The Wave of Militant Teacher Strikes Has Gone Global. Just Look at the UK.

Steven Parfitt

University and College Union members in the UK walked off the job starting February 22. (UCU/ Facebook)

The wave of mil­i­tant teacher actions that began in West Vir­ginia is now spread­ing through­out the Unit­ed States, to Okla­homa, Ken­tucky and, poten­tial­ly soon, Ari­zona. Teach­ers in these and oth­er states are fight­ing back against aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures that have, in recent decades, led to pay cuts, reduced job secu­ri­ty and wors­en­ing work­ing con­di­tions. Their rebel­lion is a sign to oth­er work­ers: if you want to beat back attacks on your wages and con­di­tions, your best choice is to strike. 

And these actions haven’t been con­fined to the Unit­ed States. On Feb­ru­ary 22, the same day that West Vir­ginia teach­ers began their walk­out, more than 40,000 lec­tur­ers, researchers, tech­ni­cal and aca­d­e­m­ic-relat­ed staff went on strike at 61 British uni­ver­si­ties. Three oth­er uni­ver­si­ties joined them the fol­low­ing week.

The strike was called by the Uni­ver­si­ty and Col­lege Union (UCU), in response to pro­pos­als by uni­ver­si­ty man­agers to cut pen­sions for high­er edu­ca­tion work­ers at just under half of Britain’s 130 uni­ver­si­ties. The pro­posed changes would have turned the Uni­ver­si­ty Super­an­nu­a­tion Scheme (USS), which cov­ers about 300,000 active and retired uni­ver­si­ty work­ers, from a defined-ben­e­fit plan, where employ­ers col­lec­tive­ly guar­an­tee a cer­tain lev­el of pay­ment to retirees, to a defined-con­tri­bu­tion pen­sion plan, which mere­ly guar­an­tees a cer­tain lev­el of con­tri­bu­tions. The UCU esti­mat­ed that these changes could cost a new lec­tur­er £208,000 over the course of their retire­ment, or near­ly £9,600 per year.

To protest the pro­posed pen­sion cuts, the UCU planned 14 days of indus­tri­al action over four weeks to esca­late pres­sure on uni­ver­si­ty man­agers and their rep­re­sen­ta­tive body, Uni­ver­si­ties UK. The first week of action saw two strike days; the sec­ond saw three, the third four, and all five work­ing days in the fourth week. Dur­ing those four weeks, come snow or icy rain, the num­ber of lec­tur­ers, tech­ni­cal and aca­d­e­m­ic-relat­ed staff on the pick­et lines only increased. Thou­sands of new mem­bers have joined the union since the strike began.

On the eve of the UCU strike, a YouGov poll showed that uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port­ed the teacher-led action. Stu­dents have since joined them on pick­et lines, and at more than 20 uni­ver­si­ties they have occu­pied key build­ings on cam­pus to ramp up the pres­sure on their Vice-Chan­cel­lors (top man­agers) to meet the union’s demands. The pub­lic has also not turned against the strik­ers, cer­tain­ly not on the pick­et lines or in the press. Even the Finan­cial Times, a reli­able mouth­piece for the City of Lon­don and no friend of the unions, has cast seri­ous doubt on the wis­dom of the pro­posed pen­sion changes.

Uni­ver­si­ties UK, mean­while, has seen its uni­ty threat­ened. The Vice-Chan­cel­lor of New­cas­tle Uni­ver­si­ty, Chris Day, had few sec­on­ders when, on the first day of the strike, he announced his full sup­port for strik­ing work­ers. Since then, more than half of the 64 Vice-Chan­cel­lors at uni­ver­si­ties affect­ed by the dis­pute joined Day in urg­ing Uni­ver­si­ties UK to either drop their pro­posed changes alto­geth­er or return to nego­ti­a­tions with the UCU. Six days into the strike, on Feb­ru­ary 27, Uni­ver­si­ties UK agreed to arbi­tra­tion with the union through ACAS, a pub­licly-run con­cil­i­a­tion service.

As in West Vir­ginia, strik­ing UCU mem­bers are chal­leng­ing an edu­ca­tion mod­el that short-changes teach­ers. Many younger uni­ver­si­ty staff face years of low-paid and tem­po­rary work before they can access a secure job. By plac­ing in jeop­ardy one of their few remain­ing priv­i­leges, a pen­sion, Uni­ver­si­ties UK has encour­aged uni­ver­si­ty work­ers to bring their oth­er griev­ances to the forefront.

The enor­mous growth since 1999 of aca­d­e­mics work­ing on short-term, casu­al and tem­po­rary con­tracts, the rough­ly 15 per­cent drop in the real wages of aca­d­e­m­ic staff since 2009, the gen­der and racial imbal­ances in acad­e­mia, the bureau­crat­ic reor­ga­ni­za­tions that have plagued admin­is­tra­tive staff at many uni­ver­si­ties, and the steep hikes in tuition fees since 2010, are now the stuff of pick­et-line conversation.

For­mer­ly pas­sive aca­d­e­m­ic staff have become active. Their dis­cus­sions have moved beyond the imme­di­ate issues at stake in this strike. They are imag­in­ing an alter­na­tive uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem free from busi­ness meth­ods, pre­car­i­ous labor, cor­po­rate con­trol and inflat­ed man­age­r­i­al salaries.

And the dis­pute has helped to trans­form the UCU. In pre­vi­ous dis­putes, some branch pres­i­dents were lucky if they could con­vince half the local com­mit­tee to stand duty on pick­et lines. Now the pick­ets swell with staff and stu­dents, and UCU mem­bers are tak­ing a more active role in deter­min­ing the direc­tion of the union. This increased involve­ment by rank-and-file mem­bers was on full dis­play when the UCU and Uni­ver­si­ties UK reached a pro­vi­sion­al agree­ment on March 12, fol­low­ing two weeks of arbitration.

In return for a three-year tran­si­tion­al arrange­ment in which the USS would remain a defined-ben­e­fits scheme, the agree­ment weak­ened every oth­er ele­ment of the pen­sion plan. The accru­al rate, used to cal­cu­late final ben­e­fits for the pen­sion, dropped from 175 to 185 per year, as did the salary thresh­old, from £55,000 to £42,000. Ben­e­fits were indexed to infla­tion, but only up to 2.5 per­cent— at a time when infla­tion in the UK hov­ers around 3 per­cent. The agree­ment also estab­lished that strike pay would be docked, but the UCU would nev­er­the­less encour­age” its mem­bers to resched­ule class­es. That demand was not only imprac­ti­cal, because uni­ver­si­ties’ teach­ing space already strains at full capac­i­ty, it was also an insult, because it meant extra work for no pay.

The new­ly mobi­lized union mem­ber­ship would have none of it. With the slo­gan no capit­u­la­tion,” thou­sands of UCU mem­bers ensured that dozens of local branch­es vot­ed to reject the agree­ment on the same day it was pub­lished. When the High­er Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee (HEC) of the UCU met to con­sid­er the deal on March 13, hun­dreds of strik­ers protest­ed out­side the com­mit­tee room and local branch­es of the UCU reject­ed the agreement.

The HEC reject­ed the agree­ment too. The strike con­tin­ued until the four-week East­er break began in mid- or late-March (depend­ing on the uni­ver­si­ty) when teach­ing came to a halt. Dur­ing that break, on March 23, Uni­ver­si­ties UK pre­sent­ed the union with a sec­ond proposal.

The new deal would put in place an inde­pen­dent body of pen­sion experts, half appoint­ed by the union and half by the employ­ers, which would inves­ti­gate the finan­cial state of the USS fund. Uni­ver­si­ties UK guar­an­teed that the scheme would remain broad­ly com­pa­ra­ble” with cur­rent arrange­ments, an ambigu­ous phrase that does not inspire trust in many UCU mem­bers. At a meet­ing on March 28, the High­er Edu­ca­tion Com­mit­tee vot­ed to send the deal out to the mem­ber­ship for a vote.

This sec­ond deal has cre­at­ed more divi­sion among union mem­bers than the first. The UCU Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary, Sal­ly Hunt, has made it clear that she sup­ports the new deal. In an email to the mem­ber­ship she wrote that the employ­ers have tak­en their defined con­tri­bu­tion’ pro­pos­al off the table,” and that the prospect for wring­ing any more con­ces­sions out of Uni­ver­si­ties UK are low.” Some local branch­es, and mem­bers in infor­mal polls, have indi­cat­ed their desire to accept the proposal.

Many oth­er local branch­es, mean­while, have passed motions call­ing for a rejec­tion of the deal, and grass­roots groups on social media have mobi­lized against it. They fall into two camps. The first wants to revise and resub­mit,” to seek fur­ther assur­ances from Uni­ver­si­ties UK about future pen­sion arrange­ments before they agree to the deal. The sec­ond camp wants no detri­ment,” an upfront guar­an­tee that any changes to the pen­sion scheme will not come at work­ers’ expense. Both camps will vote reject.”

The bal­lot clos­es on Fri­day, April 13. If UCU mem­bers reject the deal, their strike will con­tin­ue into the sum­mer. What­ev­er option they choose, they have shown their man­agers, and their union lead­ers, that they will not sim­ply roll over when faced with fur­ther cuts to their pay, pen­sions, con­tracts and conditions.

And their exam­ple could soon spread to British ele­men­tary and high school teach­ers. Mem­bers of two major teach­ers’ unions, the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Union (NEU) and the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of School­mas­ters Union of Women Teach­ers (NASUWT), vot­ed at their annu­al con­fer­ences in late March to take sus­tained strike action if they do not receive a sub­stan­tial pay rise this year.

The bat­tle to pro­tect pub­lic edu­ca­tion is heat­ing up across the globe, and strug­gles in one place are feed­ing into strug­gles in anoth­er. West Vir­ginia teach­ers dis­played this when they tweet­ed pic­tures express­ing their sol­i­dar­i­ty with strik­ing British uni­ver­si­ty staff from the state capi­tol in Charleston, W.Va.

Nor is the bat­tle restrict­ed to the Eng­lish-speak­ing world. Uni­ver­si­ty staff in Fin­land, for exam­ple, went on strike in late Feb­ru­ary over pay, fol­low­ing ear­li­er strikes by uni­ver­si­ty staff in aus­ter­i­ty-wracked Greece. Edu­ca­tors in the Glob­al South face even greater chal­lenges, and greater odds — yet school teach­ers in Gabon, Guinea and Cameroon, to take only three African exam­ples, have gone on strike in the past year. Brazil­ian teach­ers are cur­rent­ly fight­ing to pro­tect their pensions.

Teach­ers in West Vir­ginia helped to light a fire that is now spread­ing from state to state, and from coun­try to coun­try. The UCU strike is one exam­ple among many of the pow­er of the work­ing class to use col­lec­tive action to chal­lenge aus­ter­i­ty, pay stag­na­tion and pre­car­i­ous work — and to pro­tect pub­lic edu­ca­tion for gen­er­a­tions to come.

Steven Parfitt is a Teach­ing Fel­low at Lough­bor­ough Uni­ver­si­ty in the UK. He has writ­ten exten­sive­ly on the his­to­ry of the British and Amer­i­can labor move­ments, espe­cial­ly the glob­al his­to­ry of the Knights of Labor.
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