We talked to Anne Alexander, a researcher at Cambridge University and activist with University and College Union (UCU). Anne told us about the ongoing struggle that workers in UK universities have been carrying on since 2018. The struggle started around pensions issues, against the financialization that is going to hit future benefits hard, and then expanded to wider problems affecting universities and society more broadly. University workers went on strike for three days at the beginning of December. This came during the pandemic, which has speeded up the neoliberal processes of marketization and casualization in the higher education system. Workers from more than 50 universities took industrial action against casualization, diminishing wages, increasing workloads, and the gender, racial and disability pay gap. Students also joined the struggle, bringing their solidarity and organizing in their campuses. They resisted government and university managers’ efforts to drive a wedge between them and striking staff. Despite anti-union laws making it harder and harder for workers to organize and break the divisions among them, university staff and students managed to gain strength, and show how organizing over working conditions and against casualization is intertwined with anti-racist fight. We know that the increasing casualization of the university system is functional for the formation of a casualized and disposable workforce, according to the demands of the transnational market. That’s why, as Anne says, the challenge now is to connect this struggle with other sectors of the workforce and fight together against austerity, cuts and marketization that are shaping neoliberal society. This strike also produced transnational links with US graduate workers, who are striking with similar demands. To bet on this kind of transnational links means asking ourselves – in Anne’s words – «in what kind of society do we want to live in?»

TSS Platform: Can you tell us something about the Four Fights at the center of the UCU strike and the process that led to formulate them?

Anne Alexander: First, actually there are two disputes that are going on. In trade union law in Britain, to take strike action legally, you have to declare that you have a dispute with your employer and across the university sector. Since 2018 there have been two strands of this dispute. One is related to pension, which is a dispute involving the older universities. There was an expansion of recognized universities in 1992 and in the universities that were recognized before that year (like Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College in London and so on) their employees are in a pension scheme called University Superannuation Scheme (USS). Even before 2018, there were increasing attacks on that pension scheme, largely ideologically driven attacks linked to the neoliberal restructuring of the economy. What they’ve been trying to do is basically to transfer costs and risks as far as possible to employees and away from employers. Then in 2018 a very serious, very damaging set of proposals were made, which would have been to move the scheme away. They would have got rid of what was called the defined benefits scheme, where you could calculate pretty accurately in advance what you could get when you retire, and proposed replacing it with what was called the defined contribution scheme, were you know what you paid into it but the benefits are much more dependent on market conditions and the state of health of the investments and so on and so forth. The strike in 2018 came out of resistance to these pensions cuts, and involved universities across the old universities, the pre-1992 ones. It was a transforming moment in the unions’ recent history for several reasons. Firstly, because it involved sustained strike actions for the first time after a very long time. Actually, people from the left fought hard and won an argument within the union for not just token one day of strike action here and there, which was what has been doing until then, but actually sustained 14 days of strike action. And that unleashed a huge wave of organizing and collective action and huge energy. It had a big impact on recruitment of the unions and, in the case of my branch, we doubled the membership.

Alongside the dispute around pensions, there were other issues that were bubbling away at the same time which also relate to the neoliberal transformation of higher education. These have been gathered under the title of “Four Fights”. These are related, first, to pay, so the relative decline of pay in general, even those on permanent contracts, as a result of getting below inflation rate rises, and other pay freezes. The second fight is against increasing casualization, the reliance on precarious labor to deliver teaching and research. In UK higher education is the third most casualized sector of the economy. This understandably affects large numbers of people who are younger and committed to the profession. A lot of undergraduate students are taught by PhD students who are supplementing working on the PhD with hourly paid work. A lot of research is done by researchers on short-term contracts, not so many of them end up in a permanent job. A third strand of the fight is addressing inequality around pay and the impact of casualization, which is not distributed evenly across the workforce across gender, race, disability and sexuality. The issues are particularly pronounced in relation to the race and gender pay gap, I think, because of the structural reasons for facing discrimination whereby you are more likely to end up stuck in casualized work. I think this is the first time that instead of just rhetorically campaigning around the pay gap, that was formally part of our claim to employers. The fourth claim was about increasing workload. Again, these all come together because of course casualization means having more disposable workforce. Specifically, since the pandemic began there has also been a knock-on effect in increasing workload.

Unlike the USS pension dispute, which affects only a portion of the Universities, the Four Fights dispute covers the entire university sector, so the whole of the UCU membership can be involved which is a significant strength and increased the number of people who can potentially go on strike.

The pandemic has also deeply affected students’ life and the quality of their education. At the same time, online courses have opened up possibilities for many students who couldn’t afford to move to university towns. How have students and student unions responded to these changes? Which common demands can unite academic workers and students?

There has been an upsurge of student activism in some areas, around issues that were directly related to the pandemic, including for example rent strikes. There were waves of students’ rent-strikes and protests, including students’ occupations, which were largely triggered by the poor behaviour of university managers in relation to COVID last year. Despite the fact that university staff, including UCU, argued quite strongly against just opening up universities in September last year, in many cases university management went ahead and promised students that they would deliver face to face teaching, which then became impossible to deliver. The first thing that happened was that there was a COVID infection driven by students moving around the country and going to university. The government was quite ideologically committed to supporting universities into just carrying on regardless the pandemic. One of the major reasons for this, is that universities have lot of students in very extensive contracts in private accommodation, and cancelling those would have had major financial impacts. So, what they did was to promise students face-to-face teaching, and then lock them up in their residences, with a lot of horrific consequences for students in terms of mental health and wellbeing. Because they actually got quarantined inside halls of residence with very little support. So, there was a wave of students’ actions and protests in response to that, demanding rebates on rent and reductions in fees.

Does this connect with university workers’ struggles? I think in many cases it did. There were various political efforts by the government to drive a wedge between university staff and university students in the kind of more consumerist oriented end of this. The idea that students are consumers and they should demand their rights as consumers is part of the political landscape. But I think that actually it doesn’t have much purchase among the students’ movement per se, and where there is collective action and organization among students they quickly tended to gravitate toward position in solidarity with university staff. So, the effort to drive a wedge between university staff and students was not successful. The national body representing students, the National Union of Students (NUS), came out very strongly in support of staff’s right to take action. In a small number of places, some student unions have taken negative positions towards strike action. But in far more places student unions or organized groups of students have been at the forefront of organizing solidarity on campus. On campus, dozens and dozens of students organized this, and hundreds and hundreds took part through joining picket lines and coming on marches, or joining when we have teach-outs or activities.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s era, new laws have curtailed the unions’ ability to take action. Which strategies are higher education workers adopting in order to overcome the limits imposed by these so called “anti-union laws”? Can you explain how VISAs and residence permits curtail migrant workers ability to participate in industrial action?

Most governments since the 1980s have brought in a succession of laws that are designed to make strike action more difficult. The way in which this currently works is that you have to get over 50% of unions’ members in the workplace that has been balloted for strike action, or across what’s called a “bargaining unit”, which could be across several workplaces. So, 50% of workers must vote for the ballot to count, and over 50% of those must vote positively for strike action. It is not generally an issue about voting against strike action, the issue is about the difficulties of postal ballot, going to your home address. As such, voting becomes a task you have to do on top of everything else, as opposed to taking a decision in a democratic way in a mass meeting for example where you can concentrate on it, and you can hear the different views and listen to the sides of the debate and then make your choice. It is a very atomized and fragmented process. This is a huge issue in terms of amount of work that it takes to get over this threshold, and it is also very hypocritical if you consider that most of the parliamentarians elected do not reach the 50% of the votes. It is a way actually to disenfranchise union members.

About the effects that this has on migrant workers. There a number of obstacles obviously depending on what kind of what sector you’re in and what sort of VISA you have. You might not be able to take strike action at all. We had a colleague in “Tier 4” VISA, where you have a certain number of days that you’re allowed to have as absence and you have to report to the Home Office when you’re working, and if you’re put down as unauthorized absence by your employer, which is something they can do if you’re on strike, this could actually affect your VISA. This is something we had a local campaign about, and our management actually said that they would not record strike days as unauthorized absences for Tier 4 workers. But you know, we won this because we were campaigning about it, we had a march about it, we had a protest about it. That’s a good example of how it is important to organize together, migrant workers and non-migrant workers, and one of the things that came out again from the 2018 strike is that we changed our union structure to include specific kinds of representative bodies for migrant workers inside the union and representatives on our national committee. You can see how the issue of organizing over work conditions and pay, then fed into struggles against racism and marginalization depending on what kind of VISA they got.

What do you think are the challenges the strike is facing now? How can the strike expand and increase the participation of the different figures within the education system and overcome fragmentation?

I think where we are at the moment with the strike is kind of fairly early on. We will need more sustained action and we need more strike action and a greater level of strike action to escalate. The other thing I think should be happening is coordination with other unions, because a lot of the issues that we are facing are not just related to our sector but they are related at the general level too: the impact of neoliberalism, the effects of austerity, cuts and marketization. And there are a lot of other unions that are facing similar issues and when the root of the problem is political, most of these are actually traceable back to government’s policies. Therefore, there has to be united action across as many sectors of the trade union as possible. We have to think if we can take action alongside schoolteachers for example, over a fight for resources for education and for recovery from the impact of COVID with proper resources for children’s future. There is also a common issue in terms of casualization, workload and the pressures of pay across large sectors of the economy and that is something we can take action together with other unions. That would boost our chances of winning our strike and build up a feeling of solidarity and confidence across the entire trade union movement. And that requires a kind of attitude of actively looking outward and not thinking that it is just a fight for conditions in universities, but more fundamental questions are at stake in terms of “in what kind of society do we want to live in?”, “what kind of priorities should we have in terms of spending money or in relation to public service?”, “how can we organize collectively in order to fight for these things and break down the barriers between people with different types of contracts, or division based on gender, race, disability or sexuality?”. I think that’s probably what needs to happen.

One last question. Do you think a transnational dimension of the struggle against precariousness and austerity and the other problems you stressed could enhance the possibilities of the different struggles that are going on in not only UK but also thorough Europe and even beyond?

Yes of course, one thing that has been clear from previous strikes is that we’ve drawn inspiration and encouragement from hearing about struggles from other countries. For example, there have been lots of strike among graduate workers in the US, some very inspiring examples of organizing among graduate students who teach and research demanding union recognition, demanding better pay conditions. That’s one area where we tried to create links when we were on strike. In 2019-2020 there were massive strikes in France and we also tried to reach out and share solidarity and find out what tactics people use in other contexts that we can learn from. There’s a lot we can learn from struggles elsewhere in the world, where people have discovered methods of organizing that really mobilize people in very effective ways. A lot of my research is focused on the labor movement in the Middle East, in countries like Egypt or Sudan, or Algeria. There are far more obstacles to organizing, and they had waves of mass strikes and the rebirth of union organizing, sometimes in sectors that haven’t had it for a very long time, through strike actions that have built those movements up from below.