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UCU Must Strongly Resist Job Losses and Restructuring - Now

by Corona Contract
January 27, 2021

UCU cannot wait until the crisis in universities hits permanent members on secure contracts - the time for action is now. 1581 words / 7 min read

The situation in higher education has reached a tipping point. The most recent targeting of 145 workers at the University of Leicester – off the back of job cuts at numerous universities across the UK, often union and anti-racist activists – shows what management are willing to do if left unchecked.

As we have argued from the beginning of the pandemic, the University and College Union needs to strongly oppose threats to jobs and members need to come out swinging. Rather than wait until the crisis hits permanent members on secure contracts, it’s time to organise national strike action, with clear and comprehensive demands on casualisation, workload & equality under the ongoing Four Fights dispute.

Rather than wait until the crisis hits permanent members on secure contracts, it's time to organise national strike action, with comprehensive demands on casualisation, workload & equality under the ongoing Four Fights dispute.

Now that prominent trade unionists, including members of the NEC, are being targeted, it must be clear that university management aims to render everyone precarious, ‘permanent’ and casualised alike. We stand in full solidarity with all reps being targeted for their union work and branches fighting to oppose every last redundancy. However, we need to fight on more fronts than on compulsory redundancies alone. Many of the leading activists now calling for action on redundancies as their own jobs come under threat did not show the same solidarity when thousands of precarious staff on hourly paid and fixed term contracts lost their jobs last year. Nor did we organise the kind of action we needed to prevent these job losses and to forestall the situation we’re facing today. Without powerful collective action, there is no brake on management’s attempts to entrench precarity across the sector. And this action cannot be restricted to the branches currently under threat – we must assume the threat will spread.

As casualised staff, our experience of campaigning during the 2008 financial crisis strongly informed our expectation that universities would respond to COVID-19 with crisis capitalism. As we came off the picket line nearly a year ago, it was clear to us that the pandemic, far from inspiring any mercy from our employers, would provide an opportune excuse to axe our jobs. In fact, this is exactly what happened, and, without action, we believe we are likely to see a second round of job losses this summer. Some of us lost our jobs last year (we are demanding that UCU produce figures on exactly how many). For those of us who remain in the sector, nearly every aspect of work has been worsened by our employers: from forcing us to work in dangerous conditions – in some cases casualised staff were not even eligible for sick pay – to skyrocketing workloads, to refusing to furlough staff (at Goldsmiths, this has been used as a threat against workers taking part in an assessment boycott).

The situation has only escalated since last summer, when we urged permanent staff to refuse to take on additional workload from casualised staff facing job loss. As difficult as it may have been for permanent staff to protest against increased workload at the time, it has only become more difficult now, as we stare further precarity in the face: will staff be willing to refuse additional workload if they are being pooled for redundancy? Nevertheless, the answer cannot be to keep our heads down and hope that someone else gets the sack. Nor are these just a handful of departments or particular universities being ‘restructured’ – although that is bad enough. We are looking at a wholesale restructuring of the sector itself if we do not stop it, making the need for solidarity all the more urgent. Moreover, it’s not just jobs at stake: these cuts will justify worsening terms and conditions for remaining contracts and eroding the gains the union has made (like local agreements to redeploy casualised staff). There are many more degrees of casualisation to go before we reach the abyss.

The sheer scale of the crisis, as well as the challenges posed by organising during the pandemic, has at times demobilised and demoralised workers and appears to have set the tone for our union’s leadership as well. Nevertheless, we believe that a fightback is not only necessary, but is realistically the only chance we have. The rank and file of various branches have heroically organised local disputes, but our union leadership cannot continue to relegate responsibility to the branch level, leaving workers in a state of constant firefighting. We need a serious national strategy. This strategy must provide an unvarnished picture of the degree of the crisis and the threats we are facing. We need bold, fighting language that identifies the nature and scale of our antagonism with our employers, and that is unsentimental about what strike action must entail, including indefinite strike action targeting the time leading up to an assessment period. And we need to pool resources and skills to ensure that every branch and every member receives the support they need, from the centre, to organise effective action. Finally, as we approach a new round of elections to union leadership, the ability and willingness to actively organise a solid dispute during the pandemic needs to be our test for candidates who want to join the union’s national executive committee.

We need bold language that identifies the nature and scale of our antagonism with our employers, and that is unsentimental about what strike action must entail, including targeting the time leading up to an assessment period.

We are not alone in facing down austerity. The NEU has recently galvanised members to refuse unsafe working conditions through national Zoom meetings which outlined support for staff using their Section 44 rights. Furthermore, the growing student rent strike movement has already shown solidarity with staff by demanding no redundancies during the pandemic. On strike, we could return this solidarity by supporting students in their actions and occupations and creating joint student-staff committees to organise collectively. We could further our aims through online teach-outs, demonstrating practically that universities need workers and students, not managers, to function. We have seen examples of this strong student-worker solidarity in recent strikes across the USA, from the COLA movement’s ‘Strike University’ to pickets, both physical and digital, at University of Michigan). Student disappointment and anger is at an all time high, and rightfully so, as universities become increasingly shambolic. They are right to question why they are paying £9000 (or more) for their education. We must amplify their demands on the picket lines, rather than martyr ourselves at work so our managers can save face.

Unfortunately, the pessimism about worker capacity which we saw directed at the employers’ pathetic offer – which inspired our first op-ed in New Socialist – has continued to present a limiting view of the potential for workers to take action. Despite a range of democratically passed motions committing to ‘full material and political support’ for members refusing to work under unsafe conditions, as well as ‘escalating industrial action strategy’, we have seen nothing like the National Education Union’s support for workers using Section 44, and no clarity around the unresolved dispute from last year or our approach to industrial action.

If the leadership of the union continues to be an obstacle to collective action and resistance it will be necessary for members and branches to work around them and without them – we cannot afford to wait for them to catch up. This could begin with the question of face to face teaching; individual branches have been balloting on this issue for some months now without support. If the leadership is unwilling to learn from the NEU and replicate the mass sending of Section 44 letters, then we will need to attempt to build this ourselves from the ground up by organising a coordinated campaign of mass refusals to teach in unsafe conditions. While this would still need to be combined with other tactics, it represents the best and simplest way to prevent university management from forcing us back into unsafe face-to-face teaching. We can build further on this by combining our local fights against redundancies and job losses through the use of coordinated ballots and industrial action across the country – in this way we can shut down universities on a much wider scale, raise demands on secure work and decent pay, and generalise these struggles into a broader fightback against the marketisation and privatisation of education.

If the leadership of the union continues to be an obstacle to collective action and resistance it will be necessary for members and branches to work around them and without them - we cannot afford to wait for them to catch up.

We cannot let the events of last summer repeat themselves. As a small campaign group, we have argued for the actions we think are necessary, and have organised many of these actions ourselves, but we also recognise that we cannot do this alone. Therefore, while we believe the union can fight and win, we need to face up to the reality that without serious collective organising we may face similar mass job losses this year. We also recognise that regardless of how the union leadership responds to this crisis, we will need vehicles for casualised union members to organise around our own interests, independent from the existing structures of the union. Building this is one of our most urgent tasks for the future.