HE workers prepare for further strikes over pay and pensions

University staff provide vital services, but they’ve seen the value of their pay plummet

Workers on the picket line in Leeds, with placards that say 'Fair pay now' and '1.5% doesn't pay the rent'

UNISON members will take further strike days at eight universities over pay and pensions issues from this week. This is the second round of strikes at each of the universities, following a series of dates in February and earlier this month.

Action is to take place during the next three weeks at Birkbeck, SOAS, City, King’s College London (all University of London), Brighton University, Gloucestershire University, Edinburgh Napier University and Leeds University.

Staff at each of the institutions have voted to strike over the imposition of a 1.5% settlement in August 2021, which came on top of a 0% settlement imposed in 2020. In addition, workers at two of the universities – Leeds and SOAS – are also taking industrial action over changes to their pension, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). These strikes will take place on the 24 and 25 March.

Leeds is one of UNISON’s largest higher education branches. Branch chair Nick Allen said: “HE wages have been cut by 20% against inflation over 10 years, and people are really angry about it. People are having to choose between heating and eating, and aren’t able to buy new clothes for their kids.

Members find their voices

“Last month, the university sent out an all-staff notification promoting financial planning classes. We don’t need help with financial planning, we need a pay rise.”

This is the first strike action the branch has taken in nine years, and for many members it’s their first experience on a picket line. Mr Allen continued: “The university has 14 different entrances, so we’ve organised pickets at each one. We have several hundred members taking strike action and the camaraderie is strong. Some members were nervous at first, but they’ve really found their voices.”

The unity among workers is reinforced by a conspicuous silence from the university’s management. 

“Tomorrow we go out on strike for two days, alongside UCU [University and Colleges Union] who are striking all week. UCU represents the academics and teaching staff, and UNISON represents everyone in support roles, from cleaners to administrators. The university management sends out emails that reference UCU, but not UNISON. These emails reference “inclusivity” and, “community” yet our members are made to feel like second-class citizens.”

‘Right now, people can’t afford to live’

The feeling is just as strong with UNISON members at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland. Branch chair Sharon Nairn said: “People already can’t afford what they need, and the pay offer will just make things worse, when the value of HE pay has fallen by 17% in the past 12 years. Already I’m hearing members saying ‘I have a car, but I don’t know if I can afford to keep driving right now given the cost of petrol.’ 

“Right now, people can’t afford to live, but they also can’t afford not to stand up and be counted. So from day one, UNISON has increased strike pay for people, and we’ve topped people up with a small hardship fund as well, to make sure that the impact on striking members’ take-home salary is minimal.

“We’re getting no engagement from the university, which only strengthens the feeling on the picket line,” she added. “We’ve got the support of senior academics and students, and the student association have put a statement up in solidarity. We’re planning to raise the profile with MPs and local press next.”

Ms Nairn explained how the issue of pay is already contentious for workers in Scotland. “The Scottish government has the devolved authority for education, except for Scottish university workers’ pay. This is managed by UCEA [the Universities and Colleges Employers Association] and based on a 35 hour week. At Edinburgh Napier, we work a 36.25 hour week. This means we’re already working an extra five hours a month, which adds up to almost one unpaid week every year. People have had enough.”

Crucial that employers treat staff fairly 

UNISON head of education Mike Short said: “University staff provide vital services, but they’ve seen the value of their pay plummet over the past few years.

“They’re also dealing the cost-of-living crisis. It’s crucial employers treat staff fairly and make them a decent pay offer.

“The importance of university staff during the pandemic cannot be overstated, quickly enabling students to learn remotely and providing welfare support throughout. 

“They mustn’t be taken for granted. An above-inflation wage rise is needed to persuade them not to leave for better-paid jobs.

“Staff also deserve a pension scheme that provides a decent retirement. Employers must think again.”

Strike action is being staged on the following dates:

  • Birkbeck (pay) – 24, 25 March;
  • Brighton University (pay) – 1, 4 April;
  • City (pay) – 31 March and 1 April;
  • Edinburgh Napier University – 4-8 April;
  • University of Gloucestershire (pay) – 1 April;
  • King’s College London (pay) – 5, 6 April;
  • Leeds University (pay and pensions) – 24, 25 March;
  • SOAS (pay and pensions) – 24, 25 March.