From the pandemic to the cost-of-living crisis, war and the failure to tackle the climate crisis, the employers and government are determined to make us pay with a sustained attack on our wages, pensions and jobs.
The magnificent strikes in HE over the Four Fights and USS pensions have shown (and continue to show) the real grit and determination of UCU members to put up resistance and protect their pay and conditions.
In Further Education, 40 colleges are about to be balloted over pay and workloads as part of UCU’s Professional Respect Campaign. This follows the successful strikes by 15 colleges in the autumn term of 2021, where the vast majority succeeded in winning gains on pay and conditions, and at seven colleges in the North West, two of which have already succeeded in getting good pay deals for 2021/22.
Whilst we have not picked the terrain on which we fight, nevertheless, the terrain is favourable for further victories in both sectors if we are able to continue to mount the same resistance shown by UCU members recently.
Divisions at the top
The Tory government is wracked with acrimony and division. 41% of Tory MPs voted to support a motion of no confidence in Johnson, reflecting the loathing of him in their constituencies. After the lies of ‘Party-gate’, the booing at the Jubilee celebrations shows that his traditional support has turned against him.
Even his attempt to defend his behaviour by arguing that he got it right on the ‘big issues’ is not working. The 150,000 deaths from Covid – the highest per capita rate in Europe – and the greatest cost of living crisis in over 50 years both demonstrate that on the ‘big issues’ he got it significantly wrong.
The war inside the Tory party will continue to rage and will reveal that the ‘nasty party’ is destroying itself.
Our employers have shown that they aren’t all-powerful either. In both FE and HE they are trying to use the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, not only to cut costs but to deepen the marketisation of post-16 education. Every time our members have taken the fight to them, they have been rattled and divisions have opened up.
In this context a well organised and determined strike movement can not only stop the attacks, but also start to put forward its own progressive educational agenda – one based on the needs of our communities instead of competition and the whims of the market.
A strike movement that seeks to level up the playing field and has at its centre the fight for equal access to post-16 education for all would quickly gain huge support amongst our students and our communities.
The first step to achieving this is to do all we can to ensure that we win the industrial action ballots in HE over Four Fights and USS and in 40 FE branches, so that we are ready to strike in the new academic year.
Solidarity at the bottom
One of the important developments within UCU over the past 18 month has been the birth and growth of the Solidarity Movement (SM). Initially set up by four HE branches facing job losses, the Solidarity Movement brings activists together to share experiences and maximise support for those in struggle. Holding regular meetings, launching twitter storms and organising twinning campaigns, the SM has made an important difference to members in dispute. It has also, at crucial times, helped to pressure the national leadership of UCU to stick to the action that members had voted for.
We need to extend and widen the networks of the Solidarity Movement in HE and in FE. With 40 colleges moving into battle, this would be an ideal opportunity for FE branches to set up their own solidarity network.
Equality at the centre
The backdrop to our strikes in the past year is one in which has seen a relentless attempt by government to divide members through launching bigoted ‘culture wars’ with relentless attacks on Trans rights, dressed up as a defence of freedom of speech, and to the attempts to reverse the gains made by the Black Lives Matter uprising in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
But they failed to divide us. The strikes in FE and HE have revealed that more than ever Black, LGBTQ+, women and disabled UCU members have taken up central roles at all levels within the unions. This development has been a central factor to ensuring that the demands of the strikes are ones that reflect the central concerns amongst the lowest paid in both sectors.
We need to continue to deepen this by building the widest possible movement against state racism. We should for example encourage members to take part in the campaigns around Child Q and against Priti Patel’s racist Nationality and Borders Act. Congress this year made a firm commitment to support the rights of Trans people by passing Motion 38 – a significant moment in the fight against transphobia in our union. We need to ensure that every branch takes up a similar position.
This means at college/university level, branches must equip themselves with the facts about the reality of institutionalised discrimination at their institution. This could include facts about the proportion of casualised staff that are Black and/or women. We need to map how discrimination is applied in our workplaces so that we can use this information as part of our campaigns.
Leadership from the front
To do all the above we need leadership at every level of the union that is prepared to fight. There are many inspiring examples of our members providing this kind of leadership at a local level – from the colleagues fighting ‘fire and rehire’ tactics at Richmond Upon Thames College to the magnificent victorious strike at Liverpool University against redundancies and many more.
Unfortunately, this tenacity and sacrifice has not always been matched by the national leadership. The motion (L1) passed at Congress strongly criticising the GS’s handling of disputes should be seen as a warning.
We need an NEC/HEC/FEC that carries out the wishes of its members and a GS that champions those decisions, not one that attempts to stifle them because they don’t fit a preconceived idea of the ‘right strategy’ drawn up at the top of the union. Their role is not to question the wisdom or otherwise of these decisions but to implement them.
This is what being a ‘member led’ union actually means.
UCU needs leadership at a national level as well as a local level which is prepared to lead from the front rather than hiding behind radical slogans which cover up caution and pessimism.
A new generation of ‘organic’ leaders exists in every branch and college. It is they who need to become the next branch/regional/national officers.
We need to pay more attention to the Regional Committees (RC). In every region there are branches that are well-organised while others find it difficult to sustain themselves. One of the RC’s roles is to identify the well-organised branches and use their strengths to level up the whole of the region.
Regional Committees are not simply an extension of the Regional Offices. RCs are elected bodies where lay members come to together to discuss what is happening at their institutions, to share experiences of how branches are dealing with issues that arise and to decide the priorities for the region.
The RC role is to take initiatives based on Congress and Conference policies such as organising a solidarity rally for those on strike, putting on a webinar about how to combat transphobia in the workplace or organising a meeting around the Campaign Against Climate Change’s new pamphlet on climate jobs.
Well-organised Regional Committees are not a luxury but a central part of our ability to build a union that can deliver action across the country.
We are not alone in our battles. The announcement that 40,000 rail workers across 13 different networks will be taking their first national strike for 40 years is one sign that organised labour is beginning to resist. Like us, rail workers are fighting over pay, jobs and conditions. But at the heart of their dispute is the anarchy of the market thanks to privatisation of the rail network.
40 years of neoliberal economics has created the conditions where the sectional barriers that once might have prohibited workers uniting to defend their common interests have been significantly broken down. Workers across all sectors have common cause to unite and fight government and employer-led attacks. Solidarity must be at the core of everything we do for those in our own sectors who are fighting back and for those in other unions.
Our members have been through a lot over the last two years. But they have come out of this period better organised and more determined to protect the profession they passionately care about. Our task in the coming period is to take the platform that has been created to the next level – to develop a member-led, industrial strategy that uses every collective form of protest to build a national strike movement that unites both sectors that can defend post-16 education.