On 22 February, my union, the University and College Union, launched a strike planned for 14 days at 61 universities across the UK. Representing several categories of university staff, UCU is the world’s largest higher education union.
The dispute is over changes to our pension plan that our employers are rationalizing with dubious claims that the pension fund is running a serious deficit and is unsustainable. Our existing plan has a “defined benefit” — i.e., you more or less know what you’ll get upon retirement — and they want to move to an individual investment scheme with no guarantee that we get anything at all.
This is damaging enough, but the attack on pensions is part of an ongoing process of marketizing education and weakening university workers’ power: the tripling of student fees from £3,000 a year to over £9,000 in 2012; the opening up of the university sector to new (private) “providers”; the outsourcing and subcontracting of essential university services; the exponential growth of precarious and casualized teaching labour; and so on.
We have a tough fight on our hands, due largely to the massively restrictive nature of UK labour law. This is surely going to be the biggest and longest job action that UK universities have ever seen. University workers around the country are committed to fighting and have won support from many students.
In the first two days of the strike, student action allowed the bus drivers’ union to respect the picket line. Legally, the drivers couldn’t refuse to enter campus unless their safety was “threatened” — which the students accomplished by sitting down in the busses’ path.