Highly effective national industrial action fights pension attack

Students unite with striking education workers

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The UCU (University and College Union) first five days of the 14-days escalating programme in the pre-1992 universities have been rock solid! It is the best ever strike of workers with the most pickets, the most of new members joining, the most demonstrations and protests, and with the best organised well attended strike committee meetings.
By Martin Ralph.
 
Many union branches are growing, and some have increased by their membership by 20 percent.
The UUK (University UK) senior management working with the government assumed their proposed pension robbery, to cut pensions by 50 to 75 per cent, would be fought in the old way – a few days of strike, the majority national union leadership calls off the strike and then workers go back to work. This time it is different.

Strikes continued very strongly

Large numbers of pickets, rallies, demonstrations, protests, strike teach-outs is the pattern in English, Scottish and Welsh universities. 1,000 protestors marched in Bristol and hundreds in Glasgow, Cambridge, Nottingham, Southampton, Liverpool, London, Sheffield, Leeds, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Bangor, Newcastle, Goldsmiths, Essex…While sudden student occupations took place.
Each of the five strike days saw large numbers of pickets battling the pension attack in below zero temperatures and snow blizzards.
“Workers and student unite and fight” was a popular slogan as a mass movement of students’ support made it very difficult for the management and capitalist media to pretend students were against the strikers. Instead the papers focused on the university leaders huge pay increases and expenses.
As the anger was so deep it pushed union branches to overcome the anti-trade laws introduced in the Trade Union Act 2016 and to make deeper connection with members. The 2016 Act requires that the ballot turnout must also be over 50%.
Many unions participated in rallies and visited picket lines such as FBU (fire fighters), RMT (rail workers), CWU (Postal workers), UVW and IWGB new London unions, branches from the big Unite and Unison unions, pensioners organisations and many others.
International solidarity included support from US and Palestinian unions. The Palestinian WUUC (Worker Union Universities and Colleges) said the “struggle for pensions is something we have in common”, which proves the struggle for pensions is world-wide, while Palestinians have of course many more problems than we do.
The strike days are combining with the fight against racism, the fight against council cuts (all Labour councils are yet again cutting many millions from services) and International Women’s Day. And many new links are being made nationally and internationally because of the strength of the strike.

Bosses retreat as strike intensifies

After five days of inspiring strikes major universities have expressed opposition against the hard-line changes. The attack started last September through a consultation in which, according to UUK, 42 percent of employers wanted changes. But this figure included individual Oxford and Cambridge colleges, with tiny numbers of staff, as separate employers. Oxbridge management know how to fiddle figures.
On the second week of the strike the arrogant UUK was forced into further talks (through mediation of the conciliation service ACAS), which will begin on Monday (5 March). But strike action continues for four days after 5 March, followed by a five-days strike from 12 to 16 March.
Many strikers are opposed to any reduction of the action while talks take place and London branches will rally outside the talks.
But a new attack by university management to split the union and students is the demanding of provision of “alternative learning materials and supervisory support for students for sessions missed due to industrial action”. Branches and student leaders are saying no, a strike is a strike.

Pension evaluation for and by the banks

Capitalism is making workers pay for their crisis from 2008 by imposing austerity including pension cuts. Analysis by independent consultants suggests that a lecturer starting work now may end up losing around £10,000 per year in retirement, or £208,000 in total. The valuation process used by UUK to justify the cuts is that the current pension is too risky for university finances.
They want pensions to be based on the stock exchange but after crash ten years ago what worker believes in the viability of the market?
The UUK and government talk about risk. But the greatest risk comes from the continuing capitalist crisis. Speculation and decay after the great crash continues. The Bank of England’s policy of Quantitative Easing saved the banks and destroyed public services, workers’ rights and kept interest rates artificially.
Behind these attacks are also government Pensions Acts from 2004 to 2017, which from 2014 placed the commercial interests of employers higher than their responsibility to fund private sector pension schemes.
As universities expanded with the intake of fee paying students, a major programme of investment in new buildings, campuses and student accommodation started and they needed to borrow. Institutions borrowed on the open market, which means all their assets and liabilities are assessed by big capital. For them pensions are a liability.
The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 is driving the privatisation of universities and allows universities to go bankrupt.
The TUC gave all this the green light by organising only one national day of strike to defend public pensions (about two million workers) in November 2011. Workers wanted to continue the strike, but the TUC and union leaders did nothing.

Students and workers pay

Students are paying ever-higher tuition fees and accommodation costs, university teaching and learning is suffering from the imposition of marketization, while many students have to work casual contracts and long hours to survive.
Higher education treats students as commodities to help them make money and university Vice-Chancellors act like the bosses of multi-nationals. Bullying and inequality exists in these institutions as it exists in casualised work. No wonder students are angry.

What now?

There are regional strikes by rail workers and increasing local strikes. A number of local strikes in London (cleaners), Liverpool (bus drivers) and Manchester (privatised housing maintenance workers) have won.
There are many neighbourhood struggles to save parks from house building and workers’ areas from developers.
All these working-class actions need to build and combine the struggles on the streets, the only way to combat Tory austerity and Labour’s implementation.
The UCU can win, and if it does it will be the first victorious national strike for a long time, but it will mean continuing and extending the strike action. Students support has been very important, and we call on all university unions to consider taking strike action. While other unions should consider co-ordinating their strike action with the UCU.
National days of action will have to come from below because the TUC has no intention of leading anything against the government.

A struggle against capitalism

The International Socialist League has visited the picket lines and is in full support of the strike action. As we have tried to show in this article the struggle is not only against greedy senior managers but against the needs and policies of capitalism post 2008. The City of London and the government wants to remove every part of our social wage, it is attempting to destroy public health, education and services. Removing good pensions is part of the plan.
We think only by building a revolutionary party fighting in the workers and international struggle to oppose exploitation and oppression and supporting workers’ strikes can the fight for workers’ socialism be won. The Labour Party, that many look to for leadership, has no desire to put an end to capitalism, but capitalism has every desire to completely end the welfare state.
The battle lines are getting sharper, and while millions look towards Jeremy Corbyn to solve their problems his programme is very weak. For example, while the UCU strikes continue in March all Labour councils are going to impose many millions of pounds of cuts through their yearly budget meetings and Corbyn has instructed them to vote for a cut’s rather than a need’s budget. The action of Labour councils shows the future of a Labour government, they will bow to pressure from the banks and multinationals which Corbyn has no intention of nationalising.
Workers have to build a political struggle that will not fall under the illusions in Corbyn, and we think that means helping to build an independent workers movement and a revolutionary party of workers and socialism.
Build the UCU strike actions.
For a marking and exam boycott after Easter.
Nationalisation of USS pensions like the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.
End tuition fees; lower student rents; bring back student grants.
Equal rights, pay and permanent contracts.
March and strike for International women’s day.
Build a mass movement on the streets against government and councils austerity.

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