We need to win an argument that we can and should fight over pay. To do this we need to build the campaign from the ground up.
Members are angry about pay but they don’t necessarily get the chance to express it. It is not uncommon for members to think they are alone.
A recent survey over London Weighting by UCU of members at University College London had more than 200 members writing at length about the sheer unaffordability of living and working in London.
In areas of high unemployment some members say they are privileged compared to others in their community. This is true, but workers have long discovered that their pay sacrifices don’t lead to improved benefits for the low paid or unemployed – or students. Sharing poverty is not solidarity.
Our demand to raise pay also means challenging inequality inside our institutions. Making the argument the employers need to pay staff properly allows us to expose the gender pay gap and resist casualisation.
A pay campaign can unite the union and connect us with everyone else in society frustrated at low pay – from junior doctors to transport workers and cleaners. From Jeremy Corbyn’s election to public support for the BMA, there is widespread support for resistance to ‘austerity’.
What we need to do
- Agitate over pay. Use the UCU’s ‘rate for the job’ tool and get the posters up. Get the leaflets out and about. We need a visible campaign in our colleges.
- Use old-fashioned face-to-face campaigning. Use a paper petition and stalls to find members who want to help build the campaign. Don’t rely on email, but use email to follow up contacts to get them involved. Integrate the pay campaign into the Recruitment Week.
- Organise branch meetings promptly. Make sure there is plenty of opportunity for members to debate. Invite representatives from other campus trade unions and student union activists.
- Set up a “pay campaign committee” to build the campaign. Members will get involved if you ask them to do one thing that they are interested.
Finally, come to the Second Convention for Higher Education on 27 February. Go to http://heconvention2.wordpress.com for more information.
Advertise the event among members. The issue of pay, the tuition fee market and the longer-term future of HE are closely interconnected. Reps need to be able to challenge management on their expansion plans and the ‘affordability’ of pay increases.