University staff and members of the University and College Union (UCU) are taking part in fourteen days of strike action across 74 universities.
The dispute focusses on ‘four fights’: falling pay, the gender and ethnicity pay gap, precarious employment practices and unsafe workloads. It is also part of an ongoing dispute about pensions: university workers have seen the value of their retirement benefits decrease, while the cost of their pension has risen and their real-terms pay has fallen.
The Ecologist stands in solidarity with those workers who are taking action and we encourage our readers and other media platforms to do so too.
Universities are stepping up their game in attempts to casualise labour, putting extreme economic, health and social pressures on staff who are forced to survive on an unlivable wage.
Black and minority ethnic staff at Russell Group universities face an average pay gap of 26 percent compared to their white colleagues. In 2018 university leaders came under fire after the first official gender pay gap data showed that women in UK universities were paid a mean hourly wage that was 15.9 percent lower than their male colleagues.
Sasha Dovzhyk is an associate tutor and a contributor to The Ecologist. She said: “I teach seminars on a foundational first year course which lays the groundwork for the entire undergraduate degree. My students pay £9,250 per year if they are home/EU and £14,000 per year if they’re from ‘overseas’, but my salary for planning the sessions, preparing teaching materials, conducting fortnightly seminars, marking essays, and providing feedback is £113 per month after tax.
“The neoliberal university expects me to compete for a post with hundreds of overqualified, undervalued and overworked candidates. Complaining about the broken system on Twitter will not mend it but withdrawing our labour might.
“University staff must realise we have power to fight back.”
Brighton Education Workers report attempts to outsource teaching by hiring people to undertake work as independent ‘contractors’ for extremely short periods of time – sometimes as little as two months – as well as the use of ludicrous fractional contracts, such as 0.05 FTE.
The crisis in UK universities has arisen from the same systemic, neoliberal pressures that are driving climate breakdown: marketisation, economic inequality and institutionalised racism and sexism are the common battlegrounds of workers and environmental justice activists.
Harry Holmes from the UK Youth Climate Coalition said: “The UCU have been significant allies in recent years, with faculty members supporting divestment campaigns, coming out to march with the Climate Strikes, and continuously teaching about environmental crises.
“Young environmentalists who wish to be involved in research face the twofold stress of being overworked and underpaid for their faculty work. After all this, they face the inability to gain secure employment at faculties as a final parting spite.
“The issue here is fundamental. The climate crisis and the marketisation of education are part and parcel of the same broken system. These strikes are our struggle as well.”
Anti-Trade Union legislation in the UK has restricted our right to withdraw labour. Only those workplaces that reach a 50 percent turnout can act of the results of a ballot, even where there is an overwhelming desire by those who return the ballot to strike, and even where other workplaces within the same sector reach the threshold and take action.
In the face of these limits, solidarity through sharing knowledge and resources, shoring-up one another’s confidence and giving space and voice to our interconnected struggles is fundamental.
Jonathan Neale is a regular contributor to The Ecologist and a UCU member. He said: “UCU has backed our joint union campaign for One Million Climate Jobs over many years – and every other climate campaign.
“Insane workloads and job insecurity among university staff make good research very difficult, but we are going to need enormous amounts of daring, innovative and careful research to understand what the climate crisis is doing to us and to develop the thousands of solutions we will need.
“Successive governments have shown their contempt for learning by the way they treat university staff and research. Respect for learning and knowledge has to be central to solving the climate crisis.”
There is no social or climate justice in a world in which workers are not treated equally, paid fairly and kept safe. Universities must not cede their spaces and resources to profit-driven growth and competition at the expense of their workers, students and wider communities.
We must fundamentally reimagine and restructure our workplaces if we are to tackle the climate crisis. That means standing up against intimidation and inequality, and reclaiming our universities for the public good of mutual learning.
You can support the UCU strike by:
- Not crossing picket lines under any circumstances
- Going to local rallies, volunteering on picket lines or dropping off hot food and drinks
- Contributing to the organisation of local teach-outs and skills shares
- Donating to the UCU strike fund to help workers who will lose pay as a result of taking action
- Sending strong messages of solidarity on social media
- Encouraging your workplace and/or local union branch to release a solidarity statement
- Graduate students can join UCU for free
Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist’s content editor.
Image: SOAS picket, Twitter.