What’s at stake in the Halloween strike

Andy Cunningham works at Manchester Met university. He explains why he’s on strike today – and why higher education workers need to escalate their action

University campuses across the country will be on strike against austerity today as UCU, Unison and Unite members covering all grades and all staff groups walk out together.

Our dispute centres on pay. We’ve been offered a “rise” of 1% this year – a pay cut in real terms, and the fifth successive year we’ve had a below-inflation offer. This adds up to a 13% wage cut in real terms for higher education workers over the past four years.

So today’s strike is test of strength for both employers and for workers. It will see Unison and Unite members joining the militancy shown by UCU in recent years. And it will help decide the line of march in higher education for at least the next half-decade.

Pay: an issue that unites us

The unions have submitted a joint pay claim calling for RPI inflation plus 2%. This would go a little way towards catching up with the real-terms pay cuts in recent years. The claim also includes a guaranteed Living Wage for all higher education workers and calls for a serious effort to end the gender pay gap.

This pay claim would make an immediate difference to the lives of education workers. Many facilities, technical, admin and associate teaching staff find it difficult to get by on their current monthly wage. Like so many other workers, we often face difficult choices between buying food, paying the rent or heating our homes.

But there’s another point to the pay claim – it is an issue that can unite workers across the sector and across the different unions. We’re all fighting job losses and attacks on terms & conditions, but these are necessarily local battles. Pay, on the other hand, affects all of us. A victory on pay would build our confidence and strengthen resistance over other higher education issues, local or national.

Creeping marketisation in education

Although pay is the issue that lets us all walk out together, it’s not the only reason we’re striking. The creeping “marketisation” of education pushed by university managements has created a number of flashpoints over the last decade.

On the lecturer’s side this has centred around cuts to courses, increased workloads and attacks on academic freedom. There’s a greater reliance on causalisation and much closer management scrutiny of individuals.

For support staff there’s constant restructuring, job cuts, increased workloads and generalised lack of respect from management. The working environment is getting worse and changes are imposed through fear of redundancies or threats of outsourcing.

So the motivations to strike are high among all workers. Today won’t just be about pay – it will be a fight for the future of education. We want to see high quality university teaching, and that can only be delivered by staff who are paid properly and employed securely.

Splits and weaknesses on the management side

There’s a lot riding on this strike. A victory could herald a period of resistance that would allow us roll back some of the worst effects of marketisation. But defeat could signal an end to national bargaining and an all-out assault on jobs and conditions.

So we have to look out for opportunities to win. And ironically, some of those come from the marketisation of the sector. This dynamic turns vice-chancellors into a band of warring brothers. University managers compete with each other – and this creates splits on their side.

Some universities want to settle the pay dispute because they want to get on with poaching staff from rival institutions. A solid strike today could push enough employers over into the “settle now” camp to deliver us a victory in negotiations.

Added into this mix is the growth of a highly paid management layer and a cash surplus in the higher education sector. It’s difficult for university directors to justify wage restraint when senior managers are swimming in cash.

Of course these contradictions won’t mean anything without a solid and sustained campaign to exploit them. But the pressure of a good strike can help deliver just that.

Where next after today’s strike?

This dispute is not going to be won or lost in a single day. We need a sustained campaign. The left has set the pace for the campaign in my union, Unison, but we might well run into a block from the union bureaucracy following today.

UCU has a full timetable laid out for action, but some seem to be pinning their hopes on a drawn-out marking boycott. I don’t think this tactic will work &ndashl; and it’s certainly no substitute for further strikes.

So activists in all unions need to be campaigning for a two-day strike in November. Set up a cross-union, cross-campus activist meeting in your workplace. Bring people together, debate the way forward – and go out and campaign with motions, petitions and open letters.

There’s also going to be a battle over the interpretation of this strike. For many workers it will be their first major dispute for years and some, regretably, will scab today. In coming weeks we have to turn scabs into strikers, strikers into pickets – and pickets into militant union activists.

This is how we can start to rebuild local organisation and confidence among higher education workers. If we play it right we can use today’s national strike to resuscitate local struggles on every campus. And that will give confidence to everyone fighting this government’s austerity agenda.

Andy Cunningham is assistant branch secretary of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Unison branch. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Download the SWP strike leaflet here.

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