Fourteen days that shook the universities

Issue: 159

Christian Høgsbjerg, Julie Hearn, Carlo Morelli and Camilla Royle

In February to March 2018, tens of thousands of university workers in the University and College Union (UCU) at 65 institutions in higher education took 14 days of strike action, in what was the biggest universities strike ever. The strike was in defence of pensions, in particular the employers’ (Universities UK, UUK) attempt to shift the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) from a defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution scheme, linked to the stock market, which would leave university workers with no guarantee of their income in retirement and a massive cut in their pensions. Christian Høgsbjerg spoke to Julie Hearn from Lancaster University UCU, Carlo Morelli from Dundee University UCU and a national USS negotiator for the union, and Camilla Royle from King’s College, London UCU (all speaking in a personal capacity) on 9 May 2018, about the mass strike and the transformation of the union that took place during it.

After this interview was recorded there were unprecedented scenes at the UCU’s annual congress at the end of May. Exeter branch had submitted a motion of no confidence in general secretary Sally Hunt following her promotion of a deal with UUK that ended the strike. King’s submitted a motion to censure Hunt. At the congress, staff employed by UCU, in the Unite union, organised a walkout as they claimed that the motions critical of the union leadership would jeopardise the job roles of employees; the congress was suspended. Although congress voted on four occasions to keep the two contentious motions on the agenda, repeated walkouts by staff meant they were not heard and the congress finished early. Since these dramatic events, criticisms of the leadership of the union, calls for Hunt’s resignation and more general demands for a more accountable leadership have become more widespread among UCU members.

Christian: I wonder if we could start with thinking about how the recent USS dispute arose and the nature of the attack from the employers’ side. UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt called it “the worst offer I had seen in 20 years of negotiating for university and college staff”,1 and so could we perhaps start by discussing the supposed need for this shift from the employers’ side from “defined benefits” to “defined contributions” and the so-called “deficit” behind that?

Carlo: The dispute is both a continuation of what has gone on before—so the latest valuation is the third attempt to undermine the USS pension scheme in seven years, so at one level the dispute emerged out of a set of timetables that we have known about for years—and is just simply another piecemeal attempt to try and undermine pay and conditions in higher education.

However, that underestimates the way in which this dispute began to emerge and the seriousness with which it emerged and I think that is partly why Sally Hunt and the officials responded so strongly to the emergence of the dispute. What I mean by that is the way in which neoliberalism and marketisation has been taking place in the HE sector with fees and with the increasing expenditure on buildings and, underlying that, the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). All of that has accelerated and intensified the attack on staff pay and conditions. So when it came to pensions it was never going to be the case that it was going to be another incremental step along the way of undermining pay and conditions. It was always going to emerge as quite a major conflict, precisely because this could be a step-change in terms of the way in which higher education was being reformed and redesigned. As a result of that, I think that’s what underlay some of the seriousness of the dispute.

The officials also recognised that the union was in a difficult place. As of last year it had consistently failed to address defending pay, it had given away two rounds of cuts in the pension scheme already. Therefore if the union was unable to defend pensions and pay and then mount a national campaign over jobs or anything else given the new anti-union laws which had just come in, the actual role of the union I think was going to be seriously questioned. So all those things coming together meant it was pretty difficult simply to treat the next round of cuts—in this case it happened to be pensions—as simply the continuation of the past, in which a simple set-piece form of industrial action emerged and a settlement on the employers’ terms could simply be the outcome. That set the framework within which the USS dispute then emerged.

Julie: I completely agree with that analysis, and I think it is a really good contextualisation. Evidence I would provide about the dire industrial situation that the union was in was the fact that at Congress last year Hunt proposed an Industrial Commission. UCU Left very quickly at Congress made sure that Industrial Commission was as democratic as possible, and was elected at Congress, rather than appointed by Hunt. So I think the crisis in the union is evidenced by that fact. That Industrial Commission was set up and its findings have now gone to each member.

Camilla: Carlo talked about wider conditions of marketisation and neoliberalism in universities. At King’s it was clear that the attack on pensions was linked to the wider attacks on education. Universities are trying to reduce their liability to staff and invest in building projects. That is very clear at King’s where the university has taken out a lease on Bush House, a high-profile building in what they describe as a “prime central London location” but which is completely unsuitable for university staff. It’s got a 400-seat auditorium and two roof terraces, but staff are going to have to share offices there. It’s been a big point of contention.

Casualisation has been a big issue of course and has angered people for a number of years. At King’s we won higher pay for casualised staff, as a result of the actions of activists in the UCU branch, but it is still a low-paid job given the amount of time we spend preparing for seminars and the time it takes to give students the feedback they deserve in terms of marking. There is a lot of insecurity for casualised teaching staff who don’t always know at the start of term how much work they are going to get, how many lectures they are going to teach, how many essays they are going to have to mark or how many students are going to be in the class. It’s very difficult to know how much work they are going to have when they are signing up to it.2

All of this illustrates how neoliberalism is affecting people’s lives in the university. So, I think the pension strike became like a lightning rod for all sorts of grievances people had, and it was quite easy to make the argument that it is about pensions but about these wider issues as well.

Christian: One of the things that was impressive in terms of the union’s response was that it announced it would have 14 days of escalating industrial action, and then launched a big campaign to Get the Vote Out to win that ballot, and then the result of that ballot in terms of breaking the anti-trade union laws…

Julie: At Lancaster we had the biggest ballot turnout in England, 73 percent, third highest in the country. That was the result of three things. One was our pensions officer, who did about twelve talks to different sections and departments, and outside the university, so it was small groups of staff, including admin and library staff. Secondly, we did regular communications, about three or four times a week, and in those communications we did a regular update of how many people said they had voted so far—we didn’t say which way they had voted—but just said: “Let us know when you have participated”. Thirdly, we had department reps knocking on doors, ticking off lists of members who had voted. I wrote a small piece for the Unite the Resistance website which laid out how we had done it, practically and strategically.3

Carlo: I think it is worth saying something about how we got there, because the experience of branches like Lancaster, Heriot-Watt and others was really instructive in this, in that right across the union there is no doubt about it, the ballot result was phenomenal, way in excess of what anybody, even the most optimistic, thought we could possibly get. That was down to the really detailed work that Julie has just described. For example I know at Heriot-Watt they were doing exactly what Julie has described, and branches were sharing some of this, not as much as they should have done in my opinion, but they were sharing experiences about monitoring the vote as the ballot went on and at Heriot-Watt they got an estimate of within one percent of what the actual outcome was. Monitoring who had voted and who had not, and trying to get that information out to members, proved to be essential in mobilising members.

Julie: That’s such an important point, that’s amazing, Carlo, from a branch organising point of view.

Carlo: Well, what you did at Lancaster is of that order. That core group of branch activists, pensions reps, secretaries, whoever they were, really did something remarkable in showing how the local branches could connect with their membership and how they could use those relationships to generate an outcome in terms of the vote. It demonstrated to the wider trade union movement that the anti-union laws weren’t necessarily going to stifle action—in fact they have done the opposite. They have forced branches to reconnect with their membership in a much more organic and direct sense.

Before we got to the ballot there were also things happening which weren’t necessarily so visible. We had the electronic ballot in November, which again got a very high turnout, but even before that there had been campaigns among activists, particularly those around UCU Left, where information had started emerging by last summer. I am just looking at the UCU Left website—the first bulletin we put out was on the 29 July last year, warning people—activists—that something was coming about pensions.4 That beginning, alerting activists as to what was beginning to emerge with respect to the potential coming pensions dispute, was really important. It allowed for an understanding of the politics around pensions, in other words not just the technical ins and outs of what is and what is not a pension, to start to be taken up and developed by a much much broader layer of individuals. It wasn’t just the traditional pensions rep in branches, where they have them, because they are typically older, they are male, conservative, they are not activists. Pensions reps historically just happen to have, a few years before they retire, a peculiar interest in the pension scheme. What began to emerge by the autumn was not that. We started to get a layer of much younger, much more politicised activists who were understanding the issues behind the pensions dispute, not in terms of the technical details of pensions, but in terms of understanding the wider questions about how it relates to marketisation and the cuts. Once that group started to campaign, that’s where the transformation came in. By November, December, and into January, that’s when that process of developing a new activist layer in the union started to emerge—much earlier than people understood. It wasn’t really until the ballot result and the strike that there was a sudden realisation that something really different was going on here, but there were indications of it much, much earlier than that.

Camilla: I hope other unions can take inspiration from the fact that nearly every institution that was balloted broke the 50 percent turnout threshold specified by the anti-trade union laws.

One other thing I learnt from the Get the Vote Out campaign is that there is a difference between a political Get the Vote Out campaign and an administrative campaign. When unions talk about getting the vote out they tend to see it as an administrative campaign involving ticking boxes and recording who has voted. Of course, it is crucially important to be systematic about who has voted: speaking to everyone; keeping the records and making sure your membership records are accurate. But I think what we argued for was to use the campaign to raise awareness of the wider issues of the strike, not just by talking to the members but also by talking to the students. One thing we learned at King’s was that we should have spoken to the students more effectively in the months leading up to the strike, as some of them felt there was a lack of communication about the strike until quite late, when it was about to start. We should have been more visible in terms of doing stalls and getting posters up as well as knocking on doors.

It’s important to say also that the union showed a lot of confidence in going for 14 days of action, which showed they had a serious strategy. In the past we have had one-day strikes and strikes that lasted two hours and then you go back to work and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of strategy to win.5 When you talk to strikers about this they feel they have lost a days’ pay but not much has come out of it. Calling 14 days of action showed a level of seriousness on the part of the UCU leadership.

This one action might also have an impact on the UK strike figures. In 2016 the total number of working days lost in the year was 322,000. This one strike, involving potentially tens of thousands of workers, could actually have an effect on that, but that perhaps says more about the low starting point that we are starting from.

Carlo: My understanding is with our 14 days of strike action we have exceeded the past two years total strike days lost combined in the UK!6 Well, I hope it’s true…

Christian: When we come to the strike itself and what Carlo said about a new layer of activists in place and emerging through it, I live in Leeds and we saw a little glimpse of that with a strike last term at Leeds University over a change in the statutes which would allow management to sack people for “Some Other Substantial Reason”, and there was a three-day strike against the “sacker’s charter” with teach-outs every day, and in some ways from a Leeds perspective that was a little microcosm of what became the case in February with the mass strike…

Carlo: I think it is important to mention what happened at Leeds last year, because it was conscious among the best activists in the UCU Left and a few others that what was happening at Leeds really was quite significant. There was a very high level of strike action—three days—over something that was very obscure and very specific but at Leeds they took the idea from elsewhere, I think in FE, of taking the strike broader than just a picket line, and began to develop the idea of the teach-out.

That was conscious. Once we recognised the idea that the strike over USS was going ahead, it was instrumental that we recognised we had to replicate something that looked like Leeds. Most of us had no idea what that meant. So it was crucial that the Leeds UCU members put out some information about how to organise a teach-out.7 The biggest lesson I think we took from it was that if there is a strike, it gets a level of popularity and support that we wouldn’t expect, and it built a much, much broader layer of people.

That was already becoming apparent in the work around the ballot, there was a core of activists doing it, and they were getting a massive response from their members, and were beginning to get the activists together into the branches. The branches where that happened most were the branches like those in Lancaster and elsewhere where the left had, over a period of time before that, begun to transform those branches. The ballot was really polarising branches between the old and new activists. Where that polarisation and that transformation had already begun, the ballot allowed that layer of activists to really take hold of the union in their local area. Branches at Newcastle, Queen’s in Belfast, Lancaster, Queen Mary, and a number of others, Aberdeen, Heriot-Watt, were all doing similar types of things. It echoes what Camilla said about the difference between a passive Get the Vote Out campaign and an active Get the Vote Out campaign, which really did begin to galvanise a layer of activists around it.

Camilla: In terms of the strike itself, it is important it does actually have an effect in stopping teaching from happening. At King’s, management actually recorded this and said that in the first week only 11 percent of teaching went ahead on the Strand campus, and 50 percent at Guy’s and Waterloo. In the second week it was 8.5 percent at the Strand site so it shut down a lot of lectures and teaching.8

Carlo talked about teach-outs, and that was an idea that spread quite widely. There were various teach-out type activities at King’s organised by different groups of students and postgrads with the aim of bringing people to the picket lines, building unity between students and staff and fostering a vision of what a different, free education could look like. It was organised with a google document where people could add their own ideas for teach-outs, and as the strike progressed people were coming up with ideas and just adding them. There wasn’t much of an overall management of it, it didn’t need to go through the UCU branch to get approval. In Geography, which is my department, you had people talking about race, decolonisation, climate change, someone did a tour of urban geology, to see what rocks you can find in buildings around campus.

Throughout the strike we saw people taking the initiative, starting to run things for themselves. A woman activist who is relatively new to the union in the department of War Studies, which had not always been the most radical of departments, organised a pre-strike meeting which was the biggest union meeting they have had for years in that department.

On the picket lines people came and made their own placards, they wrote “Don’t cross the picket lines” in Latin and made big posters based on the “Three billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” idea—three billboards outside King’s. There was a constant demand for flyers and things for people to hand out. There were two London-wide demonstrations during the strikes. It was important for people to join them and get a feeling of being part of a big crowd and a sense of wider support from the public with people honking their horns. People were promoting those demonstrations themselves, it didn’t just feel like me going around handing out flyers for the demonstrations, people were taking them off me, and handing them out themselves.

We had a rally on International Women’s Day on 8 March and this resulted in a working group on gender equality, which has raised quite radical demands not just about equal pay, but also linking gender inequality with the issue of pensions, as making cuts to pensions disproportionately affects women, and making demands around providing facilities for childcare and breastfeeding and decolonising the curriculum. That group has continued to meet after the strike. I don’t think these processes of people starting to run things themselves would have emerged if it had just been a one-day strike.

Carlo: Just on that, in Dundee, similar things happened, one of the sessions we had was on “decolonising the curriculum” and that has now been taken up by a group of activists in terms of the equality agenda. The legacy of the strike is clearly that those issues are going to come back into the sector pretty quickly.

Julie: At Lancaster, too, on 28 February, which was the UCU day of action against workplace racism, we had a “women decolonising the curriculum” teach-out, and we took a list of email addresses and that is now a group, and as Carlo said, that will now feed in. The second thing that is really interesting is what Camilla was saying about Geography. Geography was one of the most active at Lancaster too, and what it has done at a departmental level is that it has transformed the sense of collegiality, and reinvigorated and revived the sense of collegiality in at least four or five departments in very real terms. People now meet for lunch with each other, because these were the same people that were on picket lines having coffee together. A reading group has been set up around marketisation in higher education in Geography, so it’s that kind of critical thinking that has been reclaimed by academics. In its broadest sense it’s been almost like the re-intellectualisation of academics who had been turned into machines.

Christian: Yes, there was the same kind of thing at Leeds, with teach-outs every day, and rallies, and people actually having time to meet and think about what the broader purposes of education are about. The question of student support and solidarity for the strike was critical, because winning the “hearts and minds” of students was always going to be fairly decisive in this, and I think what was impressive was the sense that students were, in general, supportive and increasingly so, with the development of student occupations and so on in certain places.

Carlo: One of the interesting questions I think about the student solidarity was “Could it have been organised in advance?” I’m not sure that it could, though obviously if it had been that would have been marvellous, but I don’t think that was the crucial thing. What was crucial was the union organising the strikes with calling 14 days in escalation, in a way that made it clear that this was not going to be tokenistic action. This focused people’s attention in terms of the membership, but also meant that people needed to talk to students and make it clear that this would mean serious disruption to students and to teaching and so they had to know what was going on. That meant that when the strike happened, student solidarity kicked in and became really important.

The students themselves, in terms of occupations, and wider support, were fantastic, but they were still a minority of the student body, and I think that’s an indication of the fact that the student activists didn’t necessarily have the ability to force the student unions or the official bodies of the National Union of Students (NUS) into mobilising a campaign independent of the strikes. One thing for example at Dundee’s picket line, which I thought was really instructive, was on the first couple of days the students who came to the picket lines stood separately from the pickets, and the interaction was really quite forced, in terms of people not having the confidence either as strikers to talk to the students, or students to talk to the strikers. As the strike progressed those barriers broke down, and it became much clearer that this was part of a much broader campaign over marketisation, and therefore students’ opinions and their views of marketisation were just as valid as those of the strikers and what was happening to their pensions. So that movement emerged out of the strike, and the ability of the students to start voicing their own demands started to emerge once the occupations began, that’s when the potential for an independent movement of students against ­marketisation began to emerge.

But I think it was the strike that was the catalyst for all this, and without the recognition that we were going for serious strike action and not just tokenistic one-day strikes, that wouldn’t have happened. It was the decision to launch escalating sustained strike action that provided the recognition among students that this was serious and we should get on board and join in.

Camilla: There was an occupation at King’s towards the end, but it was a minority of students who took that kind of action. It was very brave action at King’s because management were quite hostile when they occupied an area outside management offices. The occupation did result in management meeting with students to discuss a whole range of issues including pay and outsourcing for cleaners and other support staff.

In terms of the majority of students, they did support the strike. According to YouGov, 61 percent of students polled supported the strike, 50 percent blamed the university employers and only 2 percent blamed the staff for the strike.9 So a lot of them were supportive, though not always to the extent of not crossing the picket lines. Often they would go in if their lecture was on, but they would express support and send an email to the principal and so on. Very few were really hostile, but there was a bit of a gap between their willingness to express their support and their willingness to refuse to cross a picket line. In part this shows a lack of experience about what a strike is and what sort of action could have won it very quickly. The student union at King’s did officially support the strike because a petition had been launched and it got the required number of signatures. At King’s I wouldn’t say the student union leadership was that active in visibly supporting the strike, they didn’t put out many emails saying to students come and support the picket lines or come very much to the picket lines themselves. So there was a bit of a gap between what the student activists were doing and what they were able to push the student union leadership to do.

Christian: So the strike as it went on picked up momentum, there were increasing splits on the employers’ side and various vice-chancellors being forced to distance themselves from the official strategy of Universities UK, and there was also growing solidarity from other local trade unions both on campus and off campus, at various rallies and so on, and indeed solidarity for the strike internationally, from striking teachers in West Virginia for example…

Carlo: I think what is also clear is that people involved with the strike were learning, and changing, on the picket line. I think two overriding lessons emerge from the UCU strike. One was the emerging power of the rank and file, once they started to have confidence and recognise that this was their dispute, not anybody else’s, in terms of the official structures. You could see this in the size of the picket lines, and their support for extended action. Secondly, it is about how people’s ideas changed on the picket line. When we talk about class consciousness emerging out of struggle, you literally could see it there, that’s what was going on. It reinforces all the kind of arguments we have about working class power and the potential of revolutionary change to bring about a different way of thinking, a different class consciousness.

Julie: What I found very helpful is when Carlo talked about branches being ­transformed, and I think as revolutionaries, as Trotskyists, we need to think about the problematic nature of our position as well. When we transform branches, we will get hostility from the old guard, and we need to theorise that hostility.

Christian: Thinking about that hostility, should we move onto thinking about the 12 March “deal” agreed by the UCU leadership that would postpone the question for three years but wouldn’t really resolve it, and the massive rank and file revolt that then took place around the slogan “No capitulation”, and thinking about that pretty decisive moment in the strike, which forced the leadership to reject this “deal” and keep the strike on?

Carlo: There is a piece by Sean Vernell talking about the FE dispute a few years ago, which he has just recirculated which I think is quite instructive.10 Essentially the point is that the patterns of the bureaucracy here—they sought a deal as quickly as possible, but it is one thing to negotiate a deal with the employers, but then another step to try and push that through to try and end the dispute rather than go back to the activists and the members and get some feedback on that. So the leadership saw it as an endpoint, whereas the members saw it as a part of a process through which democracy happens in a dispute, and so wanted to have their view on it, and on 12 March they decided it wasn’t good enough.

That came out of the democracy that was emerging in the dispute by the mass participation on the picket lines which was crucially important. Branches could hold mass meetings on picket lines and literally within hours of a proposal being released, give direct feedback to negotiators. So me as a UCU negotiator had long discussions with Julie and others on the night of the 12 March and the following morning about what feedback branches were giving, and it was direct, within hours of the proposal coming out. The issue was going to be about the proposal and whether it would be about feeding back to members and getting feedback from them, or whether it was an agreement that was not going to go to the membership. The rank and file activism was the crucial component that allowed for democracy in the union to emerge, and it did with the mass protest outside UCU headquarters on the day and the branch delegates’ meeting which then completely transformed the atmosphere of the strike.

What took people by surprise was that the strike went from being a celebration on the picket lines, open discussion, democracy to, after 12 March, being about a strike that had some backbone, that people weren’t striking out of celebration, they were striking to get real change in the universities and that realisation again came out of the emergence of class consciousness in the strike, which again I think took everyone by surprise about how widespread that was.

Julie: It really was a historic strike, and 12 March was really a historic day, from turning around from the celebration on the picket lines to an actual opposition, and also the democratisation of it, and the direct democracy that Carlo talks about.

Camilla: One question to consider is what this says about the UCU ­leadership that they thought this would be acceptable to members. The fact that they considered this deal acceptable shows I think that they were quite removed from the mood of members at the time. A few people asked this question and this was the point when a group of people who were very critical of the union leadership became more vocal.

But it was inspiring to see how quickly people moved and the kind of demonstration of democracy on 13 March when the deal was put to delegates from branches. I think all the branches that took a vote on which way to instruct their delegates voted to reject the proposed deal—in many cases overwhelmingly. The demonstration at UCU headquarters in Carlow Street where the branch delegate meeting was taking place saw hundreds of people crammed into the street at just a few hours’ notice. It was really inspiring to see how quickly people had been mobilised to go up there.

The normal tempo of trade union activism is quite slow, you put motions to your branch in advance to be discussed and there is sometimes a long time between branch meetings. But at this point things were moving unusually quickly. I think Carlo is right that because the strike was on and because the picket lines were running at the time it had a very different dynamic to what would have happened without the strikes. There are NHS workers at the moment discussing whether to accept or reject a less than ideal pay deal, and I think their conversations would be very different at the moment if they were involved in strike action.

Carlo: Just a point on “Why did the union officials think this would be acceptable?” From the very beginning there were discussions among the negotiating team about whether or not this would be acceptable to take back to the branches. Hunt knew right from the beginning of that discussion that Marion Hersh and myself as UCU Left negotiators would oppose it, but if that was the settlement that the employers agreed to, that’s what the settlement was.

What I think underlies that is two-fold. One is that the employers didn’t want to budge an inch, and even now still are reluctant to criticise the November valuation, which creates the “deficit”, so they weren’t prepared to go as far as UCU wanted in terms of pushing back on USS evaluation, and that is still an issue for the Joint Expert Panel that has come out of this. Secondly, I think there has been for years in the previous two disputes a long-running argument in UCU about how the USS scheme is valued, and what I think underpins that is the idea that there is a “deficit” at all. The left’s argument has increasingly been made and won in the union that the “deficit” is a myth, whereas many on the right of the union and many of the full-timers accept the methodology, or parts of the methodology, that create this “deficit”. Intellectually I think they understand the scheme, which the employers and the union created, and therefore they then buy into an ideology which is about making sure the scheme is viable in terms of how the scheme operates through these pension fund regulations. So there is already an acceptance of the ideology of deficits. So part of the reason about why was this “deal” deemed to be acceptable was two-fold. One is that it is underpinned by an ideology that is largely accepted, that these schemes are valued in this way, and secondly, the “deal” was far in excess of what the right wing wanted to accept.

So before the strike started, some of the activists were arguing that we should accept the proposals for 100 percent defined contribution for this valuation and try at a later date to get back to a defined benefit pension scheme. Others were arguing we had to have a “clever” way of out-manoeuvring the employers with the independent chair, which meant putting forward a proposal that was so low that it might get the independent chair to vote with us against the employers in negotiations, and the figures they were talking about were way below what the employers eventually came to us with. So the reason why the right wing of the union thought this was an acceptable deal was that for them it was! It was 50 percent above what they were prepared to settle for, so from their perspective it looked marvellous. From the activists’ perspective it looked like this was actually accepting the whole ideology and accepting that the pension scheme was going to go, if not this time around, then certainly by the next time around. So that’s why the activists stood their ground, and demanded no change, and the argument around the “status quo”, the argument around “no detriment” (ie that any settlement should leave pension benefits no worse than they were before) started to emerge and began to be articulated from that point in time.

Christian: This raises broader questions about the nature of the trade union bureaucracy, but when Camilla talks about how the pace of the strike had been so fast, and one of the debates about that has emerged in the union about the role of social media in the strike—in terms of it being a historic strike, it was perhaps “the most tweeted about strike ever”. I just wondered how much of a role social media played in terms of amplifying the rank and file demands as they emerged and that new sense of class consciousness?

Carlo: My view of the social media issues are that once the strike started, it became crucial to the way activists then organised, but until the strike started it didn’t. The strike came out of the day-to-day “drudgery”, day-to-day communication at a face-to-face level that branches were having with their members, and this strike could not have happened without a branch level organisation and the mobilisation of branch level activists, because these were the people who got the vote out. Once the strike started and everybody got involved and importantly wanted a say in how the strike then operates, social media became crucial. But they are not separate from one another, they are interlinked and the social media could have an impact precisely because the strike was organised at a rank and file branch level. So the picket lines didn’t come out of social media, the picket lines came out of branches organising.

Again, Liverpool is a good example of this. Before the strike started, they drew up a daily rota for the 14 days, of exactly who was going to be on the picket line and what times they were going to do. The rota was designed to show that they could cover the picket lines for every hour of every day, but it was superfluous by the end of it because everybody wanted to join the picket lines every day all day. That’s the transformation that was going on. But the fact they took the strike so seriously and drew up a rota in that form meant that once the strike began to expand, the social media had a ready platform on which it could build that influence. We need to make that connection about the way in which social media doesn’t just exist separately from organisation, it reinforces and helps us build the organisation.

Christian: If we think about where we are now and the question of democratising the union, obviously there was this new “offer” put forward on the recommendation of Hunt, which stopped the shift towards “defined contributions” and created a Joint Expert Panel instead. Most members voted to accept this over Easter in an individual ballot, at a time when branches couldn’t easily meet to discuss the potentially highly problematic nature of this new “offer”. There is obviously now pressure on Hunt to deliver and make this new “deal” work, but I wondered what it all meant for UCU Left and the way forward now?

Carlo: I don’t think we know yet what the impact of this strike is going to be on this trade union, because the issues around democracy and UCU transforming itself to represent these views are now going to come into it and have only just begun, and none of us really know how far it will go. The membership figures are up from last year by 16,000, that is what Hunt has reported, but that is a net increase. So if we add in the fact that people leave the union anyway through retirement and going out of the sector or whatever, the other figure I have seen is a report of an increase of 23-24,000 people. That increase is not going to disappear, if anything there is a large number of those individuals, a significant proportion, who will now come into the union structures and are making their voices heard already, that they want a different, more responsive trade union. So I think the transformation of UCU has only just begun, and no-one really knows where this is going.

What I do think is the case though, with respect to the USS dispute, is that this is not over. In terms of the outcome, it is very good for us that the employers’ side have had to take the defined contributions proposal off the table, and that is now finished. That is a massive success for us. But they haven’t got an outcome that is readily digestible for the employers. If there is no other outcome from this Joint Expert Panel, and there may not be, then cost-sharing comes in. The fundamental reason why that is problematic for the employers, apart from the fact that it just increases their costs into the pension scheme, is that it goes to the heart of what this dispute was about. It undermines their ability to drive down costs, increase the expansion of buildings, and engage in marketisation. So the outcome of this dispute isn’t simply about pensions, it goes back to the very beginning of the origins of the dispute itself, which was about the marketisation of higher education. The pensions dispute has been the biggest spanner in that works ever.

It is not clear to me yet exactly how the dispute will evolve or the consequences of how this dispute will evolve. Marketisation is still there, and being pushed, but the ability of the employers to manoeuvre within this is now open to question and has been challenged. It goes back to Antonio Gramsci’s argument about wars of position versus wars of manoeuvre. That in a sense is the outcome we have now got—an incremental debate about the extent to which marketisation can be driven through—and the pensions dispute has put a huge barrier in their way. Now the pensions dispute has not killed off marketisation, it has killed off the defined contributions scheme, but marketisation has now got a big barrier in its way, and that is a workforce which is now challenging the employers’ hegemony over casualisation, over pay discrimination, over the curriculum, over what the university is and who it is for, over all sorts of areas, and it has opened up a whole new set of debates, both in the union and in the university and in the academy. It is not clear where that is all going to go just yet, but the likelihood is that radicalisation is going to be felt in all different ways across the whole university sector from now on.

Camilla: In terms of the differences between the rank and file and the leadership that the strike has opened up, the way that Hunt and the UCU leadership have reacted to the latest proposal from UUK, that they put to a ballot, shows that after the events of 12 and 13 March they have been trying to put the strike action back in the box. The view of our branch at King’s is that the latest UUK offer should have been seen more as a proposal than a deal. The union should have responded with a counter-proposal of our own—sometimes referred to as asking them to “revise and resubmit”. Ideally, we want to guarantee no detriment to the pensions, but at the very least we could have asked for more assurances about what UUK were offering and demanded a more transparent Joint Expert Panel process, before deciding whether to put it to a ballot of members.

When the leadership did put the proposal to a ballot it showed a couple of things. When we had our branch meeting at King’s we took a position to advise members to reject the proposal, and the majority of the people in the meeting voted that way. But when it actually went to a ballot I imagine that a majority of members at King’s voted to accept, in line with the outcome of the ballot nationally. It shows when you are in a meeting discussing issues with people in person a more radical view can prevail than when you are on your own in front of a computer just voting.

The other factor is that Hunt of course put forward several emails advising members to accept. Even if people might have wanted to vote reject, and if necessary take further strike action, they saw that their union leadership and their general secretary wouldn’t necessarily be on their side as much as they had been.11

So, it brings out debates about the leadership that have been going on for quite a long time. During the strikes you had this sense of unity. But now these sorts of debates are coming to the surface. Now some people want to put a vote of no confidence in the general secretary, which is certainly something for us to discuss.

Christian: The wider context of Corbynism within all this, and its contradictions, is also interesting. The fact that you have the Labour Party nominally supporting a strike like this was, I think, obviously very helpful and significant, you had various Labour MPs coming and speaking on the picket line rallies, and there is perhaps the potential for a future Corbyn government to take on some of these issues around marketisation. On the other hand, with Corbynism generally British trade union leaders have had the position of “wait for Jeremy” and have been reluctant to try and organise much industrial action—this UCU strike bucks that trend, in the sense that it was 14 days, unprecedented to have such a militant strike in this sector, and at this time…

Carlo: The strike itself was driven by underlying issues of marketisation, and that was the motivating factor in building solidarity with the struggle, so that is why students, PhD students, casualised staff and so on got involved. And that’s why gender and race discrimination issues came out and became centrepieces for the debate in the strike, even though everybody understood that in terms of the outcome of the strike in terms of pensions it couldn’t impact on those things. So people were joining a strike to voice their opposition to marketisation and so on, in the full knowledge that the outcome wasn’t going to address that—but they still did it.

My view on that is because, just like the junior doctors’ strike, which is quite instructive here, it fits a pattern of strikes which demonstrates the opposition to the Tories, neoliberalism and austerity. My view is that is going to be the feature of strikes in the future, where anybody who stands up to austerity and the Tories automatically becomes a symbol of resistance to neoliberalism, and people understand it in that way, therefore solidarity comes out of a politicisation against neoliberalism, irrespective of what the strike is, or who is engaged in the strike. That is important for us because I think it tells us about how class and conflict within capitalism can emerge, that we have got a mechanism whereby the working class as an organised body can begin placing class demands on capital through the organisation of people at work and against exploitation. That is really important in terms of showing where power lies in society, and how much power ordinary people do have in their lives.

Getting back to the question about where this leaves us in the union, well, we have got a radically different union emerging here. The idea that you can simply impose your will as general secretary by going over the heads of activists I think is problematic because I think the activists are trusted by the members because of that local organisation, and they are able to contest the view of the general secretary and full time officials precisely in meetings and elsewhere. So building the links between the activists and the branch organisation is crucial to this. My experience at Dundee is similar to Camilla’s at King’s, when people were in a meeting and heard the full arguments they changed their view, and the more these debates take place, the more people are shifting their views from one way to another. It doesn’t automatically mean that it goes to the left—the right can win an argument—but I think the more people hear these debates the more they are instinctively taking a more left-wing view, because they understand that this union, and trade unionism more generally, is a way in which a challenge to neoliberalism and austerity can manifest itself, and politically that is where people generally are at.

Camilla: In terms of next steps and local organisation I think organising in our branches is really important. I think there is a lot of potential for people to build the union at a departmental level, integrating the new activists that have got involved into the branches and electing more of those people onto the branch committee. We need a network that can carry on campaigning around the issues that have come out of the strike. Initiatives like the gender equality group at King’s are important examples of political trade unionism. It does talk about the issue of pensions but also raises a number of other demands that could be won in the here and now so we could demonstrate the relevance of the union to people’s working lives but also not take the pensions issue off the table.

Carlo: Yes, organising the rank and file is critical, which brings us onto UCU Left. Why is UCU Left different from other formations which have emerged, given the strike has seen a flowering of different left formations in the union that come from different political traditions? UCU Left is the established left in the union, but there is a type of autonomist-influenced left around in terms of a rank and file group, and also an academic left which has emerged around the USS Briefs, an online set of discussion documents.12 These have emerged because the left in the union has historically been quite weak numerically, and once the strike emerged and once activists erupted in the numbers they did on the picket lines, the left represented a numerically small grouping. So pretty quickly these left formations start to emerge.

One of the crucial things is that there is a question for the left—does it operate within the union itself, or does it operate outside of the union? Now some arguments, particularly around the 12 March settlement, were whether or not people should leave the union if it doesn’t represent the left’s and rank and file views. I think it was a revelation to many people to realise there is actually a left and a right in this union, and the left in the union can represent those views and can participate and be part of building a much wider and deeper left in the union, and that is what we should to be seeking to do. But that means we have to be part of the union, we can’t abstain from union structures or retreat into academia. The left has to be in both areas—it has to be in the academy but it also has to be in the union, and it can’t simply leave the union structures to be dominated by a right wing who have now been successfully challenged through this dispute.

It is true to say without a shadow of a doubt that this dispute would not have happened if it hadn’t been for a left in the union, organised through UCU Left. All of the run-up to the dispute up until January emerged because the left in the union were organised. They put motions to the last UCU Congress, saying an attack on pensions is coming up and we must fight over it. They put motions to the Higher Education Committee from July through to September, campaigning for a speaking tour of branches, and to get the message out to members. They put motions calling for a ballot for action and a campaign for winning that ballot. All of that groundwork, all of the difficult discussions in the bureaucracy were taking place six or nine months before the dispute actually erupted, and without the left in the union the outcome of those discussions would have been very, very different. That’s why we need a left that is both focused on the rank and file, building locally, but actually also has a foot in the national structures, and we have to get the national structures to reflect the voices of the left and of the activists themselves. I think that is one of the key lessons.

Camilla: There has often been a debate and discussion particularly among casualised members of staff about whether to take an abstentionist position and build rank and file networks as an alternative to getting places on the leadership of the union. But I think Carlo is right that we can’t just leave the union to be dominated by the right. That argument hasn’t gone away, it has become more of the case now we have a much bigger union with more activists coming into it.

Julie Hearn is a lecturer in politics and UCU branch equalities officer at Lancaster University. She is a member of the union’s national executive committee.

Christian Høgsbjerg is co-editor of Marxism, Colonialism and Cricket: C L R James’s Beyond a Boundary (Duke University Press, 2018).

Carlo Morelli is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Dundee and a member of the UCU NEC. He is an elected negotiator for the USS pension scheme and a member of the UCU Left activist group in UCU. He is a member of the SWP in Dundee.

Camilla Royle is a postgraduate student at King’s College London.


1 UCU, 2018a.

2 For more on casualisation in higher education see O’Hara, 2015, and Chakrabortty and Weale, 2016.

3 Hearn, 2018.

4 UCU Left, 2017.

5 UCU held a series of two-hour strikes over pay in early 2014—UCU, 2014.

6 Jack Saunders, “480,000! More than the last 2 years on record [2015 and 2016] combined” tweet on 14 March 2018—

7 Leeds UCU, 2017.

8 According to two emails sent to students by the vice-principal for education on 28 February and 9 March 2018. The difference between the two sites may reflect that more social science courses are taught at the Strand.

9 UCU, 2018b.

10 Vernell, 2012.

11 Thanks to Joseph Choonara for this point.


Chakrabortty, Aditya, and Sally Weale, 2016, “Universities Accused of ‘Importing Sports Direct model’ for Lecturers’ Pay”, Guardian (16 November),

Hearn, Julie, 2018, “How we won the Strike Ballot at Lancaster University”, Unite the Resistance (23 January),

Leeds UCU, 2017, “Organising a Teach-out” (15 December),

O’Hara, Mary, 2015, “University Lecturers on the Breadline: is the UK following in America’s Footsteps?”, Guardian (17 November),

UCU, 2014, “Dates and Times of Two-hour Walkouts to Target Teaching in Universities Announced” (15 January),

UCU, 2018, “Sally Hunt warns Time is Running Out to Stop USS Pensions Strikes at 61 Universities” (9 February),

UCU, 2018b, “Poll Shows Students Support Pension Strikes and Blame Universities for the Disruption” (22 February),

UCU Left, 2017, “USS Pensions: Lies, Damned Lies and Valuations” (29 July),

Vernell, Sean, 2012, “Success against the IfL”, UCU Left (7 April),