The long-running strike by UCU members at University of Brighton ended on 10th November. What we believe to be the longest ever strike in UK HE history, certainly the longest by UCU, lasted 129 days. In fact, as the walk-out followed on immediately after a strike against punitive MAB deductions, the total period of strike action was two weeks longer.
The dispute was provoked by a major programme of redundancies announced by the University on 4th May which put 400 academic staff at risk of redundancy with a view to shedding between 80 and 97 jobs. Every School in the University was affected, although there was particular targeting of certain subject areas (e.g. in Humanities and Arts) and those on the highest grade (Principal Lecturers).
A voluntary redundancy package was offered and despite the fact that the number of staff that opted to take it met the lower end of the target range (80), the University insisted that it required a further 22 compulsory redundancies, taking the total above the upper end of their original target.
This was the clearest indication that the goal of the attack was not simply financial savings, as was claimed, but was to inflict a serious defeat on the UCU at Brighton, a branch with a strong record of fighting in defence of jobs and the terms and conditions of academic staff. The UCU needed to be decisively weakened ahead of the introduction of a major overhaul of grading, promotions and contracts already announced by the University. It appeared that senior management had decided that at least 20 compulsory redundancies were required to achieve the scale of victory over the union they required.
The ballot for industrial action, run on a window of a little over two weeks, returned a 90% majority for both strike action and ASOS on a 61% turnout. A big union meeting considered the branch’s strategy, debating alternative patterns of industrial action. The University had clearly timed its attack to try to ensure that redundant staff would complete their notice periods before the start of teaching in the autumn term. Members overwhelmingly felt that in the circumstances, nothing short of immediate indefinite strike action was adequate.
This decision was shaped by two further factors. Brighton UCU had been actively involved in debates in the union over the strategy in the national Four Fights dispute. The branch had passed motions criticising the stop-start pattern of strike action imposed on HE members by General Secretary and the national officials of the union. They had supported the Higher Education Committee’s proposal for indefinite action in that dispute, overturned by Jo Grady, and opposed the decision to ‘pause’ the action taken by the GS in February.
Secondly, at the same time as the redundancy programme, Brighton University management announced that it was adopting the most punitive response to the UCU’s national marking and assessment boycott: indefinite 100% pay docking for anyone participating in the action. Given all this, the idea of indefinite strike action did not appear extreme or outlandish to Brighton UCU members.
The University set up the minimum possible consultation process – 45 days – and proceeded to make its selection of 22 staff. As is always the case, the veneer of objectivity masked a process which was manifestly unfair, allowing School managers to settle scores and pick those they most wanted to get rid of. However, in a sign of the University’s lack of confidence, none of the four UCU branch officers in the redundancy pools, which included the branch chair who is also an NEC member, were selected for compulsory redundancy.
Thanks to the work of UCU reps in the consultation, the University’s timetable slipped by a few weeks. Redundancy notices were not issued until 20th July for most of the 22, meaning a dismissal date of 20th October, several weeks into autumn term.
This gave new hope that strike action would have sufficient leverage to achieve victory and might have led to a reconsideration of the strategy of striking through the summer except for the draconian MAB deductions. Increasing numbers of staff were losing their entire pay and being told that they ‘owed’ the University considerable further sums of their salary which would be clawed back from future pay. One advantage of striking through the summer is that pay for annual leave cannot be withheld for industrial action.
Knowing that our leverage would increase from the end of September onwards, the branch’s strategy was to use ongoing strike action to convince University management to start bringing down the number of redundancies with a view to settling the dispute before students arrived for the start of a new academic year. This meant fighting politically, not purely industrially. A student organised demonstration was followed by a big, lively march through the city on a Saturday in June under the slogan ‘Save Brighton University’. Routine picketing was replaced by demonstrations at graduation ceremonies, leafleting of open days, and a protest at an international academic conference at which a senior management was speaking. Two of our three local MPs spoke at picket line rallies to which we invited local trade unionists and students. All of this generated content for our social media, which was picked up by mainstream media, putting considerable pressure on the University.
The precondition for this was that we were on indefinite strike, and the solidarity donations raised for our local hardship fund were crucial in allowing members to maintain their involvement in the action.
There was a shift in intensity in the strike in September. The branch began picketing in earnest when classes in teacher education began, followed a few weeks later by Welcome Week and the start of term for the whole university. This increased activity caused panic among senior management. In mailings to all staff, including a bizarre ‘open letter’ from the Director of HR, UCU was accused of intimidation and violence on the picket lines. The University used the full panoply of repression at its disposal to try and prevent effective picketing. In common with students occupying a university building in support of our strike, we were subject to intrusive surveillance by university security, augmented by private security guards contracted specially for the purpose. For several weeks the University seemed to have the police on retainer to monitor our pickets from start to finish from a squad car parked down the road. In a clear case of trade union victimisation, disciplinary investigations were opened into four branch officers for alleged picketing offences. Finally, the University hired lawyers to threaten legal action for trespass by picketers.
The UCU branch expected that during the three-month notice period before dismissals the total number of redundancies would come down. This is the general experience of redundancy situations in HE and elsewhere as employers attempt to show that they are fulfilling their statutory duty to mitigate compulsory redundancies. Usually, a reconsideration of the financial picture along with changes in circumstances allows at least some of the redundancy notices to be rescinded.
This did not happen at Brighton. University management steadfastly refused to reduce the total of 22 compulsory redundancies (CRs) at all, even when it became known that there had been over 30 resignations of academic staff in the schools affected by CRs, outside of the redundancy process, as part of the natural turnover that occurs every summer. In defiance of all logic, the University claimed that despite most of these resignations dating from after the figure of 22 had been finalised, any savings produced by them had already been factored in earlier in the process!
What the University’s intransigence meant in concrete terms was that the strike would continue into the autumn term, disrupting first Welcome Week and then the start of teaching; the moment when HE institutions need things to be running as smoothly as possible. In refusing to budge, the University effectively sacrificed a smooth start to the academic year for securing the full number of redundancies. They prioritised the goal of inflicting a decisive defeat on UCU over ensuring that students got the education they were paying for. So much for the Vice Chancellor’s slogan, ‘Putting students at the heart of everything we do’!
A general trend?
Despite its apparent perversity, this intransigence of Brighton’s management is in fact consistent with a discernible wider trend. UCU’s national marking and assessment boycott was highly successful in terms of its impact. The numbers of students from institutions across the sector whose graduation was delayed or who received only interim degrees pending final classification was significant and unprecedented. This created a major crisis not only for individual universities who were unable to deliver their core function – the awarding of qualifications in return for student fees – but for Higher Education as a whole. Graduation ceremonies were routinely disrupted by protests against university authorities (and in support of staff) by students wearing gowns and mortar boards. Eventually even the government felt the need to intervene, writing to employers and UCU in August to urge a resolution of the dispute to ensure graduations.
And yet the employers stood firm. Dragooned into line by their collective organisation, UCEA, they opted to endure the pain of bad publicity, student complaints and claims for compensation in order to hold the line against trade union demands for a pay award that matched inflation.
Similar stances have been taken by employers in the NHS, on the railways and other sectors where strike action has taken place in the last 18 months. This suggests higher levels of determination and belligerence in employers’ attitudes to industrial action which lends weight to the argument that trade unions cannot rely on the kinds of strategies most have pursuing and must take much harder-hitting action, including indefinite strikes, if they are to have a chance of breaking the resolve of employers.
Brighton UCU was already taking the hardest-hitting action possible. Our challenge was to achieve the maximum participation of members and ensure that the disruption we were able to inflict affected as much of the University as possible. In this, we were not helped by the General Secretary or the national union machinery.
UCU’s national Congress in May had voted the Brighton dispute one of ‘national significance’, a status which is meant to ensure that a local dispute has access to the full resources of the union. This support never really materialised. Despite profuse promises, Jo Grady visited Brighton just once during the course of the four-month dispute. After a request from the branch, she wrote directly to the Vice Chancellor. This was the extent of the GS’s visible support for Brighton members. The UCU President and Vice President were slightly more visible, attending a demonstration in June and speaking at a rally to mark the 100th day of the strike in October.
Members were told we had access to the national Fighting Fund, but the Brighton dispute was never listed as one for which claims could be made and it was never clear how many days’ worth of support were available. As a result of a decision by HEC, ‘greylisting’ (boycott) was imposed by UCU on Brighton University, but beyond the initial announcement and a banner at the top of the UCU website’s home page there was no active attempt to publicise it. The branch struggled to get its demonstrations, rallies and events mentioned in the Friday email circular, and found it easier to produce and finance its leaflets and banners from its own resources than navigate the bureaucratic hurdles set by UCU HQ.
This experience led strikers to become highly critical of Jo Grady and cynical about the role of ‘the national union’. Was Brighton being punished for its previous vocal criticism of the GS? Was there a determination from those at the top of the union to ensure that the strategy of indefinite strike did not gain currency within the union? Or is this kind of indifference to local struggles they don’t control the standard attitude of union leaders? Throughout the dispute, apart from a few weeks in August, strikers met on Zoom three times a week to sustain their collective solidarity, plan events and activities and take decisions about the industrial action. The contrast with the relationship with UCU HQ could not have been starker.
The end of the strike
In the first weeks of term, we learned that University managers were assuaging unrest among students whose classes had been cancelled by assuring them that the strike would end on 20th October. This was the date when most of the 22 reached the end of their notice periods and would be dismissed. In order to undermine the University’s intention to sit out the action until then, the branch made it clear that the strike would go on, if necessary demanding reinstatement of sacked staff. The fact that some of the 22 had not yet had their appeals added to the argument that the dispute was not over.
However, once notice periods had expired it become clear that reversing the redundancies was not feasible, and a decision had to be taken about how and when the strike would end. After a discussion in a strike meeting, we opened negotiations with the University on the terms of a return to work, seeking agreements to protect returning strikers from overwork and detrimental treatment, the dropping of the disciplinaries against branch officers, and for a deal on MAB deductions. The University indicated that their priorities for these negotiations were the lifting of the boycott, the silencing of our social media and an agreement to limit future picketing.
These demands clearly showed how wounded the University were by our campaign – they admitted they had been ‘bruised’. Nevertheless, their goal of punishing UCU overrode all other considerations. They refused to drop all the disciplinaries and sought to get the branch to commit itself to the Code of Conduct on picketing in any future dispute. Their initial offer on deductions meant that any rebate on MAB would have been immediately taken back in strike deductions. And they insisted that every hour of teaching lost as a result of the strike would need to be made up with double workloads in the period before Xmas.
When the branch offered to make up the lost time and teach a full annual workload, provided we were paid a full annual salary, we were told that reducing strike deductions was impossible as ‘there have to be consequences for taking strike action’.
Even when a better offer on MAB deductions was forthcoming, striking members decided that the conditions attached were designed to humiliate UCU, to punish members and branch officers, and were therefore unacceptable. In a remarkable display of trade union loyalty and class consciousness, they unanimously decided that the integrity of the union was more important than relief from MAB deductions and returning to work without a deal was preferable to one in which the union had abandoned at least one of their reps to disciplinary action and endorsed heavy workloads and discriminatory conditions for returning strikers.
And then, at the eleventh hour, in an email to all staff, the University offered a better (lower) cap on MAB deductions than it had offered UCU negotiators to those who returned to work by the end of the week and completed their marking by 1st December. This was a bizarre and unexpected development. It was clearly based on an assumption that the branch committee was standing in the way of strikers accepting their return-to-work deal. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Members’ strength of feeling against the deal and the refusal to even consider trading unpalatable conditions for financial relief had surprised branch officers. And the tactic of appealing to members over the head of branch officers does not normally involve offering a better deal than the one offered in negotiations.
But this was clearly the case. Not only was the offer on deductions better, though still not great by comparison with the sector as a whole, but the was no requirement for the union to sign up to anything. Indeed, there was no requirement to end the dispute. As a result, members decided collectively to return to work by the deadline set, but to issue notice to the University of further industrial action in the form of a work-to-contract to start as soon as the law allows. This action is due to start on 29th November and even though the branch’s mandate runs out ten days later, members felt it was an important message to send to the University that the dispute is not over and the boycott is not lifted while there are no guarantees on victimisation against strikers and the threat of disciplinary action remains against branch reps.
On Friday 10th November, strikers gathered for an early morning rally before marching into work with banners unfurled and heads held high. In the cold light of day, it becomes possible to attempt an evaluation of the outcome. Clearly, any honest assessment must start with the recognition that Brighton UCU was defeated on the question of redundancies, which were the grounds of the dispute. The University’s determination not to give an inch prevailed in the end.
But this was achieved at tremendous cost to management. Aside from the enormous reputational damage done to the institution, the University has alienated large numbers of its own students. The start of the academic year has been chaotic with classes cancelled, others taught by hastily employed and often unsuitable hourly paid staff or even members of the University’s non-academic staff. Some students voted with their feet and found places elsewhere, others made complaints some of which, despite the University’s best efforts to head them off, have arrived at the Office for Students.
This has taken its toll on management: the University has lost two of its seven Deans, who could not stomach the strategy they were being told to carry out. There is a widespread feeling that the Vice Chancellor cannot survive for long, despite her CBE which she used to protect her from a devastating vote of no confidence at the start of the dispute.
Because of the strike action, Brighton is the last institution in the country to have outstanding marking preventing the cohort of 2023 from graduating. It was this more than anything that in the end forced the hand of management to make its last ditch offer. The significance of this should not be underestimated: to settle a dispute that was designed to break the union, University management begged striking staff to come back to work.
On Thursday 23rd November, we received notification that the University had decided not to proceed with any disciplinary action. Added to the fact that managers seem unwilling to enact the University’s policy of imposing heavy workloads on returning strikers, this confirms that the branch retains its ability to resist attempts to victimise its members.
This achievement is a tribute to the Brighton UCU members who stood together for so long and sacrificed so much to defend their colleagues, the education they offer students, and their union.
UCU Left members at Brighton University