The trade union movement has a proud history of standing together to protect workers. From Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in the 1980s to more recently, when rank-and-file union members mobilised to support hundreds of workers being fired by P&O, it is clear that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ retains its powerful meaning to this day.
For my union, the University and College Union (UCU), we are engaged in a bitter pay and conditions dispute with bosses at 145 institutions across the UK. Over the last decade, staff pay has fallen in real terms by 25 percent and precarious, insecure employment practices, equality pay gaps, and unsafe workloads are rife.
But rather than address these failings and produce offers which university workers could accept, bosses have threatened to withhold up to 100 percent of staff wages for taking lawful industrial action in the form of a marking and assessment boycott.
This threat means that staff will not only have their wages deducted for days when they are taking industrial action but that many universities will withhold pay for the entire period the action is in effect, which could apply for weeks and, shockingly, will apply to days when there is no industrial action at all.
This bullying behaviour threatens to push thousands of our members into poverty. The stakes right now couldn’t be higher, or the need for support from our entire movement greater.
These attacks are all the more immoral when you consider the levels of wealth and inequality that are baked into higher education. The most recent published data shows that the UK university sector generated a record £41.1 billion in income in 2020/21, most of which came from student fees. Over £40 billion is held in reserves, and vice chancellors take home salaries as high as £714,000. Meanwhile, many staff are forced to eke out an existence on falling pay and contracts as short as six weeks.
Our fight for better pay and conditions in universities isn’t just about giving our members the security they deserve but building a better and fairer higher education sector. Universities that refuse permanent contracts to staff and which oversee toxic levels of workload are no good for students, either. Staff working conditions really are student learning conditions.
As more institutions confirm they are to deduct wages in the midst of a cost of living crisis, we need the entire trade union movement behind us, not just to support our members but also to ensure bosses everywhere, no matter the sector or industry, understand that these attacks on working people will not be tolerated.
In this dispute, UCU members have already taken 15 days of strike action. That is a huge sacrifice and one which should be deeply admired. Our union is already on the brink of a historic pensions victory, but we must also win on pay and conditions too.
Our union has been clear that we are ready to hit back against these punitive deductions with escalating strike action, which will severely disrupt the remainder of the academic year. There is, of course, no need for this to happen if those who run our universities focus on resolving the disputes instead of attacking their own workforce.
University workers deserve a decent pay rise and secure terms and conditions. They do not deserve to be starved into submission.
If ‘an injury one is an injury to all’ is to still mean something, we need the entire movement standing shoulder to shoulder with university workers. You can do that by donating to our union’s fighting fund, writing to your local vice chancellor, sharing our social media content and by being as loud as possible about your support for UCU.
That’s how we beat back these attacks, deliver a fair deal and send a clear message to bosses everywhere.