Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 53 Number 19, June 25, 2023 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Lecturers Refuse To Be Intimidated in Marking Boycott

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Higher education staff have been engaged in both strikes and actions short of striking as part of their long-running struggle over pay and conditions, in the general context of safeguarding the future of higher education. They have been taking repeated action since 2018. The University and College Union (UCU) has labelled the strikes a "fight for the future of higher education".

UCU strike at Goldsmiths

The dispute is termed by the union the "Four Fights", as it combines action over: falling pay, particularly in the context of spiralling inflation; the gender, ethnic and disability pay gap; precarious employment practices such as contract casualisation and job insecurity; and rising workloads driving staff to breaking-point.

Simultaneously, these workers have been fighting to defend their defined-benefit pension scheme. They have been taking action against damaging changes that effectively destroyed the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Employers wanted to end guaranteed pension benefits altogether in 2018, which union members blocked, and last year cut pensions by 35%. Out of their sustained actions, higher education workers managed to reverse changes to the accrual rate and salary threshold for defined benefits, which will be returned to pre-cut levels, and the pre-April 2022 inflation protection will remain in place.

Important as this victory is, the Four Fights continue. The UCU recently extended its mandate in that dispute in March, allowing 145 campuses to call strikes for a further six months. The union points out that higher education staff during and after the pandemic generated record income for the universities but have faced pay cuts of 25% since 2009. Meanwhile university vice-chancellors and senior management have been collecting six-figure salaries, say the union. At the same time, some 46% of universities are using zero-hour contracts for teaching and 68% of research staff are on fixed-term contracts.

A key part of the current round of action is a national marking and assessment boycott, which began in April. This is critically important, since the fact that this marking includes determination of final grades means it impacts graduation. Despite claims to the contrary, says the union, the boycott is having a widespread impact, such as the University of Nottingham's default position for students to graduate with "partial degrees".

As UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said in a statement: "This is despite many of you receiving outrageous threats of punitive deductions from employers for daring to make a stand. Many of you have been told you are facing 50% pay deductions, with some employers even going to 100%. These actions are immoral, aimed at intimidating you, and about attempting to break your resolve as quickly as possible." [1] The line taken by employers at Leeds, Kings College London, and elsewhere, is that they do not accept "partial performance", despite these workers are continuing to otherwise teach, lecture, and help students as usual.

This response has been in turn met with further action. On June 15, for example, around 1,800 University of Leeds employees will begin an indefinite strike after management said it would withhold 100% of their wages for participating in the boycott. Nine days of strikes have been initiated by staff at the University of Leicester, and strikes are also being held at Liverpool John Moores University, and the University of Westminster.

The punitive measures are of questionable legality, but the odds are stacked against the workers. As Jo Grady explains in her statement: "One of the issues we have is that we cannot commence action against an employer until after deductions have taken place, and a further outrage of the UK legal system means that any claim we do make will be tied up for years before knowing if we have won. Whilst the potential to take legal action does exist, and we will obviously fight these deductions legally where possible, at this point in time the law does not help you."

This situation exposes the nature of the arrangements, and that workers in organising in self-defence are struggling with how to be effective when they can no longer operate within a functioning civil society. Trade unions themselves formed part of that civil society, but the reality of the present is that there is no longer any social contract between workers and their employers: this social relation has become entirely one-sided. The marking boycott is just such an example: universities are coming down on lecturers hard, to prevent them even from taking that action. The recent success over pensions is not to be repeated. Any further success is to be blocked.

This is the challenge facing the workers' defence organisations: how can they go beyond the limitations of civil society, of a civil society that does not even really exist anymore? How can they have any effective role in the new conditions?

Long gone are the days of social democracy, of beer and sandwiches at No. 10, which were ended by Margaret Thatcher. In the past also is the New Labour vision of "partnership", where unions were to have the aim of getting workers behind employers in the global market, so as to "make Britain great again", and as such were a part of the machinery of the state. Nowadays, those in control are smashing any limitations on their ability to act with impunity. Now that the old forms have passed away, they openly reduce everything to a matter of law and order. Nowadays, those in the position of power are simply imposing and are refusing to negotiate.

Those in positions of power and control seek to turn back the clock to a time before the struggles of the workers' movement had won the right not to be criminalised. Self-defence is crucial in this situation, where the very humanity of working people is under threat, and workers must speak for themselves and work for control over their lives.

The pandemic showed the amount of value that workers produce. It is the workers who hold the solutions to the problems in higher education. It is this that the powers-that-be seek to block. The only solutions they envisage are self-serving and capital-centred, based on forcing concessions from the workers. But these concessions are not only not solutions, they are outright detrimental.

The lecturers' struggle is in the context of an ongoing wave of action where working people are beginning to reach the conclusion that their struggle must also focus on creating a society which affirms rights by virtue of being human. In that movement, a consciousness is arising that something new is required. The workers' movement is finding its voice and taking action to declare Enough is Enough!

(Source: UCU)

[1] Statement by Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, April 26, 2023


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