Well, here we all are again, out on strike. I am furious and very disappointed that it has come to this. Yesterday was very similar to the first strike day in March 2018: A wet soggy morning on the picket line at King’s Buildings …… followed by a rally in Bristo Square.
The PA system was no better than it was a year and a bit ago and the speakers were just as shouty and left-wing. We had the additional colour of the rally taking place immediately after an autumn graduation ceremony, so that the far side of the Square was busy with new graduands and their families.
Although I felt I had to support the strike, I was far from sure that the timing of it was a good idea. Who, I asked myself, was going to take any notice at all of us, while the country was in the throes of a general election campaign? My impression, however, is that the BBC, and other sections of the news media, are giving the strike far more air time and column inches than they did in 2018. Props are due to the Guardian for telling it like it is, here and here, and a long, loud raspberry to the Murdoch empire’s Times (who I will not dignify with a link) for telling us to go back to work.
University management teams across the UK will be painfully aware of what we have learned from the 2018 strike and strikes in earlier years. Symbolic one and two day strikes cause little disruption and achieve nothing. More extensive action is hard to ignore and can cause real change. The 2018 strike moved the universities from a position of “We are taking away the defined benefit pensions that you all paid for. Deal with it.” to a position of “You can keep the pension that you have paid for. We will work out together how to ensure that the scheme is sustainable.” The reason that we are back on strike over pensions is the collapse of that negotiation. The Universities have increased their own contribution to the scheme and have made us increase our contributions too. This is pretty logical: the problem is that there is no agreement on whether the increased payments imposed on us are necessary, and whether we can afford them, given that our pay has decreased by 17% in real terms since 2009. The matter has been exacerbated by the sacking from the joint expert panel (who were supposed to be sorting the matter out) of Prof. Jane Hutton, whose main “crime” appears to have been the repeating of truths uncomfortable to university management teams.
This time, the strike is not just about pensions: it is also about the decline in the real value of our pay. UCU are quoting a figure of 17% in real terms since 2009, but my memory of strikes going back to the 1990s is that they always were about a long-term decline in pay relative to living costs and the salaries of other professional workers. To confuse the issue further, the strike also asks our employers to address the gender imbalance in pay. This is a complex issue, and I (stale, pale and male as I am) am not the person to address it. But even I can understand that it has a variety of causes, some of which could be addressed by individual university leaders, but some of which would have to be addressed by society as a whole.