Why I’m going on strike

In the national consciousness is a great big maxed out credit card. Here I try to relate that to the industrial action I’m about to take.

Some background – in March 2013 several HE trade unions submit two joint claims – one about pay and one about equality and pay-related matters. The pay claim restricts itself to redressing the real-term pay cut – that is, a decline in spending power as cumulative inflation outstrips pay rises – and does not ask for a real-term pay rise. It also addresses low pay by demanding at least the London Living Wage of £8.55, and seeks an increase in London Weighting to £4000 to offset capital price hikes. The second claim among other things is for  transparency about the pay of 25% of staff who have higher earnings than the top of the pay spine, national guidelines on workload allocation to address higher-than-average stress and overwork, better provision for disabled employees, assimilating all hourly paid staff onto the pay spine, agreements on job security, and addressing the staggering gender pay gap of over 17% across all roles.

In May 2013 at the the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) the trade unions managed to extract a 0.2% improvement on a Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) pay offer of 0.8%. There was no settlement on any aspect of the second claim – in some cases UCEA responded that they were unwilling to negotiate on a national level, and in others they deferred pending further investigation.

I voted neither for nor against the October 31st higher education strike called by Unite, Unison, UCU and others, nor for or against the action short of a strike which follows it. I felt that the justification for the pay claim was glossed, although the second claim was well made.

Turnout for the ballot on industrial action, though proportionally low, was relatively high at 35% – more than double the 13 or 14% that union elections usually get. The scrutineers’ report (PDF) for my union sets out the results:

Are you prepared to take industrial action consisting of strike action?

  • Number of ballot papers returned: 20,741
  • Number voting YES: 12,754 (61.5%)
  • Number voting NO: 7,985 (38.5%)
  • Number of papers found to be invalid: 2

Are you prepared to take industrial action consisting of action short of a strike?

  • Number of ballot papers returned: 20,741
  • Number voting YES: 15,967 (77.0%)
  • Number voting NO: 4,772 (23.0%)
  • Number of papers found to be invalid:: 2

Yesterday I had a conversation with somebody. This person asked me if I was striking I replied “I don’t have to tell you that” followed by “Yes”. Then I told them what my departmental rep told us last meeting, which was that most people who aren’t members have never been asked to join. I asked them to join. They responded “No thanks – if they get rid of my job I’ll just go and work in the private sector for loads more money”. This person is not callous – far from it – but trade unionism isn’t really on the radar in my department.

I thought that it might be a good idea to get my thoughts in order.

The first thing to draw attention to is conditions. Many of us work longer hours, basically, to fill the gap left by colleagues who were made redundant or who left and were not replaced, or because of endemic under-resource. In my own case (support staff) I often work 10 hour days including skipping lunch break. I sometimes work at weekends. I don’t feel I get to think through or properly plan what I do, and I’m too reactive. My health and outlook will definitely benefit from working to contract.

Next is pay. In line with the public sector real-term pay cuts (cost of living rising faster than the pay rise cap in George Osborne’s 2013 budget) university employers have offered 1%. According to UCU HE staff have experienced a real-term pay cut of 13% since 2009 (cumulative pay rise substracted from cumulative inflation over the same period). Given the financial situation since 2008, the main question to ask about the pay cut is the one the Daily Mail tends to ask.

We’re going down. We know we’re going down. But we’re all in this together – the private sector has frozen pay too. Why should HE staff be better paid than other people?

Or to paraphrase, “Why do you want more than everyone else?” Two things about that. One is that this appeal to solidarity in decline is a particularly galling distraction from university managers’ pay – approaching a quarter of a million for half UK Vice Chancellors. Simply put, there can be no expectation of solidarity in decreasing living standards.

The other thing is that trades unionists rarely want more than everybody else – this is collective action by a number of unions. They don’t think of themselves as wanting more than their fair share of the pie. They challenge the size of the pie because they understand that unless there is an organised, collective, fairly impolite demand for at least the same level of pay for everybody, in real terms i.e. in line with inflation, then the pie will swiftly shrink as employers and the Conservative-led coalition exploit an opportunity to manage a decline in pay and welfare at work. One one level this doesn’t overly worry me – I am not sure that this is a bad thing unless you already have a low standard of living – that is, unless you are low paid. So I might support pay rises for low paid staff and tolerate pay freezes for the higher paid ones – or something a bit more sophisticated along those lines. But on the other hand, not only does this outlook risk a race to the bottom, but the sector is currently being prodded to compete nationally and globally. If you are competitively inclined (I’m not, I think everybody should want to be paid the same as everybody else) then depressing pay this is obviously a bad thing for the sector. Trades unionists recognise that privatising forces in successive governments are trying to chip away at the collective bargaining that is really all they have. So all they can do is try to counter the downwards pressure by aiming at the opposite situation – setting a higher standard of pay and conditions at work to which other workforces can then appeal in their own pay claims.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this upward pressure could no less potentially lead to a race to the top. What’s wrong with that? We just through billions of pounds at the banks, after all. Well. The danger there is that, since public sector pay comes from taxes, this leads to a steep growth in inflation which in turn destabilises the economy as well as effectively cancelling out the pay rise. As somebody worried about the environment, I should also point out that more pay leads to more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, and more waste – so of course there’s a balance to be struck. My own view is that material security and a bit extra for living a good life is all we should ever ask of pay – and yet this modest aspiration is something few people have if you take into consideration the state’s secession from providing adequately for us in poor health and old age. The more the welfare state shrinks, the stronger the individualising pressures to squirrel and set by. This, as the great reb pointed out, is a tension – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”.

So for those of us who are not revolutionaries (and I find I am not) the next question is, what public-sector pay rise can be achieved without leading to dangerous levels of inflation?

The pay claim points to a report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England which indicates a financial surplus in the sector and a fall in the spend on staff as a proportion of total expenditure. The unions have not worked out the cost to the sector of a higher pay rise or made any suggestions about funding sources. This may be tactical, but it is a little bit irritating and entirely unconvincing to be simply told “The money’s there”.  Many commentators are convinced that because of the 2008 financial crash we can expect far reaching decline in material wealth. Is this fair? Well, are high levels on the prosperous part of the pay spine fair? What are the principles at work here? I note a post at the TUC’s Touchstone blog which indicates that the public broadly supports cuts. And I don’t accept the automatic link between spending power and standards of living – that’s way too materialistic for me.

So in short I’m confused, short on trust, and struggling to find out what I need to know without trying to interpret some very difficult financial reports. Can anybody help? Sarah?  Pursuing a different tack, I read a report by Carys Afoko and Daniel Vockins of the New Economics Foundation titled Framing the Economy – The Austerity Story. In proposing some alternative stories to the austerity story, they echo the TUC in observing that the tax-don’t-cut stance “ignores where public opinion currently is and doesn’t provide a bridge between its arguments and people’s perceptions of the economy”.

So I support the second claim but am ambivalent about the blanket pay claim. As things stand I will strike but won’t picket unless or until I can comfortably get behind the one thing that will make it into the news, which is the pay claim.

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3 thoughts on “Why I’m going on strike

  1. “We just through billions of pounds at the banks, after all.” THREW! The past of throw.
    And you in “Higher Education”!? 🙂

  2. “She responded “No thanks. If they get rid of my job I’ll just go and work in the private sector for loads more money”.”

    So what is she waiting for? Loadsamoney awaits both of you …

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