In insisting that poverty is an absolute threshold and that there is no need to concentrate on equality, trickle-down Tories are fond of telling us that a rising tide floats all boats. Trade unions tacitly accept this reasoning when they campaign for a pay rise for high paid staff along with lower paid ones. And in the context of global warming, a rising tide floods all fields.
A relatively high turnout of University and College Union members have voted in an indicative ballot to abandon the pay dispute and and marking boycott. I wish UCU approached things differently. I wish we genuinely and universally supported fair pay. Whether or not we asked for a larger share of public expenditure, what fair pay should involve is action on reducing inequality by campaigning to redistribute overpay to end underpay. It’s not just Vice Chancellors who are overpaid, it’s professors, consultants and senior professional staff. UCU in its second, less-known claim (the inspiring one that it somehow neglected to publish on its own website and decided not to take action about) observes that 25% of higher education staff get paid above the top of the single pay spine. That’s staggering given that amounts to more than £63,358. A quarter of staff! It is hard to turn round to the public – the shop workers, barristas, secretaries and administrators – and say that they should have more. But this is what campaigning for a pay rise across the entire spine amounts to, because paying above the spine is a matter of market forces. And yet those jobs are wonderful jobs which are their own reward. And yet many of the other 75% struggle on their wage and conditions. I want wages based on principles that find the middle ground between the evils of ‘psychic wages‘ and the evils of the market for public institutions.
Yes to Piketty and his plan to tax the rich. And yes to the New Economics Foundation who point out that overpay leads to the pollutants of over-consumption including greenhouse gases and landfill fodder. I wish the labour movement would face up to these things and stop trying to convince us that underpay is the only cause of inequality. I wish trade union leaders would stop acting like New Labour, “supremely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich”. Or like Tory philanthropists who think it best for wealth, and therefore influence and decision-making, to be concentrated among a few individuals to bestow on deserving others as they see fit. I wish the labour movement would put its own house in order before trying to start a revolution elsewhere. And I wish that a marking boycott, with its drastic effects on job seeking end-of-programme students, had never been considered. Better an admissions boycott (though there are plenty of reasons why this is risky, including the fact that the Conservatives are seeking to shrink higher education and we don’t want to do that for them).
And I think this shame is why the UCU hardliners have just lost the vote to escalate the dispute.
If I weren’t such a slow, easily-disorientated thinker, diffident public speaker, over-vulnerable to attacks from the hard left and the hard managers, I would try to win an official role myself. Meanwhile I wring my hands on this blog.