Why Left-Wing Students Should Run to Be NUS Delegates

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by Natalia Cassidy

Many on the student left, that is; students active and engaged in Left-Wing politics at their university or college – are sceptical of involvement in the NUS (National Union of Students). This attitude does not come from nowhere: the NUS has for many years been dominated by careerist bureaucrats, often giving a lot of lip service to the left, but who must be judged on their record. A record which shows a near universal failure to effectively challenge issues such as the privatisation taking place within Further/Higher Education, or the living conditions of its student members.

The NUS and campus activism

The NUS has, especially in recent years, taken a muted role in student activism. This has led many principled student activists doing excellent work on their campuses for the wellbeing of students and workers alike, to become disillusioned with the potential benefits that NUS support might bring their way. This is perhaps an unsurprising attitude given how alien the concept of a genuinely left-wing, campaigning NUS is to many students today. However, the NUS is a national body, with hundreds of University and College Students Unions as members: this gives it unparalleled potential as an apparatus to link up struggles across campuses. One only has to look at the waves that were caused in the wave of occupations that occurred nationwide in 2017-18 (in the UK and in France) to see that student activism’s impact is far more capable of having the voices of students’ heard when that voice is united rather than atomised. Had the NUS at the time supported this activism, materially and organisationally, this voice could have only been stronger still.

The NUS left as we find it today

Where has the left found itself in all this? The current dominant left strain within NUS is; in a number of ways, deficient. It offers no way forward to any substantial transformation of the way that NUS is run or operates. Without any significant democratic structures in the way in which the left is organised, there is no way for students to hold a Left-Wing group of elected full time officers (FTOs) to account. The NUS cannot and will not be transformed into a genuinely combative force for its students through the election of bureaucrats that sit slightly further to the left. The more critical Left – largely composed of NCAFC (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) activists have, particularly in recent years, struggled to put forward a clear and convincing alternative for the NUS, particularly given the nature of rhetoric at NUS events being to the left of those espousing it.
None of this is inevitable, a Left in the NUS can be drawn out and can distinguish itself from the right and ‘soft-left’, only through robustly democratic internal operation & a platform and programme drawn up around political lines rather than around personalized “more activist than thou” lines.

The NUS and the wider Left-Wing movement

The history of the left in government should leave us under no illusions that the mere election of left wing governments is, in and of itself, insufficient as a means of transforming society. The experiences of the governments of Callaghan Britain, Mitterrand in France and Lula in Brazil demonstrate that without a wider movement to hold them to account and push them to the left, Left-Wing governments find themselves either incapable of enacting the progressive changes they make promises to enact, or they find themselves actively engaged in the business of doing the right’s work for them (see especially Syriza in Greece).

In the event of a Corbyn led Labour government, the challenges would be no less, perhaps even greater. Capital is well equipped to defend itself from attacks from the left, particularly when these attacks are parliamentary. Where does this leave us and what does any of this have to do with the NUS? It leaves us with the urgent need to build a movement capable of pulling Labour leftwards, a task important in opposition that becomes all the more important in the event of a Labour government. The NUS has the potential, if transformed from the ground up through democratisation and a concerted effort on the part of the left, to act as a counterweight. A movement that, through action and campaigns, can support the student and wider labour movement in periods of progressive struggle. One can only imagine how the early 2018 UCU (University and College Union) strike action might have resulted had the groundswell of activism on campuses been robustly supported by the NUS.

Engaging in NUS democracy

The starting point of transforming NUS is to engage in its existing democratic structures. This means left-wing activists running as delegates through their Students’ Unions has to be the starting point. It is only through a swell of activists running as delegates that the left can have any hope of transforming the NUS. The careerist-bureaucratic milieu that dominate NUS understand that this is the basis of controlling NUS and are the kinds of students that consistently run as delegates to national conference. Only a large left-wing delegate base has a chance of electing a left-wing, transformative slate of activists that will support struggle on campus and in the wider labour movement.

Interview with Ella Wind on US Grad Student Organising

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On 14 September 2018, NCAFC member Dan Davison interviewed Ella Wind, a Sociology PhD student at New York University (NYU) involved in the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), the union of graduate employees affiliated with United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 2110. For more info about GSOC-UAW Local 2110, visit their website at https://makingabetternyu.org/.

Q: In the UK, grad students are often members of the University and College Union (UCU), the national trade union for academic staff in higher education. There is no equivalent national union in the US, and many grad students are instead members of UAW and other unions not specific to the higher education sector. Could you please explain how this situation came about?

A: Not only are graduate students members of the UAW, but they’re also members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which is probably the closest fit – that tends to be the national teachers’ union; and UNITE HERE, which usually does hotel and retail workers. So graduate students and adjunct staff [1] tend to be part of a variety of national unions, none of which are exclusive to academic workers.

I actually don’t know the exact history of how that came about originally. I imagine it’s just that academic workers really began to unionise after there was already the rapid decline in unions in the United States and so there was never really a national union created, but it really creates this interesting system. I was just at the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU) conference – that’s for all the graduate workers across different unions in North America, so Canada and the US – and a really interesting feature of that conference is how much of an emphasis there is on militant unionism and a sort of anti-business unionism common sense, which is really lacking in the general American labour movement.

I was reflecting on why that was the case at that conference and I think part of it is that, because graduate workers are so spread out across so many different union sectors and national unions, no one national is able to dominate a conference like that and set the tone from a top-down perspective. So actually it makes things more grassroots and I think that it creates these interesting dynamics in terms of how academic workers organise themselves, and what sort of information gets shared between people in terms of best organising practices and such.

Q: Has the lack of a national trade union for education workers presented a serious obstacle to better pay and working conditions, and have there been efforts to coordinate workers across multiple institutions in the absence of a national union?

A: I think it certainly does present obstacles, although I actually cannot think of any concrete examples of things that I’ve come across in organising myself. I think – possibly because of the nature of our work, in which we tend to be organised in cross-national networks by the nature of our research, where our workplaces aren’t just these physical places but very much exist on the Internet and in these sorts of inherent national/international networks – that graduate workers have been rather successful in coordinating across our different small union units and even across national unions. And that’s really picked-up pace in the last few years, I think.

So CGEU Conference has been around for a while – the conference we just had a month was the 27th annual conference – but it’s really picked up steam in the last few years and has a lot more attendees. It’s become a lot more active and taken on a life of its own even compared to historically. There’s also all this other coordination that is going on beneath the surface. We, for example, we have XCRF, the Cross-campus Rank and File Movement. It’s basically this cross-campus network that we have in New York City metro area because New York probably has the highest union density for graduate workers in the country, in line with New York having the highest overall union density in the United States. We have an email network where we send each other questions about organising things, we get in touch with each other if we need strike preparation help, and we hold a few in-person meetings and retreats annually – all sorts of different communication and collaboration happens.

There’s also this new initiative that’s just come out of XCRF a month ago, called the File, which is going to be a free, online resource for graduate worker organisers. Eventually, it’s going to have templates for training sessions for organisers or all the contracts that have been negotiated across the country, or guides to organising around specific issues, which aren’t available anywhere right now as one single resource. Any kind of information that gets produced in terms of best organising practices is all going to be put into the File (after ‘rank and file’ – it’s play on that!) and that’s actually an outgrowth of this cross-campus coalition listServ/New York organising group that we’ve been putting together for the last few years.

Also, the CGEU listServ is fairly active and people email each other asking questions like ‘What does your contract look like in terms of these specific provisions for breastfeeding facilities?’ or other things that you wouldn’t necessarily just have as language in your contracts.

So there’s lots of different organising going on in terms of how people are coordinating and I think it’s been fairly effective, especially considering how new the upsurge has been and, like I said, I think that’s partially a product of the nature of academic research and work. A lot of it is sort of new, so maybe it will all fizzle out, but so far I feel fairly optimistic about it.

Q: Could you please describe how you went about unionising grad students on your own campus? How did you set up the union and persuade people that it was worth joining?

So NYU has a particular history. We have a very unusual union – to this day, we are still the only private university in the United States where graduate students have a recognised union with a contract, and we actually have that designation as the first and only union with that two times in a row! We were first established in the 1990s: that’s when the campaign kicked off for a union at NYU for graduate workers, GSOC, and we were able to organise, win a contract, and then, after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) changed under George Bush and reversed precedent on whether graduate students were considered workers, NYU Administration actually unilaterally withdrew recognition of our contract and of our union. In response, we held a semester-long strike in 2005. It was extremely brutal from what I heard (I wasn’t around at the time) and it failed to re-win recognition.

Basically, we were operating unofficially in that we were unrecognised and without contract, for the following eight years until 2013. The UAW, our parent union, was just having us file these appeals to the NLRB for several years, filling out these petitions, taking trips to Washington to try to talk to lobbyists. From what I’ve heard from people who finished before me and were part of that period of our union, it was a very demoralising process and there wasn’t a lot of thought to how the union could still try to fight for better working conditions, even outside of recognition – a kind of a rank and file approach where our power comes from being organised as a group of workers versus a more legalistic approach in which our power comes from official recognition and representation.

My understanding from GSOC members who were around in this period is that, with the rise of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in New York City, a lot of people who had been involved in union efforts got pulled into New York University for Occupy Wall Street (NYU4OWS) and got really interested in organising and much more interested in left-wing politics. People started to read Jane McAlavey – I’m not sure if you know here in the UK, she’s a well-known organizer and writer in the US labour movement on rank and file organising in ‘right to work’ states. [2] She works with nurses and she’s a really big advocate of open bargaining. People are very inspired by that approach.
Coinciding with these organisers becoming more interested in a rank and file approach and becoming more radicalised by Occupy Wall Street, there was an opportunity where NYU had a series of scandals that gave it a lot of bad press. (In New York City there was already really no love lost for NYU). That, coupled with anticipation of the Obama NLRB board coming in, created this opening where NYU as a gesture of goodwill negotiated with the UAW to have us re-recognised, or to have a vote for us to be re-recognised if we got majority support for reinstating the union.

That kicked off the big campaign to have a union election which we won by a huge, huge margin and then, when we started contract negotiations again,there was already this core of organisers who had been organizing on and around campus for the previous few years through the work through OWS, and had been radicalized through that and by reading this more radical union history and literature. They were really excited to try to implement some rank and file-driven and militant organising principles. There were a lot of struggles as to what kind of strategy we were going to take, but ultimately I think that group won and we were able to have this really dynamic organising campaign around our contract, which ended up netting us a very successful contract in my opinion!

Q: In the UK, one common barrier to collective solidarity and action amongst PhD students is the felt need to get experience and keep management happy in order to progress in their careers. How have grad student unions in the US managed to overcome this barrier?

I think it’s a problem we definitely still struggle with and have not fully solved. It may be the biggest challenge for academic worker organising: this very strange, sort of feudalistic relationship that we have with our supervisors in which they have this incredible amount of power over us in ways that can really be so personalistic and unusual. We’ve recently had at NYU the Avital Ronell scandal, which I suppose you’ve heard of: just one close-to-home example of this obviously huge and widespread problem.

Part of the way you see this play out is that certain types of disciplines are more likely to become involved in union organising than other types of disciplines. I’m a sociologist – I think that my relationship with my adviser, while still having that kind of potential for high levels of personalistic control through the need for a favourable letter of recommendation, is less acute than, for example, someone working in a lab with a Principal Investigator (PI). [3] I think we often see in the union that people in the humanities, people in the social sciences, tend to be overrepresented as a percentage of activists in our unit versus people who are in biology, computer science – even psychology, for example – and a lot of times the way people explain this is simply by an ideological commitment (‘sociology has all these Marxists’). This may be part of the explanation, but I think we end up underestimating how much that really intense PI relationship is a crucial factor that inhibits people in STEM from union organising.

It seems that there is a growing recognition of that. Previously, I think that people always just said this was fully explained by the ideological aspect, ‘Of course the people in social sciences are going to become more involved!’, but recently there’s just been more of a realisation that, actually, what may be more important is that STEM has this particular structural aspect, which makes get those grad workers involved in organising especially difficult and especially important.

At the CGEU conference last month, we had an ‘Organising in STEM’ panel, which I didn’t attend unfortunately, but I heard was one of the most popular panels at the conference. People thought it had these really interesting insights into the specific structural issues that STEM students face. I think that looking more closely at that is going to be what we need to do in the next few years because those disciplines are so inhibited from getting more interested in organising because of the particularities of that relationship.

More generally, I think that at core this is a collective action problem, which requires collective action solutions. I know that people who were involved at NYU as the campaign was picking up steam leading into our election said that there were these certain departments where the culture was really, really terrible in terms of what professors could expect to ask of their grad students. The sort of Avital Ronell-esque stuff, you know, like ‘Can you pick up my dry cleaning?’ or very weird sorts of requests that just should not be happening in terms of the proper boundaries of the professor-graduate student relationship. When there were campaigns for everyone to wear union buttons or other campaigns that made it clear that the majority of graduate students in that department were really supporting the union, those requests quickly declined and became a lot less common.
I think that’s why organising beyond one-on-one conversations is so important – we need to have these union actions be public, have people come out as a collective. I know it’s just the clichéd union stuff, but it’s kind of clichéd for a reason! I don’t know if that answers the question, but where I think that’s where the wins we’ve had have been and where our future challenges lie.

Q: What is solidarity like between undergrad and grad students? Are undergrad student activists keen on supporting the specific struggles of grad students and vice versa?

My understanding is that part of the reason that the 2005 strike was not successful was a lack of strong undergrad support, which made it less costly for NYU to just ignore us for a full semester of striking. That led to people being very careful when we were having strike preparation during our contract campaign to very early on cultivate ties with undergraduates.
I think we also benefited, like I said, from this changed political culture in the United States post-OWS where there was a very active student group on campus: for example, the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), which would work on things like unionising janitorial workers on campus, so they were already a great undergraduate group for us to reach out to as we were ramping up our contract campaign. We had these organic ties to groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and through those groups we started building out networks with undergraduates.

We also tried to incorporate undergraduates in a lot of different ways. For example, we implemented open bargaining in the Jane McAlavey style, and we had one open bargaining session where we had undergraduates attend and they actually gave testimonials as to why their Teaching Assistants (TAs) were so important for their education. A lot of them said that their TAs were much more important than their professors in terms of what they learned in undergrad! They talked about specific TAs that they had really just loved and thought were incredibly effective educators. Being in the bargaining room is generally just a really empowering experience for people and those undergrads who came to testify then came to all kinds of action we held afterwards. I think it kind of sucked them in.

We also developed a guide to talking to your undergrads after class about the upcoming strike: telling them why we’re going on strike, the issues with our contract, what they’re trying to offer us, what we’re asking for, etc. I believe that this was effective and, for me, the proof was what happened, when we were on the deadline of the strike (I think about two days before) and NYU sent out this email to the entire campus – professors, undergrads, every member of NYU campus – about how we had these really unreasonable demands and we were threatening to go on strike irresponsibly. We started to immediately get flooded with these CC’s of professors and undergrads responding to this email from NYU Administration, telling NYU Admin that they were disgusting or that they should be ashamed of spreading these lies. Then a group of undergrads spontaneously self-organised to have a petition, and they got around 1000 signatures and had a rally to deliver the petition to the President’s office in the library. That was all when we were too busy preparing for the strike and I do think that is part of the reason why NYU caved on the night of the strike deadline: because the show of undergrad support was much bigger than it had been during the previous strike.

The levels of undergraduate-graduate solidarity I think really vary from institution to institution, so that’s just our personal story, but I do think some of the general parameters – in terms of there being these student labour groups on campuses now, and also groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), in the kind of post-OWS, post-Bernie moment – really help give a base for doing that kind of work in terms of reaching out to undergraduates who would be sympathetic.

Q. Is there a general sense that precarious employment is not taken sufficiently seriously as a sector-wide issue by more senior members of staff?

Yes, that’s a very common complaint people have about their academic advisers: that they completely underestimate how bad the job market can be, especially in certain disciplines. I think also at schools like NYU we have the sort of ‘prestige hand waving’ argument: like ‘Well, yes, the job market is bad, but you know – you’re an NYU student: what are you worried about? You will be the one to get those few jobs that exist!’

So yeah, that is a definite common complaint people have about the way their advisers talk about the job market. But I also think that’s become less true over years because it’s gotten much more difficult to deny how bad it is at this point, and I think that’s part of what accounts for the rise in support for and kick-off in organising graduate worker unions across the country recently.


Q. Are student and education worker struggles on campus in the US generally conceptualised as a fight against marketisation the way they are in the UK?

At NYU, it’s funny that we’re the first and still only union with a contract at a private university because NYU is sort of the cutting edge of the corporate American university! It’s almost like the Ivy League of that! They’re really kind of the innovators in terms of best practices from a corporate perspective of how you create this university that has big profit margins, etc.

So our experience has been as workers in sort of the ultimate expression of a university which is already highly ‘marketised’. I should first say also that the recent wave of university unionising in the United States has focused around private universities, which until now have been, as I said, totally underrepresented in terms of organising, but actually are very ripe for it because they have these big budget surpluses and endowments so they could actually afford very easily to pay their workers a lot more. Like at NYU, what we were asking for in our contract amounted to a tiny, tiny sliver of what they have in excess every year!

But in terms of what I know about workers in public universities – public universities in the United States have had graduate worker unions and academic unions for much longer. I think the University of Wisconsin-Madison was the first public, unionised university. [4] University of Michigan, University of California… a lot of these big universities have historically had unions and they have definitely been involved in the fight against marketisation, especially now in this changing political culture in the United States.

I know that, for example, at the University of California (UC) – which has one of our major sister unions under the UAW – they were highly involved in the campaign a few years back against tuition hikes. Just as the OWS experience breathed life into the union at NYU, I’ve heard that the tuition hike protests at Berkeley hat was actually a really big part of reviving the union — people getting involved in the activism around that broader issue helped bring new organizing dynamics in the lead up to a contract campaign later. And it was also sort of a point of contention between the UC union and the UAW national union, which tends to be a bit more narrowly focussed on just negotiating the contract and not as much on these broader issues of, for example, democratising the university.

Another great example is at the University of Wisconsin when they had the big protests at the Capitol: that was one of the early waves of protests in the US in the Occupy Wall Street era. It’s my understanding that the University of Wisconsin-Madison union was very involved in that and they sent a lot of people to the capitol. That was also a big part of reviving organising in their union.

In short, yes, at public universities, they’ve been very involved in the fight against marketisation. At the same time, I should say, public universities struggle a lot in terms of organising because we have these laws in the US that prevent them from striking in a lot of cases. That’s the case in New York State: under the Taylor Law [5], in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, their academic workers cannot go on strike – they are forbidden by law and that is of course a huge impediment to effective organising! There’s been some grassroots campaigns like CUNY Struggle to have illegal strikes, which haven’t quite become successful yet, but have had some wins in terms of pushing the union to be a little bit more militant.

Now the public university unions are going to face even more obstacles coming forward with the Janus decision from the US Supreme Court. It will be, at least in the short term, a huge blow. I’m sort of sympathetic to the argument that there could be some really big wins in the long term, in terms of that ruling, but in the short term it’s going to be extremely devastating to public university organising, and that’s really unfortunate because that is the vanguard of protecting the public university system in the US from these constant efforts to undermine it — charging ever-more tuition that goes to a larger, highly-compensated, upper-level bureaucracy while undermining the job security of the people who teach students.

Q. What’s the most important lesson to carry forward to grad students? What message should we give them to encourage them to stand up collectively for their rights?

Our unofficial slogan in our union is ‘Collective action gets the goods!’ and I think that it’s proven to be true. We really reoriented our union in a very dramatic fashion towards organising that was as collectively focused as possible; as much oriented towards big, public actions as possible; oriented towards getting graduate workers in the room bargaining, seeing the actual mechanics of bargaining, seeing what the other side says in bargaining. All that I think is incredibly powerful and I have to believe is a big part of why we were able to negotiate a contract which has been celebrated in the academic labour movement as an example of what a successful graduate worker union can do when they really organise.

I think that principle – of having actions that really put the rank and file first, and the belief that our power comes from our collective abilities and not from our strict legal representation – is really important to keep always at the front of your mind.

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[1] An adjunct staff member in the US is roughly equivalent to an associate staff member in the UK, i.e. someone who teaches part time on a limited term contract.
[2]‘Right to work’ states are states with statutes prohibiting mandated union membership and dues. In this context, ‘right to work’ is essentially a right-wing euphemism that allows employers to frame union-busting as a defence of personal liberty.
[3] The ‘Principal Investigator’ (PI) is the lead researcher of a grant project who acts as the head of the laboratory. From this position of authority, the PI controls people’s access to new experiments, authorship attributions on group-written research papers, etc.
[4] This was the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), formed during an anti-conscription sit-in in the spring of 1966, inspired in part by earlier efforts to unionise student workers and in part by the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. The TAA completed its first contract with the university in 1970 and still exists today.
[5] Also known as the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, the Taylor Law was put in effect in 1967 and curtails the right of public employees to strike, with a penalty of an additional day of pay for each strike day, removal of Dues Check-off, and imprisonment of the Union president.

On the Poverty of the Student Experience

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This is an opinion piece written by NCAFC member Dan Davison for the 50th anniversary of 1968. An early version was distributed as a bulletin for the 2018 National Student Left Conference, ‘We are the University’. Join the debate by writing for us at anticuts.com!

Fifty years ago, we were warned of the spectacle. We were warned of how the commodity’s tendrils were seeping into every corner of social being, suffocating all potential for authentic human life. Now the commodity’s colonisation of society is complete. Under neoliberalism, ’we are everywhere homo oeconomicus and only homo oeconomicus’. [1] Few areas of social life display this bleak economisation of human existence as starkly as higher education. More and more, our academic institutions become degree factories whose vacuous output feeds the ‘knowledge economy’. Under the metricising gaze of the two ‘excellence frameworks’, the marketisation of education set in motion when the Blair Government introduced tuition fees in 1998 has reached its highest stage. ‘The Poverty of Student Life’ [2] that the Situationists described in 1966 is not only greater in 2018: it is happily advertised on every campus as ‘the student experience’.

Five decades on, we students are still here to be moulded into low-level functionaries within the commodity system. The prospect of this dismal ‘reward’ awaiting us beyond our current ‘provisional role’ still drives us to take refuge in an ‘unreally lived present’. [3] Yet the bureaucrats have learned how to turn this transient, comforting embrace of the unreal into a constant, passive acceptance of the commodity system itself. One sees this from how, on many campuses, students’ unions are little more than inane entertainment venues and docile feedback mechanisms instead of democratic bodies that fight for their members’ material interests. The more we conceive of ourselves as human capital, the more student life models itself on the investment firm. Studies and recreation alike are geared towards that hollow monstrosity of modern life that is the LinkedIn profile.

With the shift in the education sector from relying on government grants to relying on fees and rents as income, shiny new buildings line prospectus pages to help universities meet their ever-rising target student numbers, even where campuses already feel the strain of overcrowding. As we saw in Elephant and Castle, these same ostentatious building projects can mask the gentrifying expansion of campuses both here and overseas, depriving working class locals of their homes and livelihoods in the pursuit of profit. Even the suggestion of lower fees for specific subjects in the Tory Government’s latest Higher Education review retains the logic of student-as-consumer, valuating knowledge according to market needs rather than individual human flourishing or any wider social benefit.

Marketisation and commodification leave the lives of education workers no less impoverished than those of students. Under the watchful eyes of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), academics pursue constant validation by artificial metrics in service of the ‘knowledge economy’. These frameworks herald the final stages in the sector’s decades-long shift towards a managerial accounting model. There are few starker illustrations of what is truly valued in education under neoliberalism than the fact that the University of Bath, the very institution that heralded a national media storm over Vice Chancellors’ pay and university democracy, received a ‘Gold’ ranking under the TEF in 2017. Similarly, the cuts to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) that led the University and College Union (UCU) into its largest ever strike were made to shift financial risk away from the universities and onto the individual employee. The rhetoric of ‘flexibility’ veils staff’s anxiety over having to structure their entire lives around casual contracts that provide little stable income and leave them at the mercy of managers. Faced with insecurity in future retirement and present employment alike, for postgraduates and Early Career Academics, the ‘student experience’ leads to a poverty every bit as financial as it is spiritual.

The traditional professoriate mourns the death of older collegial forms of university governance and liberal education. To be clear, we are under no illusions about the bourgeois-liberal universities of yesteryear. Such universities provided general education to a privileged minority so that they could take up positions in the ruling class. This is why, when we call to make institutions democratically accountable, we mean to all those who work and study there, and to their local communities. We do not mean democratically accountable to elite academics nostalgic for the days when they were the ‘guard-dogs serving the future masters’ rather than ‘sheep-dogs in charge of herding white-collar flocks to their respective factories and offices’. [4]

However, the Situationists also warned of the ‘modernists’ who wished to ‘reintegrate’ the university into social and economic life. They recognised what such ‘reintegration’ really meant. It meant adapting the entire university to the needs of modern capitalism. It meant ‘subordinating one of the last relatively autonomous sectors of social life to the demands of the commodity system’. [5] With the neoliberal turn, capitalism has subsumed academia into the logic of the market to the point of commodifying education itself. The descendants of the ‘modernists’ have won. The ‘future cybernetised university’ the Situationists warned us about is finally here. [6]

To see this unsettling truth, one need only look at the extent to which the illusions that the forces of capital once had to impose upon students and workers are now ‘willingly internalised and transmitted’ thanks to metricisation. [7] It is hardly a secret that National Student Survey (NSS) results on ‘student satisfaction’ are essentially junk data and, as part of the TEF, are intended to allow high-scoring universities to become more expensive than low-scoring ones. Despite this, final year undergraduates across the country fill in the survey without a second thought. If the university’s promise of ‘critical thinking’ is to mean anything, then we as students should be dissatisfied with our institutions: dissatisfied with their complicity in job cuts, poverty wages, racist monitoring practices, gentrification, political suppression, and the reduction of all human value to that of capital! What’s more, we should be unafraid to make our dissatisfaction political!

As for how academic staff have responded to this increasingly metricised life, through the felt need to meet submission deadlines in the REF cycle, even at the cost of publication quality, they have come to accept permanent performance monitoring as the basis for differentiated rewards. [8] For all the promises of neoliberalism’s architects that we would be freed from ‘red tape’, bureaucracy is now immanent to work itself. Not only has the ruling class set up new ‘agencies of psycho-police control’: it has made us feel compelled to monitor ourselves and feed the data to those agencies as a matter of routine! [9] The graffitied Parisian walls of May ‘68 warned that ‘a cop sleeps inside each one of us’. The more we watch our every step to meet competitive performance levels, the more that sleeping cop begins to stir.

If the spectacle truly has reached such an all-consuming stage, then how do we push beyond it? Already we see parallel struggles between the youth and student movements of the 1960s, and those of today. The mass sit-ins at Berkeley for free speech in the face of political repression echo in the current rallying cry for ‘Cops Off Campus!’, and in the fight against the racist surveillance of students under the Prevent Strategy. The spirit of the shop steward movement imbues the latest strikes by cleaners, cinema staff, fast food workers, and couriers, proving that young and migrant workers can lead the charge against the ‘gig economy’. The youth who helped build the Corbyn project in the Labour Party and showed their seismic force in the 2017 general election would easily find their counterparts in the anti-bomb and anti-war movements of fifty years ago.

We should not limit our examples to Britain. Even now, comrades in France are showing the way, staging simultaneous student occupations and rail worker strikes to resist Macron’s attacks upon the public sector. The ‘selection’ process Macron seeks to implement would edge French universities towards a marketised system like the UK’s. In Germany, university and school students have gone on strike under the slogan ‘Education not Deportations’ to oppose the expansion of German and EU border controls. They demand a dignified life and proper access to education for all migrants. In Poland, students and workers have occupied the University of Warsaw in protest against a state attempt to change the university’s governance structures, which would centralise power in the hands of the rector and unelected external governors. The protesters also demand increased funding for education and science, and more rights for workers on campus. All these common struggles lay the foundations for international solidarity.

As in the 1960s, we as students need to unite against the shared root of our hardships. We need to bring together the different blades we have drawn against the neoliberal beast. By this I mean the thriving campaigns on campuses across the country to cap rents; to abolish fees; to pay a Living Wage; to end zero hours contracts and outsourcing; to move to renewable energy. At the national level, we need to democratise the National Union of Students (NUS) into a dynamic, militant force worthy of its name. We fight for a democratic, accessible, and truly public education system with a liberatory curriculum. This common goal finds its fullest potency as a rupture within the very capitalist system that keeps us beholden to commodities and bound in wage-slavery. This is the core lesson that 1968 imparted: the need to wage all these different battles as a living, radical critique of world that is and unify them into a single struggle for the world that could be. This way, we can make ‘the student experience’ mean the affirmation, not the alienation, of human life and creativity: a détournement worthy of Debord himself.

[1] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (MIT Press 2015), page 33.
[2] Members of the Situationist International and Students of Strasbourg University, On the Poverty of Student Life (1966). http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/poverty.htm
[3] Poverty, chapter 1.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Hugo Radice, ‘How We Got Here: UK Higher Education under Neoliberalism’, 12 (2) ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 407-18, page 416. https://www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/969
[9] Poverty, chapter 1.

Student Activist Weekender Announced!

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Student activists from across the country are coming together on 8-9 September at UCL before the first term in an event focussed on practical activist training and discussions on organising around national issues for students! Many of these issues are highlighted here.

All welcome! Registration is free and accommodation will be provided by local activists involved in organising the event!

** REGISTER FOR FREE HERE **

More info soon – contact us to find out more!

University of Warsaw Occupied

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By NCAFC National Committee member Ana Oppenheim

Since Tuesday June 5, students and staff at the University of Warsaw have been protesting against a new law changing the governance structures of Poland’s universities. They have occupied a part of the main campus where the Rector’s offices are located and dropped a banner off the balcony saying “we demand democratic universities.”

The occupation started as a response to the so-called “Gowin’s Act,” named after the conservative Minister of Science and Higher Education. The law sets out to expand the powers of the Rector and establish a new university governing body which includes members external to the university (similar to the UK’s boards of governors). Critics say that the changes will take power away from the community of students and workers and centralise it in the hands of unaccountable management, and that the new board could increase the influence of government ministers and business over academia. Furthermore, the protestors fear that planned changes to higher education funding and expansion of audit culture will privilege big universities in major cities (in order to boost their international league table positions) over smaller and already struggling institutions.

The 11 demands published by the Academic Protest Committee, as the campaigners call themselves, include democratic elections of Rectors and academic community representatives on all levels of management, transparency of university finances and administrative decisions, protection from government intervention into research, investment in housing and scholarships to reduce barriers to access, an increase in funding for education and science to at least 2% of GDP (currently at under 0.5%, among the lowest in Europe, although the government has promised a significant increase) and strengthening the rights of campus workers.

Alongside the occupation, which is said to be the first one taking place at the University of Warsaw in 30 years, the committee has organised a number of teach-outs led by prominent opponents of the Law and Justice government. Protests have also been organised on campuses in Lodz and Bialystok. The campaign has been endorsed by a growing number of organisations, including university departments, academic societies, trade union branches in Warsaw and beyond and the leftwing party Razem (although not by UW’s students’ union.) “Academia is our common good which we will defend as long as it is necessary” reads the occupiers’ manifesto.

Follow the Academic Protest Committee here and tweet solidarity at #Ustawa20 and #NaukaNiepodlegla (which stands for “Independent Science”.)

Report: UCU Rank & File Meeting

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By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

On 29 April 2018, approximately 50 activists from across the UK met at City, University of London. They were there as part of a newly formed Rank and File network within the University and College Union (UCU). This network emerged from the strikes this year over proposed cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which saw a surge in activity within the union at the grassroots level. 64% of members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted ‘Yes’ on 14 April 2018 to an offer made by the employers’ consortium, Universities UK (UUK), to set up a Joint Expert Panel that would, among other things, look into the valuation of the USS Fund. Despite this, many UCU members – myself included – saw the handling of this ballot as a capitulation by Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary.

The Rank and File meeting therefore had a central objective of ensuring we do not lose the energisation of UCU’s activist base, especially seeing how 24,000 new members have joined the union since the USS strike ballot. Although the network and meeting both arose from the USS dispute, the common understanding remained that our battle is against larger ills within the education sector, including marketisation and precarity. Likewise, the question of how to intervene in UCU’s structures and democratise the union was central, with the members present generally accepting that UCU’s weaknesses cannot be solved with a change in leadership alone.

We also acknowledged the need to share skills and resources, especially between stronger and weaker UCU branches, and to link with broader workers’ and students’ struggles. Encouragingly, it was suggested that the new network should push UCU to work in closer solidarity with students in the fight for free education. Much inspiration was taken from examples across the world, including the recent West Virginia wildcat strikes and the establishment of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union in California. Although involvement in the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) was suggested to keep the dynamism of the strike alive, no serious case was made for UCU activists to ‘dual card’ as IWGB members or to found another union altogether.

The Rank and File network has no steering committee as such, but now has several working groups that we broke into following general discussion of the network’s aims. These working groups are on democracy, anti-racism (including migrant workers’ rights), the Higher Education pensions dispute, and precarious labour. Given my history of union activism around casualisation, I joined the precarious labour group, which saw a healthy discussion of everything from practical demands, such as moving precarious staff onto fractional contracts, to common interests to which we can appeal in our campaigns, such as high workloads and the gender pay gap.

Overall, the Rank and File meeting was promising, but the onus falls upon the newly connected members to turn its initiatives into concrete gains. We have a vision of a better union in mind: now we need to bring it into reality.

Organising a Rent Strike at Bristol Uni: What we did, how we went about it, its successes and failures

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Written by a Bristol activist.

Between 2016/17 activists from Acorn Community Union, Bristol Reclaim Education and other groups came together to start a campaign against university halls rent increases. It was Acorn Community Union plus other student activists (including newly elected Student Living Officer Stephen Le Fanu) who initiated Bristol Cut the Rent at the end of the previous academic year (2015/16). Bristol Cut the Rent was inspired by the similarly named UCL Cut the Rent campaign which between 2015/16 had launched one of the biggest rent strikes in higher education history at University College London – UCL had launched anamazing rent strike where over 1000 students took part, coupled with big demonstrations, rallies and flash occupations of management, the campaign won over £1.5million in cuts, bursaries and rent freezes despite UCL’s attempts to intimidate rent strikers and student journalists who uncovered and spoke out against UCL’s profit-making in university halls.

Bristol Cut the Rent at the end of the 2015/16 academic year launched a meeting and a protest over proposed rent increases which garnered a lot of support. The following year Bristol Cut the Rent launched a rent strike campaign to encourage first year students to withold rent en masse as a way to protest and gain leverage over the university in order to demand rent cuts, rent controls and transparency in rent costs.
The following is an account of how those involved in the organising went about organising a rent strike, th successes, and the failings of the campaign and what we can conclude. Just to clarify however I was just one of those involved in the campaign and can’t necessarily speak for others. Nevertheless I think it’s important to reflect on campaigns you have been involved, what happened, what went well, what didn’t and what we can learn from that.

By no means would I say that the Bristol Cut the Rent 2016/17 rent strike was a success, however it was one of the few in times in Bristol University’s history when students at the university had taken collective (and technically illegal) action against the university and the very fact that this was done and how it was done should be told.


Rent Strike Weekender

Those who had been organisers and activists in the UCL and Goldsmiths Cut the Rent campaign, both of which had secured pretty big wins using rent strikes as a tactic, organised a “Rent Strike Weekender”. This was a weekend of workshops on rent, the housing market, university marketisation as well as practical workshops on how to organise a rent strike, how to do the social media campaign, how to go into negotiations with management, etc. Around 4-5 of us from Bristol went down to the weekender. At the weekender itself there was easily 100-150 people from over 25 campuses who had come to learn and
share their knowledge.

What I found particularly inspiring and interesting about the rent strike weekender was how much doorknocking and face-to-face conversations were stressed. One of the Goldsmiths activists explained how they had been inspired by the organising around the had read about during the Poll Tax rebellion where organisers did waves of doorknocking and literally had meetings in people’s kitchens in countless housing estates.

A brief timeline of the rent strike

November 2016
– we started doorknocking in University Halls (UH is the cheapest halls but nonetheless had very high rent, it is currently £110 a week and will be increased)
– a week and a half later there was a meeting of 30+ students in the University Hall bar

December 2016
– a pledge system was put together where students signed up to pledge to rent strike if 100 other students agreed to do the same
– Doorknocking was done in many other halls including Hiatt Baker, Badock, Durdham as well as Northwell House and city centre halls.

January 2017
– the pledge was only a few people short of the 100 needed
– the rent strike was not called due to there not being enough participants

February – April 2017
– periods of negotiations were had with university management who only partially agreed to give us a breakdown of the costs halls running and maintenance.
– doorknocking began again but not to the same extent as in November and December
– a new pledge was put together with 150 people needed to call a rent strike
– this target was not reached and in the end around 40 or so students took part in a rent strike
– the campaign’s final major action was a demonstration at the university
– in the end the campaign won a pledge for more bursaries for rent, a rent hike of 3.5% instead of 4.5% and a breakdown of the ingoings and outgoings of in university halls.

Doorknocking and having conversations with students and our struggle to get information
Doorknocking was probably the most important aspect of the campaign and the main way in which we actively engaged, talked and listened to people. Doorknocking and the engagement you do through conversations is the often invisible and often considered “less sexy” work of the campaign. I personally find it one of the most fun parts of campaigning and organising because you are not shouting things at people or buildings you are talking to people as people and getting them to understand the power they have collectively. However, when it comes to doorknocking and conversations it can be done well and it can be done badly. In hindsight I think our approach was partly good partly bad and it is something that we could definitely have had training in by good, principled and successful organisers.
When doorknocking we introduced ourselves by our names and why we were doorknocking. We would then ask them an open question like “We think you pay too much rent, what do you think?” More often than not the person agreed. We would then explain how much rent has gone up in the past years and that we knew that there was a way to respond and demand rent cuts. In most of our conversations we almost immediately talked about going on rent strike. We would ask if the student knew what that involved. If they didn’t we would explain. We would then ask what they would think about doing this kind of action. This would usually result in a bunch of questions like what the university response would be, does it actually work, etc. To all of these questions we had answers which we had learned and knew from the UCL and Goldsmiths Cut the Rent campaign. We knew more or less what the response from the university would be at most points both with regard to home and international students. By being open and honest about the risks as well as the power of taking this kind of action we gave people the confidence and understanding to take action.

However, although we did this we only partially got students involved. Our approach and how we saw ourselves for the most part was a group that would try to maneouvre the campaign with a certain amount of students in halls participating too. We always wanted to students in halls to get involved and participate however the language we used and the way we engaged was not the type that actively engaged students. Reading more organising advice from successful organisers like Jane McAlevey I realise that even quite small things in conversations make a big difference when it comes to encouraging and building confidence. E.g. instead of saying “Thank you” at the end of a conversation it’s better to say “Good talking to you”, “See you later”, “Look forward to seeing you soon” because we are not thanking them for doing something we want to say “hey it’s your rent and your problem we’re just here to give you the info and help you along seeing as you want to do something about it, we’ll help make decisions but it needs active democratic engagement from everyone for it to be successful.”

Again we did get some students actively engaged and organising and that was very important to the campaign. However, we failed to get the majority of students engaged.

Another issue we had when it came to doorknocking is that we could not give a straight answer on how much we could win. We had done our homework to some degree however getting some very basic information from the university proved difficult. The university for a long time refused to give us information about the costs, ingoings and expenditure on halls deeming this information as “commercially sensitive”. We were told that a differently worded Freedom of Information request might have been more successful. We never did this and instead just ploughed on ahead.

Due to this lack of information we failed to be direct about how students could win. The most reasoning we could give was pointing out how much the university would spend on expansion and pointing out the above inflation rent increases that had been happening but it wasn’t possible for us to say exactly how much money the university had been making from rent and what type of rent cut was possible to get. In the end we got a breakdown of costs and income from the university regarding halls. The university claimed that they had made a deficit however the categories of this account were very vague including unexplained financing of “other” costs accounting for around £5m, rental paid to lease owners (ca. £13m) and “loan financing” £2.7m. Moreover, some other ingoings of university halls were omitted in the “budget” including the amount made from conferences.

Moreover, sabbatical officers had seen different budgets from the university and heard different claims from the university management including that they didn’t budget for halls.

Given this confusion it was not possible for us to say properly where the university would get its money from to finance a rent cut exactly because the university was so obstinate in being transparent.

Lessons learned
In the end I learned a lot from the campaign about the work that people need to put into the campaign. In the end I think the campaign would have benefitted best from having someone who had helped in a successful rent strike or majority workplace strike. And going forward I think it is important for anyone doing community and/or work-place organising to learn from those who are doing it very well, such as United Voices of the World (UVW), the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union (BAFWU), the Picture House workers campaign, as well as strikes by good branches of bigger more bureaucratic unions such as those who helped organise the St Barts strike with Unite in 2017.

A very obvious thing but something that we didn’t take seriously enough is doing our homework on what might be called the “cost of concession” – the amount of power you need to win whatever it is that you want to win. We didn’t have a clear idea about how much we could win, and what it would take to win that. When it comes to a rent strike the power of it comes from the fact that for quite a few months you are en masse witholding a large amount of money that the university wants. However, to make the strike very strong, and this requires students building a significant amount of solidarity, students would have to threaten an indefinite rent strike until their demands are met. Unfortunately many of us who talked to students about rent striking sold it on the basis that it is a very safe action since the university won’t want to call evictions on so many students. Whilst this is certainly true, it’s not a good basis on which to build something that needs to to actually be very strong.

Assuming we had had a good idea of the “cost of concession” and a good strategy to present. E.g. mass petitions + rallies led by students in halls + demos led by students in halls + occupations led by students in halls + an ongoing rent strike. To actually turn it into something with mass participation would have involved bringing the campaign into more parts of students social life. E.g. getting other, in particular “non-political”, societies to support the campaign, getting live-in seniour residents onboard, getting lecturers and professors to support the campaign. This large amount of support for the campaign can only be built by taking those who will take the rent strike and getting them to lead it, since they know what support would be best to get in their wider student life.

Finally something that we did not do but we ought to have done is knock on literally every door. And even more importantly getting to a point where it is basically only those taking rent strike action who are knocking on doors. We got some rent strikers doing doorknocking but not enough to that it was rent strikers democratically and mass participationally taking rent strike action.

In the end, helping organise the rent strike was a very new thing for all of us and it changed the way I organise quite a lot. I really encourage students and non-students to take the initiative and organise more things like this and join up with housing and work-place struggles outside of university. It can only make the struggle against marketisation, for free education, and for free and accessible housing more of a reality and all the things that will liberate us more of a reality.

Summer Conference Announced!

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On the weekend of 8-10 June, NCAFC will be hosting our summer conference, We Are The University, at Sheffield students’ union.

The recent UCU strikes saw the biggest wave of student activism since 2010, with occupations taking place at 25 campuses. But while the strikes have been called off, the fight for free education, for workers’ rights and for democratic institutions is not. On the 50th anniversary of 1968 student revolt, now is the time for the left to come together – and to build a sustainable movement that can win the fight for a liberated education.

As always, access to the conference, food and accommodation is free. However, if you are struggling with transport costs, you can use our access fund. Please email [email protected] with your requirements and the finance committee will try to cover as much of your fees as possible.

The conference will officially start with registration opening at 12pm on Friday 8th June, and our first activity at 1pm. This will be followed by an informal social, with the main conference as usual taking place over Saturday and Sunday, with a variety of political and democratic events. A full agenda will be released shortly.

Motions can be proposed by affiliated local and political groups, or by any group of at least 7 individual NCAFC members, and must be submitted to [email protected] by 18:00 Wednesday 30th May. Please see here for a guide on how our democracy works.

Register for free here – and click attending on our Facebook event here, and invite anyone you think might be interested!

Reflections on the UCU Strike: Where Do We Go From Here?

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By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrad & Education Workers Co-Rep and Cambridge UCU activist. Photo by Andrew Perry.

On 14 April 2018, 64% of members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted ‘Yes’ to the offer made by the employers’ consortium, Universities UK (UUK). Industrial action, including action short of a strike (ASOS), is now suspended. UUK’s offer aims to end the ongoing dispute over intended reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. As explained in a previous article, these changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, spelling the effective end to guaranteed pension benefits. In their offer, UUK proposed to establish a ‘Joint Expert Panel, comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both sides’, to ‘deliver a report’ and ‘to agree key principles to underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund’.

NCAFC advocated a ‘No’ vote in the ballot, finding that the proposal offered little in the way of concrete guarantees and noting how it could see UUK continuing to use the contested November valuation for the USS, despite the pension scheme’s ‘deficit’ being fabricated. On 13 March, UCU rejected a previous proposal drawn up by the union and UUK’s representatives during negotiations, after UCU members demonstrated outside the union’s national headquarters and local UCU branches called on the national leadership to turn down the deal: an outcry that trended online with the hashtag #NoCapitulation. Moreover, between the announcement of the new proposal on 23 March and the closing of the ballot on 14 April, many branches came out in opposition to the offer as it stood, preferring a deal with clearer and more reliable assurances. On social media, this position was often identified with the hashtag #ReviseAndResubmit, in humorous allusion to the peer review process for academic journals.

Whilst the 63.5% turnout for the ballot on the new proposal is not something to dismiss out of hand, the result comes as a disappointment for many strikers, as well as those who have stood in solidarity with them. I will lay out some major criticisms of the UCU leadership’s handling of the ballot and offer a few explanations for the ballot result. I will then make some critical observations about how the National Union of Students (NUS) conducted itself throughout the strike. I will end on what I hope will be a constructive and optimistic note on how we can build upon the gains of the strike, particularly the unprecedented energisation of UCU’s rank-and-file.

1. The UCU Leadership

One of the most significant problems with the ballot is the manner in which Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary, presented the available options in her emails to the membership. More specifically, Hunt conflated the more hard-line ‘no detriment’ position with the less hard-line ‘revise and resubmit’ position, and then framed the ‘No’ option on the ballot as a mandate for ‘no detriment’. A significant number of UCU members favoured ‘revise and resubmit’, considered ‘no detriment’ unrealistic, and would have been willing to pursue further industrial action in pursuit of demands shaped by a ‘revise and resubmit’ position. As Hunt presented the ‘No’ option as a commitment to bargaining for ‘no detriment’, we can safely assume that many members who ordinarily would have rejected the offer instead accepted it. Moreover, whilst it is established practice for a union’s executive committee to make recommendations in such matters, it appears that the recommendations Hunt gave to members were hers alone.

Unfortunately, UCU’s national leadership has a long history of failing to pursue effective industrial action when needed. As we recognised when UCU called off its marking boycott during the 2014 pay dispute, when the national leadership clearly does not support further industrial action, members become demoralised and are left to believe that, if they do vote for further action, the action will be tokenistic and ineffective. With staff members losing significant pay on strike days, one can understand why the leadership’s visible lack of commitment to seeing the strike through to the end would have had a dissuading effect on UCU members. Indeed, one would be forgiven for a certain cynical suspicion that the ballot was called during the Easter break precisely because it would be a time of year when student support for the strike would be less visible on campus and when there would be no picket lines to generate feelings of solidarity.

In many respects, the contrast between the ballot on the one hand, and the wave of demonstrations, open letters, and branch resolutions for #NoCapitulation on the other hand, is instructive for the problems with an atomistic approach to democracy in a national organisation. When members are in a room with others who have shared their struggle, the fostered feeling of solidarity boosts confidence, and one can actively participate in a structured discussion that lays out and debates the available positions. When members have to vote as geographically separated individuals, that atmosphere of solidarity and accompanying confidence are lost. Moreover, in the context of the present dispute, those members who were not active during (and, presumably, less supportive of) the strike ended up receiving disproportionate guidance from the leadership’s communications.

Nevertheless, I urge student and trade union activists not to assume the worst of those UCU members who voted to accept the deal. Apart from the leadership’s handling of the ballot and general lack of effective leadership, there are numerous understandable reasons why members would choose not to continue striking. With classes finishing for the year, the most disruptive part of the industrial action would have been the marking boycott. Since this would affect students’ reception of marks much more directly than cancelled lectures, one can sympathise with staff members’ fear of ‘hurting’ their students or losing student support by continuing the action, even if a victory for the strike would actually have helped students in the long run by resisting a systematic attack on learning conditions. Likewise, one can understand why the prospect of standing on a picket line when the campus is less busy would be quite bleak for many strikers. Once we have more data on the number of UCU branches that came out against both the rejected and the accepted deals, along with a breakdown of the ballots cast, we can better account for why members voted as they did.

2. The NUS

In a previous opinion piece, I criticised the NUS leadership for demonstrating no support for the strike beyond than a lacklustre joint statement (itself released more than a week after UCU’s industrial action ballot result), despite it being the clear policy of NUS’ National Executive Council to provide much more concrete assistance. That was at the start of February. Individual NUS officers might have made supportive gestures and commentary during the strike period, but as an institution, the NUS remained conspicuously absent. This means that the 26 campus occupations and other surges of campus activism in solidarity with UCU materialised in spite of the NUS rather than because of it.

NCAFC assisted many of these occupations by helping coordinate them online, and – in some instances – by sending members to boost numbers and expertise. This resulted in approximately 40 activists from 13 different campuses across the UK meeting in London to share their experience and draft a joint solidarity statement, with further cross-campus connections being drawn now. Similarly, NCAFC administered both the popular ‘Students Support the UCU Pensions Strike’ Facebook group, which allowed activists to share materials, and the @Occupation_hub twitter account, which kept abreast of direct action in support of the strike. Still, all this is no substitute for the material support of a national union tasked with fighting for our interests as students. In other words, if there was any moment at which the NUS should have lived up to its name, it was at the height of campus activism in solidarity with UCU. The NUS could have officially sent representatives to the occupations and committed itself to defending student protesters from victimisation, especially those on visas who take an especially high risk when participating in direct action, but they did nothing.

The NUS thus finds itself in a curious state of double removal. It is removed from the mass political drive for free education that has seen expression in the Corbyn surge and in Labour’s significant gains in the 2017 General Election. Likewise, it is removed from the fertile layer of grassroots campus activism that made the recent wave of occupations possible. As of the 2018 NUS National Conference elections, the NUS leadership is split evenly between the left and the right, but the right still holds the presidency. However, if the experience of the UCU strike has taught us anything, it is that any attempt to rebuild the student movement must amount to something far wider and bolder than putting left-wingers in office.

3. What Next for UCU?

Even though our current position is intensely dissatisfying, we have made genuine gains through our activism. UCU membership has increased by the thousands and seen unprecedented energisation at the grassroots level. Now we must ask how we rank-and-file activists can prepare for the (almost inevitable) next round in the dispute should the talks with UUK fail and, more pointedly, how we can transform the union itself. I wholly understand the temptation for left-wing members simply to jump ship from UCU. As it stands, UCU has all the trappings of a bureaucratised union disconnected from its more militant base and the UCU Left faction, dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), serves as little more than an electoral machine. For these same reasons, I understand suggestions to ‘dual card’ with smaller, more dynamic unions, such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).

While all available options should considered carefully, I do wish to stress that there are significant advantages to a large, national union, not least in respect of collective bargaining. Since university employers in the sector have to deal with industry-wide unions such as UCU, it is harder to drive down wages on individual campuses and make the sector even more closely resemble a market than it does already. Moreover, one should bear in mind that the character of unions can change dramatically. Many of the large national unions now infamous for bureaucracy, such as the GMB, grew out of the ‘new unionism’ of the 1880s, which replaced the older ‘craft union’ models. This shift from craft unionism to new unionism meant an upsurge in militancy and the bringing together of different workers in the same industry to fight for collective gains rather than to defend the special interests of a uniquely skilled ‘labour aristocracy’. Conversely and more recently, rank-and-file activists transformed the traditionally conservative and bureaucratic Chicago Teachers Union into an energised, combative body. As such, we should not be overly dismissive of what we could achieve within UCU, building upon the kind of grassroots revolt we saw with the #NoCapitulation surge.
In short, whether one chooses to start a new union or to reform an existing union, there are no shortcuts to effective workplace organising. For now, we must keep engaging with UCU’s activist base and ensure that its newly tapped potential does not dissipate. With new rank-and-file networks emerging in the wake of the ballot result, a glimmer of hope appears in the darkness. It is a hope that springs from a single, potent realisation: we are the union.

Our Demands: Statement from the Occupations Summit

occupied

Activists from 13 campuses who had been in occupation have come together on Sunday 18th March to share our experiences, learn from each other and plan how we can unite together in support of UCU for the struggle ahead.

We stand in full solidarity with UCU and are demanding that:
1. Universities UK ends its attempts to push through this pension scheme and gives in to the opposition from UCU.
2. The strike is mediated by a genuinely independent body, not one appointed by Universities UK.
3. That Universities UK publish a gender impact assessment on the USS pension reforms.
4. Universities release reports on their institutional responses to the USS consultations to September Risk valuations, clarifying their decisions and the process behind them.
5. Universities should guarantee that students will not be awarded results lower than their predicted grade, in response to disruption caused by UUK. If students achieve results better than predicted, then that result will be accepted.
6. No pay is docked for staff taking action short of a strike. That hourly paid staff whose teaching hours all fell on strike days do not have their pay docked.
7. No-one, staff or student, face disciplinary action or other victimisation for protesting in support of the strike.
8. Strike days are not classed as “mandatory attendance” for students, especially international students.
9. International student visas be extended to cover delayed graduation dates
10. Workers on Tier 2 & Tier 4 Visas do not face legal threats for participation in strike action

We believe in education that is democratic, accessible and liberated, with living grants for all and no tuition fees, funded by taxing the rich. We want a radical transformation of our education system from the bottom up.

We are calling on our universities to: pay the living wage and provide in-house and secure contracts for all campus workers; cease all blacklisting of workers; implement a 5:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid staff on campus; divest from fossil fuels and arms companies; end all compliance with PREVENT; initiate rent caps and pass ownership and running of accomodation to students.

Read the report from the summit here.