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The Lecturers’ Strike: More than the employers could chew

Pause in the lecturers’ strike

The March Socialist Standard reported on how the strike by university lecturers over pensions took the employers by surprise.  Of course they were not surprised that a strike should be occurring.  After all the lecturers had voted for it – in large numbers and by a large majority. What surprised them – and caught them out – was how long it lasted and how many of their employees actually struck, despite losing significant amounts of salary.

Anger and disruption

In the past, strikes have been one or two day affairs causing the universities little pain, hardly noticed by the students and, when it came to the strike days themselves, not very well supported by the staff. But this one was very different. The lecturers had been well informed by their union, the University and College Union (UCU) , about the issues, in particular the fact that, if the pensions changes proposed by the employers went through, they would lose a significant proportion of their pensions – in some cases possibly more than 50 percent. This struck a chord of anger and actually led to hundreds of university staff who hitherto hadn’t been union members joining to be able to express that anger by going on strike despite the loss of earnings this would mean. And the lecturers struck in their thousands in adverse weather conditions – rain and snow – and carried out picketing and protest demonstrations.

The university employers didn’t take long to become aware of the potential consequences of what was happening: students asking for their money back for lectures undelivered, serious legal consequences and costs if exams were not set or taken. In fact the whole system potentially falling apart. This is an over-dramatic scenario perhaps – and it’s actually hard to know quite what would have happened – but the view quickly hardened among the employers that it was best not to take any chances. They realised they had bitten off more than they could chew and effectively sued for peace – something unheard of in the history of industrial action in British universities.

Climbdown

The article in our March issue outlined how their first attempt at offering a deal was unceremoniously rejected by the striking lecturers who were already scenting serious worry on the part of the University bosses, i.e. the Vice-Chancellors. They clearly had the right scent, because the employers came back with a far better offer then before which took the main plank of their own platform, the removal of a final salary pensions, completely off the table. They agreed furthermore to an independent examination of the whole basis on which the pension scheme had been valued and declared as showing a large deficit. The union’s argument that the scheme’s valuation methodology had always been faulty and that, if valued correctly, it would be shown to have a surplus not a deficit, had been contemptuously brushed aside before. Now it was, or so it appears, being taken seriously and would be subjected to serious exploration. In the meantime the pension scheme would stay as it is and there was also a commitment ‘to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements' – a massive climbdown by an initially imperious employer.

The Left and the ballot

The term ‘ broadly comparable’ was seized upon by some in the union as being open to interpretation and as suggesting that it could still mean significant detriment to members. This was in particular an argument of the ‘UCU Left’ group who are dominated by the SWP, which habitually seeks to use trade unions as a political weapon to further their aim of involving people ‘in struggle’. They mounted a strong campaign to prevent a ballot of members taking place on the employers’ offer and then, when they were outmanoeuvred on this by the union leadership and a ballot was declared, they set up a deafening cacophony to try to persuade members to vote ‘no’ in the ballot. The ballot of members was, they argued, somehow ‘anti-democratic’. They knew of course that the new offer, if put to a one-person one-vote ballot of members and not to some meeting consisting largely of their own supporters, was highly likely to result in an acceptance of the offer – particularly as it was clear that the employers were not only running scared but would now think twice before ‘re-interpreting’ any commitment given the potential for disruption the lecturers had shown they were capable of. And so it was that, when the outcome of the ballot was announced on 13 April, 64 percent of the lecturers voted in favour of the offer, a majority of almost 2 to 1, and the dispute – at least for the time being – was over and in a way that could hardly have been predicted by anyone when it started just a couple of months before. 

The lessons

What lessons can be drawn from this strike?

Firstly, though, in most strike situations, the employers have the whip hand because they know that workers who depend on their salaries week-to-week, month-to-month will be unlikely to stay out for long, a strike that is well supported and underpinned by a determination on the part of workers not to suffer a significant detriment being proposed can bring the employer to heel and make them realise that what they are proposing isn’t worth the candle. In this, as in any employment dispute – and indeed in efforts to establish the completely different kind of society we advocate – workers’ solidarity is an essential element.

Secondly, and following on from the need for solidarity, large-scale participation by workers is a necessary prerequisite of any successful trade union action. And in this respect it may well be that at least one element of the recent anti-trade union legislation brought in by the present government (minimum 50 percent participation in strike ballots by union members) will have the unforeseen consequences of trade unions pulling out all the stops to make sure more of their members participate in strike ballots and so making strikes more effective when called because they will be well supported. In the case of the lecturers’ strike, so strong was the feeling against what the employers were proposing that, in the space of just a few weeks, several thousand new members joined the union in order to take part in the industrial action.

Thirdly, the efforts of the Left to dominate trade unions and to glorify strikes for their own sake (i.e. as a ‘consciousness raiser’) and not just as a necessary defensive measure by workers are most effectively resisted when there is widespread participation by members in all aspects of union activity including ballots and any action which may arise therefrom. 

HM