The pay dispute in higher education is at a critical stage and a decision needs to be made about the way ahead. The second national strike day involving staff in UCU, Unison, Unite, and the EIS in Scotland, was on 3 December. In individual institutions it was as strong, or even stronger, than the first strike day at the end of October. However, regional rallies were not as strongly supported. Arguments have been won, staff and public know that the sector as a whole now has strong surpluses and that this has been achieved through punishing fees for students and a squeeze on staff pay.
The other significant achievement of the dispute has been the close working between the NUS and the staff unions – in many institutions, where previously there was a lack of student support, this dispute has seen staff and students on the picket line together. But there is little public understanding that higher education is one of the major areas of zero hours contracts and casualisation. The number of casual staff is a significant area of weakness for workers engaged in struggle as it impacts on organisation and cohesion.
In some institutions local unity and strength has led to management making small concessions such as offering every member of staff a one-off £500 bonus. These have been paid in December salaries to coincide with the national imposition of the 1 per cent pay offer (in real terms, a pay cut). The bonus will not be consolidated into salary or pensionable, but it is a victory nevertheless.
In imposing the 1 per cent, management has made great play of the fact that less than 10 per cent of those working in the sector voted for industrial action and the reality is that the trade unions have not been able to counter this as the initial turnout was low.
The density of union membership now varies across institutions, reflecting three factors. In university administration, union density is closely linked to the amount of work now delivered by external contractors. For academic staff, the level of casualisation and the state of branch organisation are critical.
As with other disputes in the education sector recently, one of the strange aspects is that more people have participated in the action than bothered to vote in the ballot. But the initial weakness of union members not bothering to vote in the ballot for action cannot be ignored. The appetite for struggle cannot be imposed by anyone – it has to be genuinely felt.
In March 2014 all unions will need to submit their pay claim for the academic year 2014/15. It is obvious that the employers are looking forensically at union density and turnout, and where both factors are strong there is evidence of local concessions. There will be elements in the union who will greet the New Year with wild calls for escalation and hopeful calls for the participation of members who have not even taken part in the action to date.
That will not happen. Maybe it is time for the unions to learn the lessons from those areas where local concessions have been achieved, “bank” those small victories and gather their forces for a future fight. ■