Over the last few years I have researched and written a good deal about ‘union renewal’ – the process by which unions (re-)connect with their grassroots and create vibrant, inclusive and collective cultures that empower members to be the educators they want to be, working in the systems they aspire to work in. In the last few weeks I have been ‘living’ union renewal and seeing first-hand the transformative power of collective action.
The experience is the strike by members of the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK’s ‘older universities’. Those of us who work in this sector have been threatened with a huge attack on our pensions (‘new universities’ have a different pension scheme and so are not affected although many members in those universities see the future threat to their pensions too). The threat to our pensions is not new – with two previous attacks in the years since the economic crisis. What has made 2018 different is the scale of the attack proposed by the employers – effectively transferring the whole pension scheme to one determined by the performance of investments on the financial markets. At present members have a large measure of ‘defined benefits’ whereby pension entitlement is dependent on years of service and salary levels. The union immediately estimated that members may lose up to £10,000 pension per year for every year of retirement.
The decision to make these changes was made by a body on which the union is represented, but on which it was outvoted – by the casting vote of the chair. The union immediately engaged with the membership in preparation for a serious campaign of industrial action. The advice from the union was clear – the proposals were far-reaching and the employers appeared determined. The proposals could only be defeated by forcing the employers to reconsider and this would require a serious and substantial campaign of strike action.
Consequently the union put the possibility of 14 days of strike action on the table, with more strike action to follow if necessary. This was to commence with two days of strike action in the first week, followed by three days the following week, four days the week after and five days in the fourth week. All of this was to be accompanied by a campaign of ‘action short of strike action’ (ASOS) when we were not on strike but would work to contract. By the standards of previous campaigns this was a significant commitment by the union, and hence also a significant risk.
An early indicator of member resolve was provided by the ballot result achieved for strike action. Industrial relations legislation in the UK is intentionally stacked against trade unions. All industrial action must follow a postal ballot (online voting is not allowed), and recently a threshold was introduced requiring at least 50% of members to participate (a high threshold by postal ballot standards). As it was the union secured a 58% turnout with 88% voting for strike action and 93% voting for ASOS.
From the outset it was clear that this campaign was different to anything I had been involved in before. I have stood on picket lines previously knowing that member support has not always been strong, seeing the same faces each day on the line. That has not been our experience this time. From Day 1 the support of members has been extraordinary – not just supporting the strike, but actively participating on the picket lines. Every day our numbers have been large, and growing as the strike progressed. My own union branch has reported a 20% increase in membership since the dispute began and a 40% increase since this time last year. Other branches report the same experience.
On the picket lines we quickly became a super organised, well-oiled picket line machine – every day covering all the entrances on to our campus and always being highly visible. As well as union literature and placards we made our own posters, our union branch produced locally focused leaflets for students and everyone brought provisions – food, hot drinks and fuel for the braziers (the strike coincided with the coldest days of the winter). Every day we adopted a similar routine – seeking to engage the maximum number of students and others to explain our dispute and why we had been forced to take strike action.
However, what was also apparent to us all was that something much more profound was happening. It probably started from the small picket line conversations that developed between us – but which deepened as we got to know each other better. These conversations were sometimes with colleagues we didn’t know from other parts of the university, but oftentimes these were colleagues we already ‘knew’ - but actually we don’t really ‘know’. It was as though we had been liberated from the often mundane chatter of institutional life, and the rushed meetings and corridor conversations to rediscover having time both with, and for, each other. It was the pensions issue that brought us together in the snow, but our conversations were much more about the university we work in, what frustrates and alienates us about the modern ‘entrepreneurial university’ and how we can both imagine, and create, something better. Perhaps the greatest irony is that it has been by taking strike action, and withdrawing our labour from our employer, that we have rediscovered real meaning in our work.
Furthermore, in rediscovering the idea of the University as a collegial space where we work together, make time for each other, debate ideas and push boundaries we have also been able to reconnect with our students who are equally frustrated by the transactional and commodified experience that is modern higher education. As the dispute has progressed the developing alliance between staff and students will always remain one of the most inspiring and enduring memories of the whole experience.
There is not the space here to do justice to what an extraordinary experience the strike has been, and I have made no attempt to discuss the details of the negotiations and the interactions of unions and employers. As I write there have been significant developments and it remains to be seen how the union responds to these. The dispute may continue, or it may be suspended to allow more time to identify a solution. Union members will decide democratically how they want to proceed. Whatever the outcomes, there can be no return to ‘before the strike’ – that time has gone and things have changed. Above all, large numbers of university workers have (re-)learned the importance of democracy in our lives and the power of collective action. When unions provide this democratic space to members and use their collective voice to articulate members’ aspirations then union renewal follows - and it is through vibrant, inclusive and collective union organisation that we can both defend our working conditions and reclaim the idea of the university.