Explained: University staff strike over pay and pensions

Over 40,000 staff from 60 UK universities are currently taking part in strike action to protest against pay, working conditions and changes to their pension plan. The strikes began on 25 November and will end on 4 December. Over a million students could be affected by the strike with hundreds of lectures and seminars being cancelled. The action, which was organised by the 120,000-strong University and College Union (UCU), has seen picket lines set up in universities across the country. 79% and 74% of union members voted in favour of strike action over pensions and working conditions respectively. However, not all universities that were balloted decided to join. In London, University College London, Goldsmiths College, Queen Mary University of London and City University are the institutions involved in strike action.

The industrial action is designed to tackle two major disputes: pension changes and unfair working conditions. Many staff are angry at having to make bigger pension contributions. UCU has argued that pension changes, made earlier this year, have meant some staff could be up to £240,000 worse off compared to the terms they originally signed up for. Many staff are also upset at the university undervaluing their work and pressuring them to undertake many additional duties that are not part of their contract.

UCL Official Picket

UCU General Secretary, Jo Grady, outlined the union’s perspective:

“Universities have to recognise the anger and frustration that members feel about the recent changes, how the scheme has been valued and how it has been run… We have been clear from the outset that UCU members are prepared to take serious and sustained action to defend their pay and conditions, as well as their pensions”.

While Grady has accused the university bosses of “complacency” and “playing games”, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association has stated the it disagrees with the UCU’s actions.

A spokesperson for Universities and Colleges Employers Association has said that:

“Such extensive and damaging strike action over its national pay demands”. “Action of this kind will be damaging to students, lose UCU members money and risk undermining the collective bargaining arrangements”.

Many of those participating in the strike have never previously participated in industrial action but felt compelled to due to the university’s actions.

A fundamental issue

A senior member of administrative staff at UCL, who is currently striking, said:

“I’m coming up to 10 years on employment, for me it’s a fundamental issue of trust and backpedaling and that’s what’s encouraged me to take action… I do feel very very strongly and I do feel that it’s not appreciated by the university sector that their single most important asset is their staff. I don’t expect everyone to down tools and support us because they are in an equally difficult position but, for me, it’s a matter of principle”.

Many strikers are also lecturers who are indignant at the way that the university if valuing their labour. An associate professor in development studies at UCL, who did not want to be named, was concerned with the increasing marketization of education and how lecturers were not being adequately compensated for taking on the ever-increasing demands of university leaders:

“[Lecturers are] not paid for time that they spend preparing your lectures, they are not going to be fully and properly paid for the amount of time they put into marking their assignments [or] giving you tutorials. They are underpaid if you consider the amount of hours that they put into your work. My contract says that I work 37.5 hours a week, now if I actually did that… I’d probably stop working on a Wednesday afternoon”.

Further action?

If strikers’ demands are not met, there is a possibility of further action after Christmas as 13 universities, including Imperial College London, are being balloted for strike action in the coming weeks. Some lecturers are also planning on pursuing a ‘working to contract’ approach which would see them eschew much of the work that they usually undertake in a bid to demonstrate just how much labour goes uncompensated.

Most students were generally supportive of the strike and its aims but some were concerned about the cost to them. Alex Fung, a computer science student at UCL, agreed with the lecturers aims but was worried about the cost to international students like him:

“I’m not affected because my lecturers are not striking. I am an international student and I’m paying £30,000 a year and that’s a lot. And if the lecturers strike it is… costing me £4000 or £5000. They have no choice, I wouldn’t say I am supportive but I understand why they are striking”.

The strike continues with additional solidarity and demands coming from the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), representing UCL’s outsourced cleaners, security guards and porters, who are expected to join the strike on 4 December.

Photography Credit: Juno Bhardwaj-Shah

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