UCU strikes have always been an extremely contentious topic of discussion. Many students don't understand them and feel a disconnect between themselves and their lecturers. Now, with more strikes on the horizon, it's never been more important for students to be educated and informed. To find out more about the UCU's plans, strikes and student solidarity, The Courier spoke to Newcastle's UCU Branch Secretary Matt Perry.
To begin, we asked Matt what the strikes are about. What are lecturers really fighting for? He stated, "There's two disputes that are being conducted. Some institutions, (like ours) we're involved in both disputes."
The first dispute details a fight to protect the USS. This is the university pension scheme, named the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Then, there's the second dispute named 'The Four Fights'.
"The Four Fights dispute is over pay, equality, workload and over casualisation of the workforce." Matt explained. "We try to challenge the way in which there's been a very considerable deterioration of the working experience of staff in a very short period of time."
Of course, these were the same fights present in a ballot for striking that was announced in late October of 2021. Unfortunately, Newcastle missed their ballot by a single vote in the 'Four Fights' part of the dispute. Similarly, it was six votes on the side of the USS dispute. Because of this, we didn't have any strike action. I asked Matt what he thought about this and why it was such a close margin.
"It's not that there wasn't strong support amongst staff for the dispute." Matt replied. "It's just that in and of the nature of polling for industrial action you always get a proportion of people who vote and who don't."
He continued, "Since 2016, the legislation that frames industrial action means that you have to get a higher proportion of people voting." This means that overall, it's actually become harder for staff to strike.
One thing I was interested to ask Matt was the issue of COVID in universities and wether this was factored into the upcoming strikes. In his last interview for The Courier in October 2020, Matt mentioned that because of the pandemic some members felt like they were "being coerced onto campus." Has this changed?
"I think that's a really really good question." He started, explaining that health and safety in a workplace is devolved from legislation put into place in 1974. However, responsibility for such legislation is put into the hands of "trade union reps", devolved into a conversation and agreement between staff and unions.
Matt continued, "In the context of the lockdown and afterwards, it meant that that process was undermined by universities being able to say 'we're following government guidelines'... we weren't happy about the minimalism of that position." It seems, in terms of COVID, staff were left out of a very important conversation.
"Staff did protest, and we did have big meetings where we took positions and we talked about balloting for industrial action over health and safety because we weren't confident that that the university was COVID secure."
COVID, naturally, has been something that has taken over all of our lives for nearly two years. As a third year myself, a lot of my little time at university has been taken away by unsuccessful strikes and COVID. The big question for me was, will the strikes work this time? What's different now?
"This is the million dollar question", he said. "The impression a lot of people took from the last wave of industrial action was that it didn't work. Twenty two days of industrial action, and what did it get you?"
Matt explained that actually, reform on pensions went ahead. "They'd imposed a change from a guaranteed pension to a non-guaranteed pension." But, strikes turned this around so that staff were able to have this guaranteed pension in the end. "People miss that out."
A panel also went ahead with staff because of industrial action. Matt told me "The employers agreed to have a joint panel with us to investigate our claims... an expert panel had to come to the conclusion that we were right all along."
As much as this is all encouraging, there is obviously a large proportion of the student body that don't support the strikes at all. I asked Matt what he would say to a student who disagreed with industrial action.
Matt firmly replied, "Our working conditions are your teaching conditions. If we're overworked and stressed out, that's transferred onto you. If our jobs are precarious, again, that adds to the stressful situation and transfers onto you."
Lastly, I asked Matt about the future. What will happen if the strikes are successful? On the flip side, will we see further strikes this semester if negotiations are unsuccessful?
"That entirely depends on the employers", Matt replied. "I think the strikes are proportionate to the challenge that's happening to our profession... this is such a big challenge to us."
Matt really emphasised to me that "A really important part of the equation is how students react." Clearly, this is a fight students can get involved with too.
Discussing future strikes, Matt added "Frankly, I'd prefer to have a quiet life. This is a lot of work and a lot of stress... we lose out big style when they deduct our pay."
Ending, Matt said "I think there's actually quite a valuable experience, kind of a life lesson in the strikes themselves... The threat of precarious work, the clamping down on pay and the rising living cost is something that everyone is experiencing."
"(Strikes are) unfortunate for students and we do it with a heavy heart, but perhaps this can bring about a bit of a change in what people can do at work to get their rights."
I'd like to thank Matt again for chatting to me on such an important topic that affects of us all. To find out more about the strikes, head to www.ucu.co.uk