By Jacob Winter, BA Politics and International Relations
On the 17th of February, the UCU announced their strikes would be paused for seven days after breakthroughs in negotiations regarding pay, conditions and pensions. This move has drawn criticism from many members of the Union, as no vote took place on whether to pause the strikes, as well as the immediate return to work, leaving academic staff scrambling to plan classes.
The UCU’s General Secretary, Jo Grady, said, ‘Strike action by 70,000 university staff has secured unprecedented commitments from university employers on pay, conditions and pensions. Action can now be paused to allow for a period of calm. This moment belongs to every university worker who has courageously stood on picket lines.’
The UCU strikes have been ongoing since 2018, but the most recent strikes come alongside a new wave of trade union militancy, with the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) and Communication Workers Union (CWU) spearheading massive public sector strikes against wage stagnation whilst inflation skyrockets. The UCU announced that strikes would be occurring in 150 universities and colleges, with upwards of 70,000 academic workers striking over the spring.
The demands of the UCU at SOAS were as follows:
- Increase of pay
- Closure of pay gaps in regard to race, disability and gender
- Elimination of precarious work
- Reduction of excessive workloads
- Reform to full-time contracts of 35 hours with no loss of pay
The pause on the strike after the beginning of negotiations was widely unpopular, even at the highest ranks within the union. Saira Weiner, who sits on the UCU Higher Education Committee, which usually makes decisions on industrial action, told Times Higher Education, ‘Our strike action has clearly put pressure on the employers, but there is no evidence that there is enough movement to justify in any way the general secretary’s decision to impose a “pause” on our strike action. UCU is a member-led union and many are extremely disappointed that this decision was made without reference to the UCU’s democratic structures or membership.’
“Student confusion regarding which classes are ongoing and which aren’t has led to lower turnout in tutorials and lectures, while tutors and lecturers have been left scrambling to find material for classes that were supposed to be cancelled.”
At SOAS, discontent around the sudden pause to the strikes was widespread. Student confusion regarding which classes are ongoing and which aren’t has led to lower turnout in tutorials and lectures, while tutors and lecturers have been left scrambling to find material for classes that were supposed to be cancelled.
One teaching fellow, who wished to remain anonymous, stated, ‘I don’t necessarily see the decision as undemocratic given the union’s mandate, but the decision seemed arbitrary and based on goodwill and vague promises rather than meaningful and substantive progress in negotiations. The short notice of the decision had a negative impact on my workload and my ability to commute, which as a precariously employed teaching fellow, felt as though the decision had an adverse effect on me.’
Director Adam Habib made no statement on the pausing of the strikes, but had initially made statements condemning the strikes, claiming that they were not ‘the most prudent course of action’. According to an email sent out by the Student Union, Habib has also encouraged crossing the picket line and encouraging in-person and online teaching to continue.
The strikes, alongside other disruptions to student life, have pushed the SOAS Strike Solidarity campaign to publish a series of demands, primarily around tuition refunds. Financial compensation for students, upwards of a full term’s worth of fees, must be returned to students from the University’s documented surplus and reserves. Likewise, the campaign has made its solidarity and support for the striking workers clear, refusing to blame them for the disruption but rather the University administration. Although no ‘fee strikes’ have occurred yet, the campaign is collecting signatures to lobby the University administration.
Photo Caption: SOAS UCU members on strike (Credit: Socialist Appeal).