Strike action continues at sixty-four universities next week, with the first full week of action over the scrapping of guaranteed pensions. The strength of the strikes has already forced the employers to ACAS, where talks will continue on Monday.
UCU has rightly refused to call off strike action while the talks continue, and has authorised a further fourteen days of action to hit exams and assessment after Easter if the dispute is not settled.
Thousands of staff have joined UCU over the course of the dispute with every sign that feelings on the picket lines are hardening. Targeted campaigns have forced a number of hard-line Vice-Chancellors to back down on punitive pay deductions for action short of strikes, and to promise that strike deductions will be spread over several months. It is clear that the employers are on the back foot.
The strikes have been highly revealing of university management’s real attitude towards workers. The Vice-Chancellor of St Andrew’s University sent round an email saying that paying higher pensions would put equality and diversity initiatives under threat. After a social media storm she issued an apology. At Oxford University management used a procedural motion to prevent academics voting on a pensions motion, only for staff to walk out of the meeting and hold the vote outside the building. The VC later accepted the result of the unofficial vote. Sheffield, Keele, Sussex, Southampton and Glasgow have all retreated under public pressure.
Many staff are now saying they no longer feel any goodwill towards their institutions and will not be working unpaid overtime in future. A 2016 report by UCU found that academic staff worked an average of 50.9 hours a week (contracts typically give a guideline of 35 to 37.5). Two-thirds of staff reported unmanageable workloads at least half the time and 28.8% said workloads were unmanageable all or most of the time. If the strike makes staff more confident about refusing work that would take them over their basic hours that will be a very good thing.
Casualisation has also been a theme of discussion during the strike. Many strikers have no idea whether they will be able to stay in university jobs long enough for pensions to be relevant but have joined the picket lines in solidarity and because they know the outcome of this strike matters for working conditions across HE. At the University of Kent management have agreed not to deduct any pay from striking Graduate Teaching Assistants. As part of its settlement UCU should insist that the same applies for casualised staff across the sector.