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 1⁄75 to 1⁄85 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.
Many nonprofits have seen a big dip in support in the first part of 2021, and here at In These Times, donation income has fallen by more than 20% compared to last year. For a lean publication like ours, a drop in support like that is a big deal.
After everything that happened in 2020, we don't blame anyone for wanting to take a break from the news. But the underlying causes of the overlapping crises that occurred last year remain, and we are not out of the woods yet. The good news is that progressive media is now more influential and important than ever—but we have a very small window to make change.
At a moment when so much is at stake, having access to independent, informed political journalism is critical. To help get In These Times back on track, we’ve set a goal to bring in 500 new donors by July 31. Will you be one of them?