The UCU struggle is a climate struggle

The strike action taking place tomorrow is about more than pay and conditions - its about protecting the space we have to understand climate and environmental crises.

In 2019 and 2020, when the last wave of strikes began at British universities, UCU members held joint marches with the climate strikes.

Thousands of academic workers and students at UK Universities will go out on strike tomorrow, led by workers in the University and College Union (UCU).

Overall, 58 universities will see three days of strike action from Wednesday through to Friday with more action expected in the New Year.

This industrial action comes after decades of attack on universities in Britain, aimed at increasing their marketisation. Management wages at British universities have become extremely high, with a clear focus on extracting maximum fees and rent from students.

Economic

At the same time, secure employment for academic workers has become fleeting, instead teaching and research is conducted on short term contracts, often done by already overstretched research students.

Put simply, this strike action is academic workers making a stand against the protracted attacks on the health of universities and research in Britain. Given so much of environmental thought and action relies on their research, it’s crucial environmentalists come out to support the strikes.

And there are particular reasons that environmentalists should be turning out in force to support the UCU and its pickets - strikers at workplaces asking colleagues to join and not work.

It has always been the case that certain academic disciplines around environmental issues have leaned towards more progressive or leftwing political views, most notably in human geography.

When studying the last few hundred years of environmental breakdown and societal development, it is difficult not to be slightly sceptical of the global economic system and its drive to damage both people and planet.

Polluting

However, the higher turnouts on recent UCU ballot votes show these strikes are not being led by some small group of politicised academics. Instead, across disciplines as wide as ecological economics, climate political science, and environmental modelling, workers are saying enough is enough.

In 2019 and 2020, when the last wave of strikes began at British universities, UCU members held joint marches with the climate strikes.

This research is the bedrock which climate justice movements orient themselves upon; from demonstrations of the damage done to colonised countries to the ways the finance sector increases fossil fuel extraction.

The workers who produce this crucial knowledge, which grows in importance yearly, are stating clearly that their situation is untenable. To produce the climate and environmental research we urgently need, we need a university not dominated by marketisation.

In 2019 and 2020, when the last wave of strikes began at British universities, UCU members held joint marches with the climate strikes.

Students and teachers walked together, calling for climate action and free quality education for all. This was an alliance against the movement towards an education system which treats students as consumers, using their degree to get on the bottom rung of commercial drudgery at usually polluting companies.

Pay

Instead, universities can be a space for the collective exploration of ideas, for the times of slower contemplation and discovery, where students and researchers are given the freedom to understand the world outside of the demand for profit.

In particular, universities need to be spaces where students and workers develop their capability to respond to the climate and ecological crisis. As long as the university is just another marketised institution, this is not possible.

Pay in higher education has fallen by 17.6 percent relative to inflation due to successive years of below-inflation pay rise offers between 2009 and 2019.

Given increasing inflation, its even more likely that wages are being squeezed across the sector. Worse still, university management are failing to tackle the gender and race pay gaps.

Across the sector, there is a 17 percent pay gap between Black and white staff and a gender pay gap of 15.1 percent. Such excessive gaps are being closed at such as slow rate that the UCU estimates it will take 22 years for the gender pay gap to close if no action is taken.

Horrible

To add one more final shameful statistic, the disability pay gap is currently at nine percent. Such inequalities reinforce themselves – a hostile environment for disabled, racialised, female and non-binary staff creates a hostile teaching space for similarly marginalised students.

In addition to poor pay, there has been a marked shift towards casualising contracts and reducing the number of employed in secure positions.

Academics, and particularly graduate researchers, are forced to eke out a miserable existence, balancing multiple short-term contracts, often moving itinerantly from university to university, always worried that the next contract will not arrive.

During the pandemic, thousands of workers saw their contracts not renewed, left adrift in horrible situations, as well as management using staff insecurity to force workers back into universities when they were not covid-secure.

Solidarity

Outside of wages concerns, worsening working conditions, and job insecurity, there is an attempt to dock the pensions of workers who have managed to gain a foothold in the academy.

Furthermore, at particular universities, whole departments deemed no longer profitable are under threat, such as at Goldsmiths, where up to 52 staff face redundancy and three weeks of strike action has begun to fight this.

All the above makes it clear that academic workers are being squeezed on all sides, to the detriment of research quality, teaching, and the experiences of students.  

Whether it is environmental groups donating to their local UCU strike fund, sending a statement of support to their local UCU branch, or simply turning up in solidarity at the picket line with striking academic workers, this struggle is an environmental one too.

This Author

Harry Holmes is a climate organiser and writer based in London. 

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