NUS and UCU: Unite and Fight Better than This!

By Dan Davison, Cambridge Universities Labour Club Graduate Officer & NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

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As covered in a previous article, members of the University and College Union (UCU) overwhelmingly voted for strike action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the primary pensions scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. These changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, effectively ending guaranteed pension benefits, with the typical lecturer set to lose as much as £200,000 in retirement. Following the end of talks between UCU and the employers’ consortium Universities UK (UUK) without agreement, UCU has announced 14 strike dates at 61 universities, beginning 22 February.

On 30 January, Sally Hunt, General Secretary of UCU, and Shakira Martin, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) released a joint statement on the USS action. In this statement, NUS expresses its concerns that ‘the imposition of these cuts in the face of sector wide opposition will lead to a demotivated and unhappy workforce and consequent recruitment and retention problems as staff vote with their feet and move elsewhere’. Accordingly, in ‘full solidarity’ with UCU, NUS has asked its members to:

  • continue to call for the university employers to recognise the seriousness of the situation and agree to meaningful negotiations either directly with the union or via ACAS
  • write to their institution head to complain about the impact the strike will have on their learning
  • participate in local demonstrative solidarity action during the strikes in support of UCU members.

Whilst we in NCAFC welcome staff-student solidarity action around the strike, the overall response from NUS has been thoroughly unimpressive. First, although the UCU industrial action ballot results came out on 22 January, we did not hear any official statement of support from NUS until 30 January. For the union tasked with fighting for the collective interests of students in this country to take over a week to give public backing to a vital and visible struggle of workers organised in the national union for academic staff is nothing short of disgraceful.

Second, the actions that NUS has finally requested from its members range from tepid at best to misguided at worst. Especially objectionable is the call for students to ‘write to their institution head to complain about the impact the strike will have on their learning’. This risks shifting blame onto the education workers standing up for their rights. Make no mistake: complaining to management about the disruptions caused by a strike is tantamount to complaining about the strikers themselves, and management will capitalise on this. Moreover, even if one were to frame such complaints in a manner that more squarely blames the employers’ consortium for imposing the pensions cuts, focussing on the strike’s impact on students obscures how the most hazardous financial costs are those borne by the workers themselves because they are not receiving wages on their strike days. This is especially true of staff on hourly-paid or similarly insecure contracts of employment.

Whilst all this would be cause for disapproval in isolation, it becomes utterly damning in light of the policy passed on 6 December by NUS’ own National Executive Council (NEC) when the UCU industrial action ballot was ongoing. Amongst other things, NUS NEC resolved to ‘produce materials including posters and leaflets that SUs can use to help explain to students what is happening and why our staff need support’. No such concrete support from NUS is anywhere in sight. Furthermore, in the space of time between the passing of that policy and the release of the ballot result, Shakira Martin never publicly wrote to UCU pledging support for their campaign or to the employers’ consortium urging them to reverse the attacks on staff pensions, despite these being clear NUS NEC commitments.

This brings me to the overarching problem with NUS’ lacklustre showing. The pensions cuts at the heart of UCU’s dispute are only one aspect of the bigger picture: marketization. In other words, the hardships facing academic staff, such as the casualisation of employment and the attacks on pensions, and the hardships facing students, such as tuition fees and extortionate rents, all stem from the systematic effort to transform education into a commodity and the education sector into a free market. What should be at the forefront of staff-student solidarity actions around the strike is the message that this fight is every bit as much the students’ as it is the staff’s.

This is why, in addition to avoiding classes on strike days, I urge all those students who rightly refuse to see education as something to be bought and sold to do as follows.

  • Join UCU strikers on picket lines.
  • Find ways to provide financial support for strikers. This could be through UCU’s general ‘fighting fund’ or, better yet, a student-supported strike fund for your local branch.
  • Explain to your fellow students why, no matter the short-term pains of the strike disruptions, the long-term devastation to our conditions of learning, teaching, and research is too great for us to focus on how the strike might inconvenience us as individuals now.
  • Link the defence of staff pensions to other collective actions against the marketization of education at both the national and the local level, such as the NSS Boycott and campaigns against course closures.
  • Pass motions in your Students’ Unions (like our model motion here) in support of UCU’s action.
  • Lobby your Vice-Chancellor to come out against the pensions cuts and to use their voice in the employers’ consortium to press for conceding to UCU’s demands.
  • Use your student and local media to keep solidarity with staff visible.
  • Organise sit-ins, rallies, and other highly noticeable demonstrations of support for the strike.

Students and workers have begun to unite and fight against the pensions cuts, but we can and should go much further than NUS has gone so far. We are not only battling for education workers to enjoy some security in their retirement: we are battling for the future of education itself.

Solidarity with striking staff: Acting like consumers is not what’s needed!

Tyrone Falls, NCAFC South-West Rep, offers a response to proposals that students should demand fee refunds for days and lectures disrupted by strikes. For a contrasting view, see this article by NCAFC International Students’ Rep Bobby Sun. Want to write an opinion article for our blog? Email [email protected]!

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At KCL a campaign has recently been launched by students to demand a refund for days and lectures lost due to strike action by UCU. The slogan for the campaign reads: “Our conscience should be free, refund our fees”. Whilst it’s understandable that students are annoyed that their lectures and seminars will be cancelled, presenting it as an either-or situation – either we have to strike-break because we are not getting a refund or we stand on the picket line because we are going to get a refund – creates a false dichotomy. Ultimately, staff are on strike because their pensions are under threat. Moreover, if these reforms go through they pave the way for further cuts and restructuring of universities. Therefore, the strike is to stop conditions worsening in education. This ought to be cause enough to support it.

However, there are further reasons why this campaign is the wrong approach. Firstly, it accepts the logic that students are consumers; secondly, the way it’s formulated now, it doesn’t strengthen solidarity, but instead says we might show solidarity if we get a refund; and thirdly, it misses the point that the people most immediately affected by the strike are lecturers, particularly those on more precarious and lower-paid contracts.

Solidarity with workers based on defending education not consumerism

A major issue with this campaign is that it embraces the logic that students are consumers and that education is a commodity. Rather than calling out this view of education – that you can attach a price-tag to the education you receive – as a myth, the campaign accepts it. Of course, you might reply, ‘Yeah, I’m against this logic too but the fact is that’s the system we have and we have to work with it’. You can still reject this logic and look to how we can best support the strike. How can we best make links with other workers that will set up structures to fight for a free and democratic education? Unfortunately, behaving like consumers who are paying for a service does nothing to question this model’s underlying logic, and so does nothing for people to become conscious and persuaded that education based on fees and consumerism can never be fair.

Lecturers are fighting cuts to education – this is why we should show solidarity

Again, I can see why students are annoyed that they are missing lectures. However, it is unfortunately normal that strikes negatively affect people other than management. However, if you understand why it is that lecturers are going on strike and agree with them, then you should be supporting the strike anyway. For any support of the strike to be real and genuine, it has to come from people appreciating why it is that workers have been forced to take this action. This is how we should be talking to students and others about the strike. If an en-masse refund campaign were done together with strikers purely for the tactical purpose of causing administrative disruption, then it would be different. However, as currently formulated, the campaign basically says that you can be unsupportive of workers who are taking action, losing pay, and trying to stop further cuts to education, if you don’t get a refund.

Those most affected by the strike are the lecturers

The third issue with the Refund Our Fees campaign is its focus. Yes, people are missing lectures and (based on a marketised view of education) they are losing money. However, those who are most affected by the strike are the lecturers, particularly lecturers on precarious and low-pay contracts. These workers will be losing out on big chunks of pay to defend their pensions. As people who are sympathetic to the lecturers’ actions, our focus should be first and foremost on how can we support striking staff to get over this difficult period and win. We should be asking: “How can we best build the morale of strikers, or help with strike funds, or get other students to understand what is at stake and genuinely support the strike?”

Victory to the UCU strike!

Open Letter from Sussex Labour Club – Support the UCU strike!

UCU strike

University of Sussex Labour Society have released this open letter calling for students to support the UCU strike!

Sign up to it here: goo.gl/M4dnba [Read more…]

Support education workers on strike for #FairPayInHE

fair payThis week, the UCU trade union (representing academic and related workers, including many students who teach as postgrads) announced the opening of industrial action in their campaign for fairer pay in higher education. They will be on strike in universities 25-26 May, and at the same time beginning to work to contract, which means they will refuse to work overtime, set additional work or undertake any voluntary duties like covering timetabled classes for absent colleagues. If the situation does not improve, they are planning further strikes and a marking boycott.

They are fighting to reverse pay cuts that have seen their real-terms income slashed by 14.5% since 2009, to close the gender pay gap that sees women systematically paid less, and to push back against the casualization of work in higher education and ensure that casualised staff – like hourly-paid postgrad teaching assistants – are paid equally and in full for their work.

We totally support these demands, and extend our solidarity to staff as they take industrial action to win them. Not only do they deserve better, the unjust treatment of education workers affects students too and damages education. We know that short-term disruption to education as a result of industrial action is worth it to prevent the long-term damage threatened and to push back against the injustices staff face – and we note that the action can be called off as soon as our university managers agree to the demands.

In particular, we would like to extend our support to those workers campaigning to push the often-under-prioritised issues of the gender pay gap and casualisation into the foreground of the dispute, such as the activists of Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (many of whom are students themselves, working as postgraduate teachers).

What can I do?

NCAFC will be organising to support the campaign – keep your eyes peeled for further info. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Sign the petition and share it. This is a simple way to add to the pressure on university managers and show them that students support our staff and we won’t be divided. Sharing the petition is also an easy way to spread awareness of the campaign. You can find the petition here.
  • Reach out to your university’s UCU branch. Let them know you support them, and ask them what you can do together to build the campaign. Maybe you could co-organise a protest or a rally on campus?
  • Build the trade union. If you are a postgrad teacher, join UCU and join the industrial action (and if you’re a postgrad but not teaching right now, you can get involved in the union as a student member for free). And support recruitment drives to get postgrads into the union.
  • Get your student union to support the campaign. Find out what your student union is saying and doing about the campaign. If they’re not already supporting fair pay and the industrial action, call on your SU officers to show solidarity, and if you can, propose a motion for a vote at an SU meeting.
  • Get creative. Think about stunts and direct action to increase the pressure! And ways you can reach other students with information and convince them to back the campaign, from posters all over campus, to social media, to reaching out to clubs and societies.
  • Join the picket lines. On strike days, trade unionists will set up picket lines at entrances to your university – don’t cross these lines, but instead offer them support and help out.

Are students really workers?

Drawing of a person holding a placard reading "strike"
This article is an opinion piece written by NCAFC member Ben Towse. Do you want to respond, or write about another topic for anticuts.com? Please get in touch via [email protected]!

It’s become increasingly common on the student left and within NCAFC to say that students are workers. It’s not a new idea but it certainly seems to be back on the rise. At our conference it was one argument given for the proposal that NCAFC should affiliate to a syndicalist workers’ union like the IWW (which was voted down with a general consensus in favour of further discussion), and it is argued by some that a student strike should be understood to have inherent power as a withdrawal of labour, exercising leverage in the same way as a strike by employees in a workplace.

I want to explain why I am sceptical about this idea. “Students are workers” is an attractive slogan, and students do indeed share certain things in common with workers. But I don’t think that being a students are simply a type of worker, or that being a student is the same as being a worker. This isn’t just a semantic dispute about defining the word “worker”. (For the purposes of this article, by “workers” and the “working class” I mean the vast majority of society, who don’t own businesses but have to rely either on selling our labour for a wage or salary, or on benefits.) Whether we think that students are workers informs our understanding of the situation in education, and how we can take action. So the wrong answer to this question can lead to drawing the wrong conclusions about the student movement and our tactics and strategies.

These are initial thoughts, however, and I’d welcome responses to this piece – let’s carry on discussing.

Students are (future) workers

I’ll start with the positive – what do students hold in common with workers?

First, it’s definitely true that the student movement ought to see itself as aligned to the workers’ movement. Most of us will be seeking employment on leaving education rather than being employers ourselves – not to mention how many of us work during our studies. So it is in our interest that workers win struggles for decent jobs and better pay and conditions.

Likewise, the struggle over the nature and purpose of education is part of the divide between the interests of workers and employers, with employers and the government that serves them seeking to make sure education is dedicated to serving them: training us to be more productive employees for them. They want an education system focussed on testing and sorting humans into different sets, and prepping each to serve employers in an appropriate type of work. On the other hand, our interests and those of the working class lie in fighting for an education system that is genuinely free and open to all. The kind of education system that would serve our interests should foster the free enquiry and development that can help every individual reach their fullest potential and can help us collectively with the understanding and intellectual tools to fight for, and participate fully in, a genuinely liberated, equal and democratic society. (As far as I’m concerned, that means a socialist society!)

Another reason that the student movement, like any progressive cause, needs to be aligned to the workers’ movement is that within capitalism, the working class is uniquely placed to force change – at the base of capitalism, it is the working class on whose labour the ruling class relies to make things, keep everything running and (crucially!) to create their wealth. This gives the working class unique leverage to force political and economic change, if it is organised democratically to exercise that leverage. Not only should the student movement support the workers’ movement: students need workers’ active support too, if we’re going to win our biggest goals.

Collectivism and unions

Second, students are like workers in the sense that we need collectivism to defend our interests. An individualist perspective poses students as passive consumers of education, whose power is limited to our purchasing power in the education market, and atomises us: isolated individuals investing in a boost to our employability, in order to compete with each other in the job market. This is the same kind of perspective that reduces student unions to little more than social clubs and commercial services.

The left in the student movement fights for a collectivist approach – the idea that we can wield greater power to defend and advance our interests through collective action. Thus the student movement should be informed by the same lessons and principles as the workers’ movement. That means building and participating in mass student unions – unions that seek to organise all students together on the basis of our shared material interests, through a bottom-up democracy, and that fight for those interests using the strength of all their members in collective actions.

Working, striking and leverage

However, despite these commonalities between students and workers, when we get to the base point of the slogan that “students are workers”, I think the argument falls down. This is the idea that being a student is like being a worker, and the work that students do in studying can usefully be considered as similar to the work done by employees in a workplace. This idea is often used to argue that we can therefore exercise leverage in the same way as waged workers when we withdraw our labour.

The clout that workers can wield by withdrawing labour – a strike – relies on two crucial facts. First, each hour and each task of that work contributes in a necessary way to keeping the enterprise going and making the employer money. If you stop working, or refuse particular duties, that has an impact on your employer’s profits, or it stops or degrades a service they provide. Second, the employer needs that work more than you do. The employer has a direct interest in ensuring the services you provide, or the products you make, continue – but you mostly just need your wages. For as long as you can get by otherwise – for instance on strike pay from your union and from supporters – you have the upper hand over your employer, because they need to end the strike more urgently than you do. You can use that upper hand to force concessions.

There are many other areas of work that are necessary to capitalism and to improving employers’ profits in a general, less direct sense. The work that students do as students is one of those. With an education system set up – as the minister for Universities Jo Johnson puts it – as a “pipeline” supplying graduates to employers, disruption of that pipeline is bad for business.

However, it does not straightforwardly follow that withdrawal of all the different types of work capitalism relies on can be wielded in the same way as a workplace strike.

In the case of a student strike, the work we do is much more indirectly linked to employers’ business. A student strike can indeed apply pressure to the employers’ class collectively if it threatens the timely graduation of an entire cohort of prospective employees, forcing the employers who need those workers to press the government for a resolution (this was a factor in the gains made by the 2012 Quebec student strike, which lasted months and involved a substantial proportion of the total student population). However, this power doesn’t scale straightforwardly to more limited strikes. The specific pieces of work we carry out in shorter timescales – essays, lab projects, homeworks etc. – don’t have the same importance to capitalism. We can’t halt the gears of capitalism just by refusing to show up for a day, or a few days, in the same way that workers can.

There are some particular types of student that are exceptions to this. Some of us actually are workers during our studies. For instance, the NHS relies on the unpaid labour of student nurses, and universities’ research output relies on the research labour of PhD students. We should be thinking about how to organise in those circumstances – for instance, organising student nurses with their colleagues in health worker unions and potentially demanding wages, and by considering whether researchers working towards their PhD should be considered students at all, rather than research workers on the first rung of the career ladder. But the bulk of taught students’ work is not like these cases, at least not to anything like the same degree.

This is not to say that student walkouts and strikes can’t wield power – they can. But in order to employ these tactics right, we need to understand exactly how.

First, there is a strong element of demonstrative, protest-like effect. A walkout or strike is a big, public, attention-grabbing political statement – like a march or a stunt. It can impact political debate, put an issue on the table, and influence the ideas of the wider population. It is popular in some parts of the left to dismiss demonstrative action as completely ineffectual, and it’s true that it doesn’t wield the same power as the direct economic leverage of a strike and sometimes it’s not enough. However, even in a limited democracy like the one we live in, government and institutions have to be at least somewhat responsive to public opinion and to spectacular demonstrations of that opinion.

Second, it matters what students do while on strike. Not writing one essay or coming to a particular class might not be a spanner in the gears of capitalism, but massive, disruptive protests that bring a city to a halt, blockade businesses or occupy key sites can be. Which is why everyone in NCAFC agrees we would need to argue for active, not passive participation in any student strike – strikers shouldn’t simply stay in bed but take to the streets.

Third, the relation of the impact of a student strike to its duration must work differently to that for a workplace strike. Of course, in both cases, a longer strike is more powerful. But while in a workplace every hour or task refused imposes a cost on the employer, for a student strike, what starts out as more demonstrative in nature only more slowly begins to threaten the material interests of employers, as the risk increases that the supply of an entire cohort of prospective workers will be impacted.

This is all a bit of a simplification, of course – a whole field of books and theses could be produced analysing the impacts and powers of different types of strike. But I think it’s essential to understand these themes and features of a student strike: both in order to wield the tactic as effectively as possible so we can win our battles, and so that when we do decide to try and persuade people to participate in one, we can do so more successfully and honestly.

Conclusions

So students do share plenty in common with workers. We have shared goals and interests. The same principles of mass, collective, democratic organising and action apply to both our movements. And it’s essential for us to recognise that an organised working class represents the most powerful force in society for effecting progressive change, and so orient ourselves towards the labour movement. But it is wrong to say that to be a student is actually to be a type of worker, or that students’ work plays a role within the functioning of capitalism that is comparable to the labour carried out by employees in any workplace. More importantly, by misunderstanding our situation, that idea risks leading to tactical and strategic mistakes for the student movement.

Stop the pensions raid: support our staff

Save our Pensions!

On 1 October, UCU members (academic and related staff) in the pre-1992 universities began voting in an industrial action ballot. They are considering action to defend their pensions from a vicious raid being attempted by their employers. As students, we wholeheartedly support our staff in this battle. At the end of this article, you will find tips and tools about what you can do on your campus to help the fight.

The USS pension scheme has already been attacked once in recent years. In 2011, changes were pushed through which split the scheme, forcing worse pension conditions onto new entrants to the career track, and onto existing staff who take career breaks (disproportionately affecting women who are more likely to pause their careers for childcare). At the time, activists said it was just a matter of time before they came for the more senior scheme members’ pensions too.

Sadly, inevitably, we were right. That is now happening. But it’s not just the earlier generations of staff being hit, but everyone – newer staff will have their already-poor conditions further degraded along with their more senior colleagues.

The employers have cooked up an exaggerated “crisis” in the USS pension scheme in order to justify this attack. Though there is much more money going into the scheme than coming out, they have used a malicious, politically-motivated analysis method to claim there is a major deficit. They do this by using what Leeds UCU’s President has called a “zombie apocalypse” scenario – imagining that all pre-1992 universities were going to shut, simultaneously, tomorrow, leaving the scheme to pay out all their former staff’s future pensions with no income. Only with this absurd assumption can their analysis create the scale of deficit they allege needs to be resolved.

And how do they want to resolve this absurdly-constructed deficit? By reining in spending on marketing gimmicks and senior managers’ salaries? No. As ever, they want workers to take the brunt, by paying in more now and getting much less out when they retire. Employer contributions, though slightly increased in some parts of the scheme, are to be significantly lower in others. The returns in retirement will not even be guaranteed – financial insecurity will follow workers to the grave. Some staff will have as much as 27% of their pension stolen by these means.

The result will be a pension scheme much less favourable than TPS, the one for their counterparts in post-1992 universities. If the USS changes go through, it could set a precedent encouraging the post-1992 universities to launch similar attacks.

What’s more, the proposed changes also de-collectivise the scheme, reducing the amount that gains and risks are spread between staff. Individualising staff members’ pensions is a key step toward making it cheaper and administratively easier to outsource them. So the changes are potentially paving the ground for further privatisation of our universities. Even before that, by stretching, stressing and demoralising our educators, and even pushing them to leave for greener pastures, the changes will damage the quality of our education.

Attempts to negotiate have been unsuccessful, so workers are voting on whether to authorise strikes and actions short of strike, including boycotts of assessment marking and of employee appraisal processes, which are likely to begin soon after the ballot ends on 20 October – unless the employers relent. If it comes to this, the disruption will be entirely the responsibility of the employers. That is unfortunate for us as students, but by supporting and maximising the strength of the campaign, we stand the best chance of a swift victory and a positive resolution for both students and workers in the longer-term.

This is the latest in a string of attacks on the earnings and working conditions of our educators. We must join this fight, to defend education, to defend our staff, and to stand for the right to a decent pension and a decent retirement – not just for university workers, not just for public sector workers, but for all workers, present and future, including ourselves.

What can you do?

The industrial action ballot will close on 20 October, and action could begin very soon after if the vote is “yes”. So if you’re in a pre-1992 university, start preparing now and be ready for 21 October! Here are some ideas:

  • Make contact with your local UCU branch and activists in it, if you haven’t already.
  • Propose the model motion below to your student union’s general meeting, council or executive, and try to spark debate about the issues.
  • Produce material (online, plus leaflets and posters) that let students know what’s happening and why they should support their staff.
  • Student unions and campus activist groups should contact their local UCU branches to discuss supportive action.
  • Write an open letter or a petition to your Vice-Chancellor, demanding that they intervene in the employers’ forum to halt the attack on pensions and so prevent the industrial action affecting students.
  • Consider protests, stunts and direct actions in your university. Why not approach UCU officers and activists about planning a joint demonstration or stunt on campus to launch the campaign very soon after the ballot? Pending the result, of course!
  • If there are strikes, join the picket lines and help workers to shut down your university.
  • Emphasise mutual solidarity in the campaign: this year, students will be fighting against tuition fees and staff will be fighting for their pensions. We stand a better chance of winning both battles as a joint force, supporting one another.

Model motion: “Support our staff – stop the pensions raid”

This union notes:

  1. Academics and related staff at this and other pre-1992 universities currently face a raid on their pensions in the USS scheme.
  2. University managers claim there is a black hole in the scheme – however, their estimate is based on the ridiculous assumption that every university in the country will close at the same time, and the pensions scheme would have to pay out. In fact there is much more money going into the scheme than coming out.
  3. Pension schemes are generally paid into jointly by the employee and the employer.
  4. To address this alleged black hole, university managers are demanding that staff contributions are increased and payouts are decreased.
  5. Some staff will have up to 27% of their pension stolen if the changes go through.
  6. Staff have tried to negotiate through their union, the UCU, but their employers’ refusal to listen has forced them to ballot on whether to take industrial action. If they are forced to act to defend themselves, they will boycott marking and boycott appraisal processes and they could strike.

This union believes:

  1. When there is so much wealth in our universities and in our societies, it is wrong that people’s right to a decent retirement is undermined in this way.
  2. When the people who make our education possible are over-stretched and under-paid, or pushed to leave for better opportunities elsewhere, the quality of our education suffers.
  3. Education workers lose pay when they take industrial action, and they do it as a last resort. Senior managers are to blame for leaving them with no choice. The short-term disruption is more than worth the long-term benefits to education, so we should support them.
  4. Students and campus workers are strongest together. The UCU trade union has supported our campaigns against fees, we should back them on this.
  5. The stronger the support for our staff, the more likely we are to see a fast, positive resolution to disruption.

This union resolves:

  1. To write a letter from the sabbatical officers to the Vice-Chancellor, demanding that they intervene in the employers’ forum to halt the attack on pensions and so prevent the industrial action affecting students.
  2. To support our staff if they are forced to take industrial action.
  3. To inform students about the reasons for the dispute and why it is in our interests to support staff.
  4. To organise and to support student petitioning, protest and direct action in support of our staff’s right to a decent pension.