Higher education strike

Chris McLaughlin

Unison Higher Ed Strike Ballot - Picket Signs PortraitThree major trades unions representing University staff say they will strike at the end of this month unless employers improve their latest offer on pay increases.

The University and College Union (UCU), UNISON and Unite members at universities across the UK intend to hold a one-day strike on the 31 October. This may be followed by subsequent strikes or other industrial action, such as work-to-rule or overtime bans.

Whilst strikes among university staff have been a feature of recent years, they have hitherto been much narrower in scope. A previous strike in 2010 over funding cuts was confined only to England, before a 2011 walk-out on pensions – at universities including Glasgow – was observed by lecturers only. This is the first time all three unions have agreed to strike simultaneously across the UK.

Taken together, the unions represent staff in a wide variety of roles, including lecturers, researchers, technicians, laboratory assistants, librarians, managers, administrators, and IT and support staff. A strike could therefore be highly disruptive at Glasgow University if well-supported. As many as one million UK students could be affected in total, with around 125,000 of these in Scotland.

In a series of ballots earlier in the month, members of all three unions endorsed the use of industrial action. On 10 October, lecturers, academics and researchers – represented by UCU – voted to reject a 1% pay rise offer put forward by employers. They joined librarians and other university support staff represented by UNISON who had voted for strike action in a separate ballot two days earlier. On 14 October it was announced that technicians, laboratory assistants, administrators and managers – represented by Unite – had likewise voted for strike action.

62% of the members who voted in the UCU ballot supported strike action, with 77% endorsing industrial action short of a strike. The result was similar to that of the Unite ballot which showed 64% backing strike action, while 54% of UNISON members voted in favour of a strike.

Union leaders renewed their demands for an improved pay offer from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) in light of the results. Michael MacNeil, UCU Head of Higher Education, said: “The ball is now firmly in the employers’ court and we urge them to agree to meet us for urgent talks to resolve the dispute.

“This result is a reflection of our members’ anger at year after year of real terms pay cuts, and the fact that the employers can clearly afford to pay more than the miserly 1% offered this year.”

The unions claim that their members have not had a “meaningful” pay rise since 2008 and have since seen their wages cut 13% in real terms when compared to inflation. They also maintain that overall staff remuneration has fallen from 58% to 55.5% of university budgets over the past decade whilst the salaries of vice-chancellors have risen to an average of £250,000 per year.

On behalf of UNISON, Head of Higher Education, Jon Richards, commented: “The gap between prices and pay has widened since this [Westminster] government came to power and trying to feed a family and heat a home is a daily worry. The fact that staff are willing to take strike action shows how desperate they feel. The employers should take note and come back with a more realistic offer.”

Echoing the call for an improved offer from employers, Unite National Officer for Education, Mike McCartney, said: “Our members have had enough of the poverty pay increases of recent years … and have been left with no option but to fight for what’s fair.”

Whilst a negotiated settlement without industrial action is still possible, union leaders seem pessimistic.

In a statement on its website, the UCEA describes the 1% proposal as its “final offer” following rejections of its 0.5% initial offer and an improved offer of 0.8%. It also claims to have offered concessions on gender pay differentials, casual contracts and flexible working. The UCEA state that the 1% deal “remains on the table” and that the unions had sought a rise over and above the Retail Price Index (RPI) measure of inflation, which is currently 3.2%.

A UCEA spokesman said: “UCEA’s member higher education institutions tell us that the vast majority of their staff fully understand the reality of the challenging and uncertain environment for their institution and many are anxious to see the implementation of the award, rather than a prolonged dispute.”

Despite the risk of course disruption, some student opinion has been sympathetic. Molly Conway, a second year economic and social history student, commented: “I totally support this. If they want Glasgow to remain an excellent place both to study and work, then fair pay for fair work is essential. If strike action is what is required to achieve this then so be it.”

SRC President, Jess McGrellis, called on both sides to limit harm to students: “There is no doubt that the upcoming strike will cause disruption to the learning of students across the university. Having said this, the SRC understands the reasons for the strike and we are hopeful that our academics at Glasgow University will do what they can to minimise the disruption for students.”

Thus far, the University has sought to allay student concerns, but has been reluctant to be drawn on the merits of the dispute. In a statement released to the Glasgow Guardian, a spokesman commented: “This is a matter for the trades unions and their members. We will obviously be doing all we can to minimise disruption to staff and students should there be any strike action.”