Testimony: why are staff members striking?

Here, 6 anonymous staff members at the University of Bristol tell Epigram why they are striking.

Related article: Everything you need to know about the upcoming strike action

‘The changes are significant for the younger generation or anyone new entering the profession. It’s scandalous that Universities are essentially sitting back and allowing the pension to men eroded which could mean that those who retire will receive a pension that puts them barely on the breadline. The decision to strike was not taken lightly by me and I will strike for the full 14 days’

‘I believe that striking is an action of last resort, and at this time, the only avenue available to us. No one wants to hurt their students, but we have to take a stand and fight for not just our pensions, but the pensions of young people entering the workforce just like our students will be. This strike is the fault of one group and one group only: the employers. The employers have consistently refused to negotiate and have forced us into this position. These are the same employers who were more than happy to raise tuition fees and cut pastoral services to students, including the proposed restructuring of the halls of residence. They have shown time and again that they care more about shiny new buildings than the people who actually make the university what it is (students and staff). If the university can spend £300 million on a new campus, why can’t it protect the people who do the work that keeps it running? I can understand why students will be upset about this, especially given the astronomical cost of tuition. I would ask those students to consider why it is if they are paying the university so much, that the employers refuse to spend that money on the things that actually contribute to a world-class education.’

‘Look, pensions are boring. I’m 34 and don’t really understand them, and it feels very far off, and I’m sure it must feel even further off for those of our students still in their teens and their twenties. But pensions are part of our pay, which in itself has been steadily eroded by under-inflation pay settlements year on year (a loss of 14.5 percent between 2009 and 2016). We sacrifice part of our salary each month under the understanding that our employers will contribute a given amount, and that this amount, guaranteed by a pension scheme in rude financial health (the idea that the scheme is in crisis is a political fabrication), will enable us to support ourselves in retirement. What the employers are doing is seeking to cut pay even further in order to save themselves a bit of money despite operating with huge surpluses. They are removing any guarantee that we can predict how much income we can expect when we retire. Perhaps most galling to me is the fact that in doing so they are transferring the financial risk from the institution and the pension scheme itself onto us as individual employees. It’s cowardly and irresponsible and offensive – it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of what a university is: not a group of managers with some teachers under their employ who deliver knowledge to paying customers, but a community. A university is nothing without students and staff. We are the university, and in withdrawing our labour (I hope that many students join us in this withdrawal) we seek to demonstrate that fact. I am striking partly for myself: I would prefer not to starve in retirement, and because of the absurdities of the academic job market I did not start paying into a pension until I was 30 years old, so I need everything I can get. I am striking because I believe in trade unions and their power to make life and work better for ordinary people. I am striking because the Trade Unions Act introduced by this government explicitly seeks to crush trade unionism by requiring a turnout of 50% on all trade union ballots (a criterion that I am proud to say the UCU ballot over this dispute exceeded by a country mile). I am striking because this attack on university pensions – a soft target, in some ways, given the fashion for academic-bashing in the press – is so clearly a kite-flyer for attacks on other pensions, and further erosion of the terms and conditions of workers of all kinds. I am striking because as a lecturer with an open-ended contract I am in a relatively privileged position, and the proposed changes to our pensions will hit my younger and more precariously employed colleagues even harder. I am striking because I care about my students: this attack on pensions is one more step towards the privatisation of Higher Education: in introducing and increasing fees, successive governments have shifted the financial risk of taking a degree onto students; in these attempted changes to our pensions, employers transfer the financial risk of living after 65 to employees. I am striking because we need people from all socio-economic backgrounds to become university educators (partly so we can do better in attracting students from all socio-economic backgrounds), and these attacks on pay and pensions will make this profession even less attractive or even tenable for those who do not stand to inherit property or other forms of wealth. I am striking despite the fact that I stand to lose £1626.80 in salary in the next couple of months. I can’t afford this. I have no savings, only debts, and I’m going to be buying food and probably paying bills with credit cards. I can’t afford to strike. Yet for all of the reasons given above, nor can I afford not to.

‘It is deeply regrettable that university staff, who are deeply committed to the success of universities, and to the educational development of students, have come to the point where they feel they have to strike in defence of their financial security, but in the face of such aggressive threats to our pensions, there really is no other option.’

I don’t want to go on strike. It will mean cancelling classes that I enjoy teaching, missing management meetings where now my voice won’t be heard and dropping out of a brilliant initiative that I’d hoped to support. I know some of my students will feel let down, and I am particularly uncomfortable about what this does for my third years, who are so close to graduation. It will also mean a short-term loss of income that will have a real impact on my quality of life – and I’m lucky that’s the extent of it, because unlike early career colleagues on the more exploitative part-time or hourly paid contracts, I’ll still be able to pay my rent – it could be so much worse. Yet despite those concerns, I am wholeheartedly in support of industrial action. It is a last resort, but at this point, it is the best possible way to make ourselves heard: there is still power in a union.’

‘The strike is important for three reasons. Firstly, admin and education staff are their pensions which could drop more than 50% – this is not rocket science why resistance is provoked here. Secondly, it is important on a national level. This is part of the wider implications of the commercialization of education. Its logic supposes that education is transactional between students and universities and that universities have to increase and reinvest profits to better their position in a competitive market-place while government funding is cut. The latter implies that it has to squeeze as much profit as possible out of its staff to deliver a level of education that is still tolerable for student and can be packaged and branded as “world-leading”. Lastly, on a local level we can see this play out, and staff and students need to resist this development. While in the past the top-level administration and staff tried to find solutions that make the best out of the situation set by the government to still give our students the best we can, the University has now turned against students and staff. To guarantee profits to be invested in a new flagship campus, it is willing to expose students to risk to their lives (Resident Warden scheme) and squeeze as much money out of them as possible (rents in hall). On the other hand, the financial risks of the pension funds is now supposed to be carried by staff, while demands imposed by uni admin on their labour increases year after year. This is how general trends in our society play out on a local level: profits are privatized, risk is socialized. As staff, we are not willing to support this policy and to face an unnecessary and harsh cut to our pensions. We love teaching, we love our students, and we want to give them the best education possible – but we need to withdraw our labour power to force the University back to the negotiation table. We hope that students will understand – and join in to fight for their rights, for a good education, and for solidarity in the face of systematic exploitation.

To support the strikes, join staff members at the picket lines on strike days, contact VC Hugh Brady to encouarge him to make a statement for the reopening of negotiations and spread the word.

Featured Image: Epigram / Helena Raymond-Hayling

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