Higher education workers — from Nigeria to France to the U.S. — have walked out in protests over the past several years. These struggles share common threads. Job insecurity grows and wages stagnate or fall in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. In the United Kingdom (U.K.), University and Colleges Union (UCU) members have struck sporadically for the last five years — some for fifty days in total. Now, university workers, including non-academic staff, fight lowered pay, fear of layoff, constantly larger workloads and wage inequality based on gender, race, and disability.
Many lower-paid workers have already had their pensions cut. Higher-paid workers saw 35% cuts to their guaranteed pensions and are fighting to reverse this.
Roots of the crisis. Successive governments have slashed state grants from university funding and replaced them with fees that individual students must pay. Students are forced to take out loans to pay tuition costs. This creates what the government calls a competitive “market” for university recruitment. The sharp decline in guaranteed state funding has also been replaced by ever-higher tuition fees for international students. The result is an unsustainable, irrational situation.
Some universities end up with too many students to house and teach. The result is last-minute hiring and excessive workloads. Others end up starved of funds and are forced to lay off expert staff. Add to this financial mismanagement by university leaders and a refusal to prioritize staff costs. This year, over the entire system, university workers have had enough.
Solidarity builds. This winter, for the first time, UCU has coordinated strikes at nearly every university in the U.K. The planned action will be the largest ever and harder for the government to ignore.
This years’ walkouts are also taking place amidst widespread public sector strikes across the country that include school teachers, nurses, railroad workers, doctors, EMTs, bus drivers, and more.
As this paper goes to press, large demonstrations under the banner of “Enough is Enough,” are breaking out. This campaign unites unions and community organizations to stop the governments’ use of economic crises to gift more profits to the wealthy. Popular opinion is broadly in support of striking workers — especially schoolteachers and nurses — and opposed to the brutal austerity policies of the unpopular government. These days of action could build the strike as a political tool, decades after the Prime Minister Thatcher-era law made “political” striking illegal.
Meanwhile, university management is attempting to push through an inadequate offer on pay without agreement from the unions after union leaders unilaterally called off a strike for a period of so-called “calm.” Internal union debates about strategy and democratic procedure are lively and intense. Whether UCU will win these disputes remains to be seen. But, if strikes continue and culminate with workers boycotting grading before graduation, the power of education workers will surely be felt across the sector and the country. This will hardly mean the end of the fight for university workers, students, and public sector workers more generally. But, the resolve of so many workers and communities to fight is something that should inspire us all.
UCU member Sam Solomon teaches literature at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K. Send feedback to email@example.com.