The UCU fight over jobs at the University of Liverpool

The experience and the lessons so far

The employer’s attack and the UCU response

The fight over jobs at the University of Liverpool began in January after managers had announced their ‘Project Shape’ initiative the previous year. This was to be a shakeup of the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences and threatened compulsory redundancies for 47 named academics. The fact that the University were threatening the jobs of health scientists in a pandemic caused anger amongst university workers and across the city. 

The branch responded with a call for industrial action and a well-organised ‘get-the-vote-out’ campaign. The result was an overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote for both strike action (84%) and action-short-of-strike (90%).

The official industrial action began on 10 May with action-short-of-strike, essentially a ‘work-to-contract’. The branch started as it meant to carry on, with an online solidarity rally that day of 230 members and supporters. Major impact came quickly.

Early impact

UCU pointed out that the list of 47 names had been created using utterly inappropriate criteria. The first was ‘grant-capture’, something that was never, and could never have been a contractual requirement. In fact, some on the ‘at risk’ list had been successful in winning major funding, just not for the types of activity deemed ‘right for the University’. The second, particularly absurd, criterion was something called the Field Weighted Citation Index (FWCI). This is a metric designed to evaluate the performance of very large institutions and becomes unreliable once the number of outputs being sampled falls below 10,000! Certainly, it is not intended to evaluate individual output. The branch began a high-profile media campaign using social and traditional media, which held up this metric to public ridicule and University managers were forced shamefacedly to withdraw it. At a stroke this took 15 names off the list just as the strikes were about to begin.

The first round of all-out strike action began on 24 May and ran until 11 June.

Solidarity

On the 1 June, at a well-attended meeting, members voted for a new phase of action. This was a marking and assessment boycott that would involve only those members who had marking and assessment responsibilities. That action began on 18th June. In anticipation of 100% deduction of pay for those taking this action, the branch agreed that members who could not be involved would donate a proportion of their wages to support those who were able to take this action.

This was hard-hitting ‘action-short-of-strike’ and meant members standing up to intimidation from line managers, on an indefinite basis, without pay. The University announced that 100% of pay would be deducted for ‘partial-performance’. The senior management later stated they would not necessarily deduct pay for the boycott, making this conditional on the dispute being resolved despite jobs still being ‘at risk’. The branch resoundingly rejected this cynical move by the employer. It was vitally important then, that throughout this phase of action ‘the boycotters’ knew they were not alone. 

Branch representatives pushed successfully for national ‘strike pay’ for the boycott period. Financial contributions from branch members made ‘the boycotters’ feel supported. Crucially, the branch sent speakers far and wide to UCU and other trade union meetings. External solidarity came rushing into the branch in the form of invitations to speak, donations from other UCU branches and unions, and from individuals. At the 25 June general meeting of over 200, with a 97% majority, members voted for 10 further days of strike action which would be taken by the whole branch, and which would target confirmation and clearing. It was clear now when the whole branch would be coming out once more, and that the financial support needed was indeed coming in. An online solidarity rally with the National UCU President and local trade unionists again attracted over 200. A 10 July march through the city-centre attracted wide support. Various networks of trade union activists promoting the fight in Liverpool were crucial to these mobilisations: nationally, UCU Left and UCU Solidarity Movement; more locally Merseyside People Before Profit. The city-wide demonstration was built in partnership with the Liverpool Trades Council. The momentum of all of this action has been remarkable.

The determination of the ‘boycotters’ and the UCU branch, supported by this wave of UCU and trade union movement solidarity, in the end delivered a hugely impactful boycott campaign. A third online rally again of over 200, took place on the 5 July. This was the University’s ‘Results Day’ when normally degree results are released. In the event the University was forced to announce it would not be able to release marks and degree classifications for 1,500 students. UCU members had stood firm, and the impact was clear. But still, 21 jobs remained ‘at risk’.

By the middle of July, UCU branch negotiators reported a more conciliatory tone from the university. The voluntary severance scheme was improved; and individuals were taken off the ‘at risk’ list by ‘mitigation’, bringing the number down to half-a-dozen names. The second round of strike action started on 4 August and ran until 14 August. On 9 August Jeremy Corbyn spoke at the University campus to hundreds of strikers and supporters. 

Participation

What has also enabled UCU members to take such effective and impactful action, has been the very high levels of membership participation throughout. Despite lockdown, a ‘covid-aware’ campus presence was maintained with a picket stall, and strikers responding to information about any teaching or other activity that needed to be picketed. At the very beginning of the campaign, the strike committee established a WhatsApp group that enabled constant daily exchanges and information sharing. This quickly grew to 220+. Each day of the official industrial action campaign, through the two rounds of strike action and the boycott that lasted until 19 July, morning online meetings have been held; they continue still, and the day of submission of this report saw the 83rd of these meetings. They have typically had attendances of around 200, over the four months of the dispute, rarely dropping below 100. Members contributed talks and presentations for teach-out sessions during the strike periods, which were important for membership and supporter engagement. The daily meetings and the WhatsApp group have ensured that the action has been truly member-led throughout. The action has been held together with the constant membership involvement that all of this has allowed.

The fight goes on

The fight over jobs at the University of Liverpool is not over. There are still two jobs ‘at risk’. The branch mandate for action goes up to the 8 October. At a meeting of 240+, 82% of members voted to strike at the beginning of the academic year; and an overwhelming majority voted to re-ballot for further action if needed after the current mandate runs out.

The University of Liverpool UCU is clear that there can be no compromise on compulsory redundancies. From the outset, members have said ‘There is only one acceptable number: zero’. 

The achievement of preventing 45 compulsory redundancies so far, has shown the industrial power that university workers have today. The universities are vulnerable to any type of instability in the highly competitive HE marketplace. They have tried to run their institutions like corporations, aping the management styles (and salaries) of industrial executives. But they have met with an industrial response in Liverpool and realised their mistake.

At the time of writing the branch was set to stage all-out strike action between the 4-8 October, hitting the return to face-to-face teaching. But since then the employer had caved in. With no more compulsory redundancies on the table, the branch has been able to declare victory and call of the strikes.

UCU-Left supporters at the University of Liverpool UCU

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