The strikes are over, but pressure’s still on

Fourteen days of UCU strike action have now come to an end. Whilst our sights may have shifted towards the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, it is important to recognise the outcomes of national protests.

As many of you will be aware, the UCU opted for strike action in response to falling pay, the gender pay gap, precarious employment practices, and unsafe workloads.

This “Four Fights” agenda appeared to resonate with Higher Education workers up and down the country. 74 institutions voted to take part in the industrial action.

Now that the unprecedented strike action is over, union members still appear to lack a sense of closure to the dispute which they faced before strike action began.

A lot of this uncertainty can be attributed to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With individual institutions introducing new social restrictions and procedures to delay the spread of the coronavirus, unions’ attention has turned to making sure members are working in safe conditions. Some members have also sought reassurance that they will be paid during periods of quarantine and closures.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has shed real light on the professional uncertainty that workers on minimum wages, insecure contracts, and fluctuating pensions face throughout the year.

A banner reads "Student solidarity with the strike"
A student-solidarity banner at Goldsmiths, University of London. Credit: Will Durrant.

Now that strike action is over and universities have shut their doors, unions are now urging employers to work with their staff to make sure that university workers remain safe and well.

This does not mean a full stop to the strikes. The UCU made a statement which said that union members will not rule out further industrial action over the coming months if demands are not met with productive negotiation.

The UCU’s Higher Education Committee chair and vice-chairs wrote, “we may not be able to picket workplaces [during the pandemic], but we can still withdraw our labour.”

We do not know how effective this action will be. With masses of workers unable to go to work due to quarantine and social distancing, the decision to withdraw from virtual workplaces to strike against working conditions could lose its impact.

Perhaps, however, it is in these most testing of times that each worker will be needed more than ever, and the absence of healthy professionals will be felt hardest.

Keep in mind that when the strikes ended, the UCU noted that negotiators had “tabled their proposals” but that they do fall short of their original demands.

The headline now is that unions have temporarily eased the pressure on employers. They have, after all, expressed their wishes to work with institutions to overcome the challenges in Higher Education posed by COVID-19.

Nonetheless, the UCU has made it apparent that they will not abandon their action in the future and that its members will not be coerced into taking on additional duties to minimise the effects of the pandemic.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady told members, “we won’t escalate our disputes during the pandemic – but we won’t abandon them either.”

The UCU is now asking its members to continue their “action short of a strike” in their universities to maintain the pressure on employers to renegotiate pay, pensions, contracts and workloads.

Feature photo: Will Durrant.

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