Illusions in the trade unions hold back the workers’ struggle

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This article was written by a comrade of the ICC who works at a UK university and took part in the recent UCU strikes. Although not in the UCU or even eligible to join the pension scheme at the centre of the dispute, the comrade joined the strike in solidarity.

In February 2018, the University and College Union (UCU) launched industrial action across the university sector in the UK. The strike was called over attempts by Universities UK (UUK)[1] to reduce the benefits members of the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension scheme for academics and professional staff in the Higher Education section. The employers have claimed that this reduction in benefits was necessary to tackle the large deficit that the scheme is accruing.

The cuts are significant, with the headline figure suggesting an ‘average’ academic would lose £10,000 annually from their pension.

This is especially the case in my institution[2] where militancy is weak. Staff are divided into three unions:

·          UNISON covers lower graded administration and manual workers (porters, cleaners, etc.). This would be my natural home, were I unionised.

·           Unite covers technical staff.

·           UCU covers academic and ‘professionally’ graded administration staff.

Only a minority of staff are unionised and those outside are generally apathetic. Unison is chronically weak, having been on strike only once in all the time I’ve been there. Unite seems a bit more militant but, again, I’ve only ever known them to go on strike once.

UCU has a far more militant rhetoric (albeit only by comparison) and has its main support in the academic community.

A new militancy

In general, HE strikes are small and demoralising affairs, token efforts involving one or two-day actions. Any more is practically a revolution in comparison. Turnout at pickets is limited – many workers cross the picket line or stay at home, cut off from one another.

In contrast, this action was announced for 14 days over 4 weeks. This essentially meant giving up three weeks’ pay over one, possibly two, pay packets – a considerable loss for even the better off workers, but an eye-watering sum for the growing layer of low-paid, casualised staff in both administrative and academic functions[3].

In previous strikes, the local branches have had to scrape together picket rotas in order to maintain a minimal presence. This time, the first days of action on 22nd and 23rd February produced pickets of around 150 at the main entrance. Other entrances had smaller – between 10 and 20 – but still lively gatherings.

Originally, the union had planned a picket on only the first day or so. The branch leaders were visibly astonished by the turn-out and quickly moved to organise further pickets for the rest of the week. Every strike day saw a picket and although numbers fluctuated, the main entrance always managed to attract a minimum of around 50 picketers, even during the arctic winds of the “Beast from the East”[4].

The picketers were mainly drawn from the academic staff, with support functions a clear minority. There were also notable differences in turnout between disciplines, with arts, humanities and social sciences far more strongly represented than technical subjects.

Numbers were augmented by a significant number of students that joined the picket, rejecting calls from the administration to go to their lectures as normal. The student composition largely followed that of the picketers, being weighted towards non-technical disciplines. The local “Socialist Students” society joined the line, setting up pop-up food tables.

Further evidence of how the local branch had completely underestimated the support for the action was evident at the post-picket rally on 22nd Feb. They had booked a small room at the local community centre. This filled up almost immediately, resulting in another, more spontaneous, rally taking place outside, essentially creating two meetings.

Motivating factors

Everyone I spoke to was surprised at the turnout. Many people had never been on strike before or had experienced only small actions supported by a hard-core. In the early days, there was a real sense of euphoria as hundreds of people gathered in common purpose, made new friends both personal and professional and aired common grievances.

There was a real sense of anger and betrayal over the pensions issue. Over the years, staff have accepted a series of cuts to the pension scheme, often following demoralising small-scale industrial actions. Having already accepted significant cuts, the employers are back for more. But, more important, there was a general sense that the attack on pensions is only the latest in a series of continual attacks on academic freedom, low-pay, casualisation, ever more regimented working environment, increasing dictatorial control from the centre, impossible workloads[5], etc. It cannot be denied that some of this can be explained as the revolt of a layer of workers that has previously enjoyed an almost petit-bourgeois level of autonomy in their working lives, resisting increasing proletarianisation.

However, the younger academics and students never experienced those halcyon days – their education has been an experience of continued testing, growing financial pressure, and an uncertain job market. Early-career academics now face particularly harsh conditions. The rise of casual working among students has a broader impact. Exposed to the harsh reality of dead-end jobs, they quickly come to see academic success as the only path to escape. The pizza delivery shift serves as a warning of their likely future should they fail their degree, not to mention the emotional weight of debts in the tens of thousands.

Naturally, debt slavery and naked exploitation is the lot of most working-class children who ‘fail’ in the current education system, and we should not forget that working-class students are still ‘privileged’ in comparison to workers of the same age. But, in some ways, the intellectual stimulation of a degree contrasted with the brutal world of work, combined with the ideology of ‘employability’, is even worse as it teases these young adults with the possibility that they might have a better future.

Where once Higher Education was about training the future bourgeoisie, these days it is more about feeding the capitalist machine with high-skilled labour. The most intelligent and ideological tractable are pushed towards a career with the large corporations, the more independent towards the cult of the entrepreneur and the start-up. The rest are destined to become fodder for low or middle ranking administrative functions, call centre work, and the like, and many not even that.

Small wonder that students’ mental health conditions have deteriorated steadily. Declarations of mental health problems among students have increased around 500% in the last decade, while suicide rates have risen by 56%. As poorly resources support services struggle to cope, students now have a higher risk of suicide than the general population[6].

Although the issue of pensions was the spark that lit the fire, the underlying nature of the strike was really a revolt against the alienation of the education system, the modern workplace and society itself, a revolt against social decomposition.

The creativity of the struggle

In response to these underlying issues, the strike was accompanied by a series of “teach-outs” that attempted to articulate a need for something different. These ranged from efforts to formulate an alternative foundation for the University system run on democratic lines, to celebrations of strike-poetry by the English department, lectures on the growth of casualisation and much more.

Much of this was, unsurprisingly, dominated by academic and leftist ideology. The ‘enemy’ was repeatedly framed as ‘neo-liberalism’ rather than capitalism, and the emphasis was on trying to find solutions within the capitalist system. Building strong unions, varying forms of Keynesianism, Jeremy Corbyn, etc. were all seen as offering, if nothing else, some sort of relief from being engulfed in the current effluent of society. To a large extent, however, the meetings were dominated by what could best be described as a cry of torment, tempered by rage, as people shared their experiences of life in the capitalist education system.

Nonetheless, the fact that the struggle impulsed an effort by students and workers to create a space where issues can be discussed shows the hunger for discussion growing within this sector. In particular, it shows that a new generation of workers, for all its confusions around identity politics, etc. is not simply willing to passively accept the increasingly brutal attacks launched against it[7].

On a more practical level, there were also attempts to overcome the nature of the strike itself. As mentioned above, the financial penalty for supporting the strike in its entirety was too much for some workers. But, instead of simply crossing the picket line, they decided to strike on random days, reducing the financial penalty but also maintaining disruption by making it impossible for bosses to predict who was going to turn up when.

Academics also began to withdraw external examiner support for institutions that attempted to intimidate strikers; with the result that many institutions abandoned the hard line they had taken and became much more conciliatory towards striking workers. Threats of disciplinary action were replaced with cloying “acknowledging your strong feelings”.

Students also launched occupations at several institutions, waging a highly effective campaign on social media that further helped dissolve the moral authority of the employers. It’s difficult for the powers that be to maintain credibility when students denied access to toilets post pictures of bottles of urine online and female students lament the anatomical difficulties of filling bottles!

The union strikes back

As the strike progressed into March, the employers’ front appeared to be crumbling. One-by-one, University Vice Chancellors began to distance themselves from the UUK and attempted to cast blame on the disproportionate weight of Oxbridge colleges in UUK voting. Some Vice Chancellors openly supported the strikers, with some even joining picket lines at their own institutions[8], although this ‘support’ was still accompanied by attempts to intimidate workers behind the scenes by HR departments[9].

UUK’s point-blank refusal to back down vanished and suddenly the UCU and UUK were negotiating again and a deal was announced. The ‘deal’ offered the retention of some benefits at the cost of a significant increase in contributions, plus a commitment to a revaluation of the fund.

The mood on the picket line was angry. After launching one of the biggest, most high profile strikes in recent history and the biggest ever in the sector, the employers’ front disintegrating, this was the best that the union could get? Adding to the resentment was the fact that the union had circulated the offer without a recommendation, with many feeling completely unequipped to make a decision about a complex financial product most barely understood.

There was a lot of heated, but good-natured discussion on the picket. A minority supported the deal, and there was a lot of conversation about the way the union hierarchy appeared to have betrayed the strikers. There was also discussion as to how decisions were taken in the union, but although there was significant resentment against the leadership, no explicit anti-union critique emerged.

This didn’t stop anger solidifying into a Twitter campaign around the hashtag #nocapitulation. The next day of pickets was massive, even larger than those at the beginning. One-by-one branches around the country announced their rejection of the deal and within 24 hours it was dead in the water.

The strikes continued with, on the one hand a sense of victory in having beaten back the proposal, but also an underlying sense of worry of what would come next.

Victory, stalemate or defeat?

As the strikes ended, new negotiations were announced with the threat of another wave to come in May.

Very quickly, a new proposal was agreed between the UCU and UUK. The main thrust of this new agreement was a suspension of the attack on benefits in order for a new valuation of the pension to take place over the next couple of years, by an expert panel with more involvement from the union.

The proposal was put to ballot with a recommendation to accept, with a majority of 64% voting to accept.

At first glance, this looks like a victory, if only a temporary or partial one. After all, the attack has been pushed back. But there has been no agreement whatsoever to preserve current benefits or prevent a rise in contributions and, indeed, the union explicitly stated that any attempt to get guarantees on this (a “no detriment” agreement) was “unrealistic”. Everything now depends on the assessment that the newly appointed valuation panel makes concerning the health of the pension scheme.

Workers are now faced with the potential of having to go through the same struggle again a year or two down the line. And this time, the employers (or the union) won’t be caught by surprise at the strength of the struggle.

Weaknesses in the struggle and lessons for the next

Despite the high participation represented by both the large pickets and the surge in members of the UCU, the strikers were still in a minority. Most of the support workers went into work, even those who had been called out, and around half the academics. Although there were isolated incidences of other workers not crossing the picket line (Birkbeck library was disrupted by a brief action from UNISON members), there doesn’t seem to have been a real dynamic for the struggle to extend to other workers.

In many ways, the stronger-than-expected turnout and its accompanying euphoria was itself a factor in damaging the struggle. While on the positive side it imbued the strikers with a much-needed burst of confidence, it also worked to prevent a self-critical spirit emerging. The electrifying strength of the struggle prevented many from seeing the inherent weakness in its lack of extension.

The debatable victory may also lead to the illusion that actions of this kind have an inherent strength. As discussed, the sheer length of the action will result in a significant financial loss for the most militant workers. It is essentially a strategy around a war of attrition – a struggle that, in the end, the workers will always lose. It’s almost certain that the prospect of another 14 days of lost wages weighed heavily on the minds of many union members when they voted to accept the deal.

The only way for workers to overcome this inherent disadvantage is to spread the struggle. Had the struggle brought in other University workers, far more pressure could have been brought to bear on the bosses.

Understanding the role of the unions

Using the anger of more militant workers in the union, the left have launched a campaign to get Sally Hunt (UCU General Secretary) out of office by staging votes of no confidence.

This strategy enables the ruling class to frame the conflict between workers and union as a conflict between the grassroots and the leadership. Defeats are thus the consequence of betrayal by union leaders, not the fundamental conditions of capitalism today and the way they have made unions tools of capital rather than labour.

By channelling the struggle around the valuation of the pension fund and whether the cuts were really necessary the unions disguise the real nature of the conflict. Firstly, arguing that the fund has been badly managed deflects from the fact that pension schemes everywhere are under attack. The fact that this phenomenon is so widespread shows that it stems from something systemic, not a local problem of incompetent management.

By making workers a partner (through ‘their’ union) in valuing the fund, the union creates the illusion of some sort of joint interest between workers and the bosses. It also implies that workers should accept these valuations (when competently done, of course) as somehow objective. And that they should submit to them just as they must submit to pay cuts, job losses, etc. which result from the headwinds of the capitalist economy. These economic or financial difficulties are presented as unavoidable, no different from a natural disaster such as a bad harvest.

There is a kernel of truth hidden within this ideological attack. As the capitalist system continues its historic decline, it finds it vital to increase exploitation to ever more intolerable levels. This relentless assault is, for capitalism, systemic, inevitable and, above all, necessary. This inexorable decline is also the root of the profound economic and spiritual degeneration of working class life that was the core motivator behind the strike.

However, while austerity is necessary for capitalism, capitalism is not necessary for the working class or the wider masses of humanity. The laws that govern it are not natural but the product of human action. The solidarity workers and students have experienced in this struggle has provided the glimpse of a different way of life, the possibility of a different world. Even in a conservative, limited struggle the fundamental communist nature of the working class shows itself in embryonic form – a nature diametrically opposed to capitalism.

The role of the unions in this process is to make this degeneration acceptable to the workers, and where struggle is inevitable to contain struggles in non-threatening forms. Above all, they work to prevent the communist potential of the working class from flowering. They preach solidarity while advising workers to cross picket lines, they preach struggle while telling workers this is the best you’re going to get. This is sometimes difficult to see, especially when working class confidence is low and the unions appear to be the organisers and motive force of the struggle. As workers develop their struggles they will more-and-more find themselves in direct conflict, not only with the union leadership but the union framework itself.

At present, this fundamental conflict is expressed as an opposition between base and leadership. Harnessing this anger, the leftists demand the resignation of Sally Hunt while simultaneously calling on workers to “build the union”.

As workers develop their struggles and particularly once they adopt the most important need of any strike – to spread the struggle – this conflict will be expressed in a more and more open form. Against the unions, “in order to advance its combat, the working class has to unify its struggles, taking charge of their extension and organisation through sovereign general assemblies and committees of delegates elected and revocable at any time by these assemblies[10].  

Demogorgon 19/5/18

[1]. This body is the employers’ association for the Higher Education sector in the UK.


[2]. I work in a low-grade administrative function at a Russell Group university.


[3]. Academic pay used to be better than most other functions but many academics are now on temporary and casual contracts especially at the beginning of their careers. Indeed, the HE sector has been one of the leading industries in terms of casualised labour.


[4]. Thankfully for the picketers, the big snowfalls of that period did not happen on strike days. For some institutions, including my own, this added to the chaos. Return to work days saw campuses closed due to heavy snowfall, exacerbating the overall disruption. As soon as the snows melted, the strikes resumed. At that point, workers felt even the elements were with them, despite the bitter cold.


[5]. Academics are now expected not only to provide engaging teaching, develop new modules, etc. but also to continually produce “world-leading” research and bring in ever-increasing grant money, with those failing to meet both targets being punished. One anecdote involved a lecturer being nominated for a teaching award by their students; having won the award, this was then used against them by their supervisor as evidence they weren’t dedicating enough time to research. Stories like this are ten-a-penny in academia today.


[7]. That the bourgeoisie is aware of this is evidenced by the increasing open attempts to pacify the “millennials” by buying them off with discounted train tickets while many of them can barely afford to rent. There is also a truly poisonous campaign around “intergenerational fairness” that tries to frame the effects of decaying capitalism on young workers as being the fault of older workers, namely the greedy baby-boomers with their low house prices, free education and great … pensions! This campaign is designed to cut the new generation off from the last generation that had experience of mass struggle, i.e. the generation that returned the working class to the stage of history in May 68. It also, as usual, deflects blame from deteriorating living standards away from capitalism itself.


[8]. At Sheffield and Glasgow, for example.


[9]. These cynical shows of support accompanied by threatening letters were quickly exposed on social media. Although social media has its negative aspects, it makes it far more difficult for employers (and unions) to use underhand tactics of this sort. The trick played by the unions in May 68, when workers were told “all the other factories have gone back to work”, would be very quickly exposed today.


[10]. Basic Positions of the International Communist Current:




UCU strikes