Ed Rooksby – Notes on the UCU Strike

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“There’s a decent chance, it seems to me, that is, that victory for university workers in this dispute would provide a major boost for organized labour generally.”

Ed Rooksby teaches politics at Ruskin College in Oxford

Cross-posted from Ed’s website



It’s been a remarkable few weeks – and an especially remarkable 48 hrs or so – for trade unionists in the university sector.

UCU’s escalating series of strikes have mobilised an unprecedented number of university workers on picket lines up and down the country. What’s more the industrial action has been able to draw on a magnificent degree of support from students, joining staff, day after day, on the picket line, helping to organise ‘teach out’ and ‘teach in’ sessions and in some cases even staging occupations of university buildings.

I’ve certainly never seen anything like this. There’s a real sense of energy and determination on the picket lines – morale is high and it’s abundantly clear that university workers and students alike really are in a mood to fight and to keep fighting. Unlike previous strikes I’ve taken part in, this one feels like a serious rather than symbolic or tokenistic action. We mean business.

It’s also clear, as many have pointed out, that this strike isn’t really just about pensions. It feels like something that had been building for a long time finally burst into the open in a process merely catalysed by the pensions issue. As I suggested in my Jacobin article, the energy and anger among strikers draws on a much wider set of grievances in relation to declining pay and conditions, the proliferation of precarious and casualised forms of employment in the sector, TEF, the inflation of VCs’ salaries and the increasing marketisation and commodification of higher education. This is a revolt against the neoliberalisation of the university. We’re simply tired of it – we’ve had enough. Something snapped.

And yet there’s been something joyous about this whole process. Turning up at the picket line (I get to these much earlier than I would normally get to work on a normal day by the way) hasn’t felt much like a grind or a chore – even in freezing temperatures. Many of the people I work with have remarked that the strike has actually allowed them to really talk to colleagues and students for the first time (on the picket lines and in discussion in ‘teach in’ sessions) – to get to know them on a really human level. As someone commented ‘we’ve really found each other for the first time on the picket line’.

I’ve certainly noticed that my stress levels have declined during this strike. Overwork and administrative overload is a real problem in academia. What’s more, for the duration of the strike, I’ve actually been able leave work at a relatively decent hour in the early afternoons after the ‘teach in’ sessions end – and I don’t take work home with me in the evenings or at weekends. This doesn’t normally happen. This in itself has been enormously liberating, but also throws into sharp relief the ways in which normal working conditions – what we take for granted on a day to day basis as ‘just the way things are’ – in this sector (and in many others too of course) have become quite inhuman in the neoliberal workplace.

It’s an age old socialist insight of course that the experience of collective struggle and solidarity can alter consciousness and shift the horizons of the possible – but even so, perhaps it’s an insight that you don’t normally fully appreciate until you live it. You can ‘know’ it abstractly and theoretically, but you don’t really know it until you experience it – in no matter how attenuated a form (I’m not, of course, saying that the UCU struggle has been anything like as intense as many other trade union struggles). Perhaps this instructive, educative dimension of struggle always takes its active subjects by surprise.

It’s also been quite an exciting and at times intense experience – not least in the last 48 hours, in which I think something really quite remarkable has happened.

As is well known, the UCU leadership dropped a bombshell on its members in the late evening of Monday 12th March – announcing that it had reached agreement with UUK under the auspices of ACAS. The terms of this agreement represented a really shoddy and wholly unnecessary compromise that, in the circumstances, could only really work in the employers’ favour. The key thing here was that these terms let the employers off the hook at a time when they were clearly in disarray – taken by surprise by the militancy and determination of the strikers – and implied of course the immediate demobilisation of university workers at a time when the dynamic and momentum of the struggle was clearly moving to our great advantage. There was no need to compromise on these terms. It was, quite simply, tactically and strategically inept from the standpoint of those who wanted not simply to ameliorate the employers’ assault on our pensions (and by extension the wider project of marketisation in HE) but to halt it in its tracks and push it back.

In this respect, perhaps, UCU members and their allies have just experienced a crash course in the limitations of the trade union bureaucracy. We’ve learned, that is, that vigorous mobilisation is key not just because it concentrates pressure on our adversaries, but just as much because it keeps our own representatives under pressure to deliver for their members when the ever present danger is that these reps will seek to throw a wet towel over struggle whenever they think they can cut a deal. With vigilance and sustained mobilisation we can push our representatives further than they originally intended to go.

The response to the announcement of this deal was immediate and forceful. There’s a story here to be told here about the real time organising potential of social media. In my view the push back against the deal (we had less than 24 hours to do it before the HEC voted the next day – and if the vote had been railroaded through the leadership could simply have suspended the industrial action there and then) would not have gathered momentum or organised form in time without mass activist use of Twitter that night and the following morning. Twitter allowed members, first to circulate the terms of the proposed deal and second, to (with the hashtag #NoCapitulation) to generalise and strengthen a sense of collective outrage and the sense that this should and could be resisted. It was also key in organising and building the mass protest outside HEC the next day.

The day of the HEC meeting and the branch reps consultation that preceded it (in which the leadership’s resolve to implement the deal was broken) was an absolutely electrifying experience. Like many other members who could not make it to London on Tuesday I spent the day glued to my Twitter feed on my mobile. Again like many others my mood shifted through the day – from something like dejection and fatalism in the morning, to something like euphoria by mid afternoon as it became clear that the groundswell of opposition would overwhelm the compromise deal.

I received a series of texts throughout the morning and early afternoon from our UCU branch chair – first from the protest and later from inside the meeting room in which branch delegates lobbied the national leadership. These texts expressed increasing confidence as the meeting progressed, that the leadership were going to back down – with me passing them to colleagues (and also tweeting some of them as I received them). By about 1pm it became clear that victory was almost certain when our rep texted to say that the leadership “is being slaughtered in the debate. No one supports the proposal. UCU will reject the offer today”. Soon after that, the reversal was confirmed.

It’s worth emphasising the significance of what happened here. What we have just experienced is the power of democratic mass mobilisation from below. Indeed what we’ve seen is a form of sustained and determined mobilisation over the past few weeks that has generated its own internal dynamic of radicalisation – one that took even the union leadership by surprise and left them running to catch up with it as it has unfolded. What has become clear with the defeat of the 12th March deal is that this strike is driven from below by university workers and students. We are now in control of it. Not the union leadership. They are our representatives. We now know all this – and with this knowledge the strike is likely to radicalise further. We won’t accept anything less than defence of existing pensions. But we also want more than this too and we have the confidence to start demanding more and to make this action a coordinated and conscious push back against the marketisation of HE

There’s another important dimension to this radicalising struggle too. As several commentators have pointed out, the ramifications of this industrial action are likely to go beyond the education sector. As for example Steven Parfitt indicates, university workers “are actually on the front line of an ongoing battle which threatens to wipe out proper pensions for workers across a whole sector of society”. The UCU struggle is highly important, then, as a defensive action to halt the wider neoliberal erosion of the right for workers’ to expect a decent income in retirement.

But there’s something more than merely defensive about this. There’s a good chance, it seems to me, that is, that victory for university workers in this dispute would provide a major boost for organized labour generally. As Neil Davidson has suggested while “lecturers are obviously an unlikely vanguard of the working class” a victory in this strike might well “encourage other people in different industries and different sectors to feel like they can take action as well.” There’s a good chance, that is, that if this strike is successful, then (maybe, just maybe…) it could mark a significant turning point in class struggle.

And here’s where this industrial dispute connects with recent shifts in the political balance of forces in Britain. It’s been strangely little remarked upon how the rising fortunes of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have fed into this struggle. It’s by no means the case, of course, that university lecturers are unanimous in their support for Corbyn, but it’s hard to imagine that the UCU strike would have generated so much enthusiasm (among staff or among students) if it hadn’t been for the stunning showing for Labour in the 2017 General Election which electrified the political landscape in Britain. Almost certainly the excitement among young people generated by Corbyn’s leadership of Labour has fed into the enthusiastic response among students to the UCU strike. Organised labour, too, has received a boost from the “Corbyn effect” and it’s probably fair to say that a new mood of relative confidence generally prevails among trade unionists.

In these circumstances the potential for a general upsurge in leftist struggle that would combine advance at the level of parliamentary, electoral politics with mobilisation from below on the part of a resurgent organised labour movement looks promising. Certainly, a key task for socialists within and beyond the university sector must now be to turn this promise into a reality by working to strengthen and radicalise the university strikes, by seeking to generalise the confidence and enthusiasm on the university picket lines to other sections of organised labour and by helping to develop deeper links with the movement in support of the current Labour Party leadership. But in doing this, of course, we should remember the lessons of the last 48 hrs – that it will be necessary to exert constant pressure on our political representatives as much as our union ones, via sustained forms of mobilisation, in order to force them to stick closely to the (dynamic and evolving) terms of our demands.


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