The Politics of the UCU Strikes

Fatima Irfan analyses the progress and politics of the strike action in UK universities.

It was confirmed on 24th January 2023 that strike action will hit 150 UK universities spanning over 18 days unless the fight for fair pay, affordable pensions and increased working conditions are not heard. More than 70,000 staff at 150 UK Universities will be striking including the University of Oxford, King’s College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science. However, on 18th February, UCU issued a joint statement to confirm that seven days of strikes have been suspended due to a breakthrough in pay negotiations. Meanwhile, campus strikes scheduled for March could still go ahead in lieu of future discussions. 

The university sector is one of many industries where workers are walking out to demand fair pay to match the current inflation prices (now at 9.2%, 7% more than the Bank of England’s target). 

The strikes have been a deeply contested debate within universities, with each stakeholder having an opinion on this matter. It has faced mass disagreement within the Conservative party, with Sunak seeking to have “grown up, honest conversation with union leaders about what is responsible, reasonable and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay” (Reuters). This was after Parliament had announced new anti-strike laws across key industries which would involve firing employees who walk out and sue unions for participating in industrial action. 

The new bill is currently in the committee stage in the House of Lords. Titled the Minimum Service Bill, it would set regulations regarding a minimum service level that strikers would have to provide during any strike action across six industries where most are currently striking such as healthcare and education services. One of the many controversial elements include the ability to remove automatic  protection under any unfair dismissal regarding employees who wish to strike. This has invoked great anger and discourse within the union movement. Sharon Graham, the general secretary of the Unite union, has said in response, “whatever the latest scheme the government comes up with to attack us, unions will continue to defend workers”. 

In the current culture of striking, Keir Starmer has rebutted this decision and claimed that he will repeal the anti-trade union legislation if Labour were in power. This is consistent with Labour’s values, having been affiliated with trade unions since being created by them in 1900. Starmer has also commented on the validity of the bill, “ I don’t think this legislation is going to work. I’m pretty sure they’d had an assessment that tells them that it is likely to make a bad situation worse”. The government’s own advice on the bill warns ministers that it could lead to frequent absenteeism and refusal of overtime, which could lead to further detrimental problems in the future. 

Labour have made it clear that the strikes taking place would not manifest if we had a Labour government. Starmer has said that he has a “fully costed plan” to solve the NHS crisis, which would put an end to current and future strikes. This plan would involve the biggest training programme in the history of the NHS, ending the staff shortages happening now, whilst also reforming the care system to end the overcrowding in hospitals. Further details have not been provided in response to these claims but most of the party seem to be in agreement with Starmer’s  ideas. The UCU strikes that took place a few months ago in November received comments from Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, “It’s time for the employers to put their students first and avoid any further disruption by bringing a reasonable offer back to the negotiating table”. The same belief is being held in the party, with Labour MPs’ across the country joining the picket lines including Zarah Sultana, who joined University of Warwick’s employees and students fighting for “fair pay, decent pensions and an end to casualisation”. 

The UCU has claimed that the “clock is ticking” for university bosses to avoid widespread disruption this year. Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary has said that “university staff dedicate their lives to education and they want to go back to work only if university vice-chancellors use their vast wealth to address over a decade of falling pay and devastating pension cuts. The choice is theirs”.

Now, the UCU announced they have called off a week of strike action in response to an offer including changes to the pension scheme and a pay increase for staff. This was a relief to many universities across the country, which have been attempting to reconcile the effects of cancelled lectures, disrupted schedules and angry students. The calling off of the strikes allowed normal operations to resume, with a pause to the tense and divisive atmosphere that was looming on many university campuses. However, the question still remains as to the future of the strikes and the future implications on students, university staff and many university institutions. The agreement reached between university unions and university officials has overall been supported by Labour, with plans to welcome the resolution of the dispute whilst also urging further action to address the issues that staff are currently facing. 

The strikes are a last resort by many industries,  with workers having tolerated pay cuts and dire working conditions for many years. Now, after a turbulent winter, it was only a matter of time until the cracks within the system began to crumble. Now the Conservative government must be held accountable for their mistakes whilst being able to provide tangible solutions that are in favour of everyone. 

Fatima Irfan is a Labour and Young Fabian member in the Greater London area. She is currently completing her undergraduate degree in Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

She is highly interested in trade unionism, institutional reform and women’s rights and social justice.

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