Why are strikes necessary and important for staff and students?

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Employers and higher education staff have not reached agreement on pay and conditions, and staff in the UCU at many branches (including Durham) have voted to strike on 1-3 December. This also happened a couple of years ago. So it’s natural to ask: why again? What has striking achieved before? Why are strikes necessary now, and what good do they achieve for staff and students?

Why workers sometimes strike

Before answering the question specifically, we can look at the broader context. Two groups hold influence in organisations: the top-down power of management and the bottom-up power of the people involved in the work. We, the students and staff, are the university, and we exercise our bottom-up power democratically through student unions, college common rooms, and trade unions (UCU, Unite, GMB, and Unison).

Universities are increasingly being run like businesses, which means that senior management try to extract maximum profit from students and staff. If you pay thousands in exchange for understaffed colleges and IT services, teaching assistants who are contracted for very few hours to teach you, casualised lecturers not paid enough to afford housing, and full-time lecturers overworked and struggling to keep up with emails, that’s good from this profit-maximising perspective. But it’s not good from the perspective of us as an academic community of students and staff. You and I know what’s best for our teaching and research. You and I need to use our bottom-up power to get it.

One of the strongest ways people can exercise our bottom-up power is by withholding our contributions. Students organised recently to boycott nightclubs to push them into action on spiking. And staff sometimes need to withdraw labour through strikes or other industrial action. This is always a last resort: nobody wants to strike. It disrupts the work we’re passionate about. Plus, we give up our income while we’re striking. So we only do it when all other attempts at negotiation have failed – when top-down power is refusing to listen to the people it claims to serve. Historically, striking has been a vital part of bringing us most of the democratic and employment rights we enjoy today, from the vote to the weekend.

So that’s the general answer about why we sometimes need to strike and what it’s achieved. But what about specific UCU strikes – what have they achieved in the past and why are they needed again now?

Why are strikes necessary and important in the pensions dispute?

On the pensions dispute, the gist is: university employers are pushing through adjustments to our pension scheme in accordance with a financial health check in March 2020, while the markets were reeling from the early pandemic and lockdowns. This resulted in projections that were proven wrong even before they were published, as the markets had already recovered. If you wanted to justify massive cuts to our pensions, this would be a pretty good way to do it. USS, the company that manages our pensions, have repeatedly applied questionable assumptions, resulting in potentially massive reductions in staff’s income in retirement and increased costs to employees and employers alike. UUK, the university employers’ association, have supported USS in this and dismissed sensible, fully costed alternative proposals by UCU analysts.

In strikes over previous proposed pension cuts in 2018, staff successfully retained guaranteed pensions. These strikes also resulted in an independent expert panel recognising major flaws in how USS undertakes these financial health checks. So if we want to know why we’re facing strikes again, we should ask why employers are lining up with USS to try the same again. Apparently they hoped pandemic exhaustion and ever-increasing staff workloads would make us too tired to resist. And they’re happy to accept further strike disruption to your education for another chance to rip off your teachers and support staff when we retire.

Why are strikes necessary and important in the Four Fights dispute?

On the Four Fights dispute (fair workloads, fair pay for all genders and ethnicities and abilities etc., reversing casualisation, and pay rises keeping up with inflation), previous strikes have also brought victories for us as staff and, therefore, for you as students. A significant pay settlement after 2006 strikes partially mitigated the trend to wage deflation (which means overworked staff, lost talent, and promising early career researchers who can’t afford to keep working in academia). This year, local strikes at Liverpool and Chester have prevented employers cutting teaching staff and module options.

Here at Durham, a victory coming out of the 2019-20 Four Fights/USS strikes was the 2020 joint statement on casualisation, which agreed a set of principles to reduce casualised labour and pay fairly for all the work you need from your staff.

Some departments now provide you with teaching assistant support outside class hours by paying for student contact time or feedback sessions following assessments. Your teaching staff in some departments now have more paid time to prepare quality teaching. Many of your teachers and support staff now have proper employment contracts with fairer wages and more sustainable workloads. Your teaching and support staff are starting to become more reflective of the diverse UK community. All this results from the employer’s partial acceptance of UCU demands that we communicated forcefully in previous strikes.

But none of this has changed enough. You still need more movement on all four of these working conditions issues if you’re going to get the best education possible at Durham. The commitments in the joint statement on casualisation are still not fully practiced across the university. Both support and academic staff remain overworked with teams rarely growing as student numbers do. Pay is falling too low to attract people to many key roles across the university, and a 28.3% gender pay gap is incredibly high even for the higher education sector. That’s why your elected student reps on the SU Assembly, including college reps, voted to support UCU in the current disputes and potential strikes on Thursday. When we’re acting strongly together as an academic community, we can win and achieve our shared goals about what’s good for university education.

Why are employers happy to accept strikes?

Finally, we should remember that strikes are always the result of choices made by both sides of negotiations. We should also ask why employers are so willing to accept disruption to your education and our work. University employers, including Durham, could have avoided strikes by negotiating properly with their staff, instead of effectively requiring major industrial action as a prerequisite for proper talks.