Life and Times – Still on strike
In May of last year this column dealt with the industrial action that was taking place by staff in universities against their employers. It talked about how lecturers, researchers and administrators in the union I’m a member of (University and College Union) were going on strike on certain stipulated days, not doing any ‘extra’ work outside the strike periods (action short of a strike) and standing on picket lines, holding banners and giving out leaflets. It also said that the strikes were mainly about changes to pensions and real term losses in pay. I can report now that, some 18 months later and somewhat away from the public gaze, the dispute is still going on. And I can also report that, as is often the case with protracted industrial action, it has not been – and is unlikely to be – successful.
What a mess
How can we sum up? Firstly, despite the strike action, the cuts of up to 35 percent in pensions were formalised last year causing enormous anger and frustration. But then ‘market forces’ came to the rescue, when there was a sharp rise in the valuation of the pension fund meaning that the previously proclaimed deficit in the fund became a surplus, leaving no reason for the cuts not to be effectively reversed. This was a relief to most of us, even if union members were still out of pocket from the withholding of pay by employers for strike days. Secondly, despite more or less restored pensions, industrial action has continued on pay, since the union’s demand has remained unmet. This has meant further strikes and a new tactic, a marking and assessment boycott (MAB), which the union initially described as ‘nuclear’, since it threatened to put degree graduation in jeopardy and to lay universities open to legal action by students.
But the MAB tactic has not worked well. Relatively few staff have participated in it and the universities have found ways round, for example by awarding degrees based on exams and assessments previously marked. So the employers have remained firm, refusing to negotiate, which has effectively brought the union to its knees, with a member consultation now showing a clear majority against further MAB action. Then, when the union gave branches the option to call off a further strike period set for the first week of the academic year, the vast majority did just that. And this despite the fact that the lecturers who had participated in the MAB were not only having at least half their salary deducted but were now also at the mercy of their employers’ demand to them to carry out in their own time the missed marking and assessment. A double-whammy if ever there was one. What a mess.
Manoeuvres and delusions
How has this debacle come about in a well-subscribed union with highly intelligent and educated members who one might imagine would be more able than most to assess the likely consequences – positive or negative – of action they decided to take? As pointed out in the previous article, the purpose of industrial action is to force the employer into concessions. Once you think you have done that as much as is feasible then you ask the members to decide if it’s enough and they then decide whether to continue or not. But what has happened here is something quite different. When it became clear, as it did at a relatively early stage, that the employers felt no need to offer concessions and so held the upper hand, the members should have been balloted in properly democratic fashion with a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question about carrying on.
But this did not happen. What happened instead was that politically motivated activists from the Trotskyists who have manoeuvred themselves into positions on the union’s national executive were able to manipulate the union’s decision-making processes and achieve results bearing little relation to the views or position of the majority of the membership. Their main concern was arguably not so much to achieve any immediate benefit for the union’s members but to create a situation in which the dispute would continue as long as possible regardless of the outcome. This in line with their deluded view that industrial action serves as some kind of consciousness-raising operation for workers, a rehearsal for bigger struggles to come when the vanguard these groups see themselves as will lead the workers to victory on the political stage.
In last year’s article, I wrote that, despite the manipulations which were already taking place then, I had sufficient hope that this particular action was happening for the right reasons, had the backing of the majority of members and would not end up being damaging to members’ interests. Unfortunately, as we have seen, things have not worked out like that and the union will now have to try and put the damage behind it and go back to fulfilling their correct role within the system of wage and salary work and buying and selling (capitalism) in which we’re all stuck at the moment. That role is to defend their members’ interests against the interest of their employers, something that will carry on as the majority class in society (workers) continue to see no alternative but to spend their lives selling their energies to the minority class (capitalists or their agents) for a wage or salary. This despite the fact that there is sufficient potential abundance for the money and wages system to be abolished on a global scale so that the whole of humanity can live fulfilling lives at all levels in a world of cooperative endeavour, voluntary work and free access for all to all goods and services.