Stand with the UCU: why we must all stand in solidarity with striking workers

By Tobias Watson – Regular Contributor

Over the next two weeks, 70,000 university workers will be heading to the picket lines to fight for dignified pay, better conditions and pensions in the face of a neoliberal, for-profit higher education system that routinely chews up and spits out both workers and students alike. We, as students, owe it to them to stand in solidarity and amplify their voices as we all stand to gain as a community with their victory. 

A brief rundown of class society and universities: cui bono?

Firstly, we must understand the logic and the power dynamics that exist in our capitalist economic system to understand the logic of what possesses workers to vote in favour of strike action. Under capitalism, there are two main classes: the workers and the capitalists. Capitalists own private property (e.g. workplaces) and generate profits by purchasing the labour of those who do not own any, paying them the bare minimum required to stay competitive for the maximal amount of work as they wish to maximise profits and their own salaries: these lower-paid people are the workers, and it is in their interests to strive for higher pay and better working conditions. Inherent to this relationship is a power imbalance held by private property owners, as they are the ones who through virtue of seniority (through owning private property) get to select whose labour to buy through contract labour, with a pool of people competing for employment by these capitalists to escape being part of the reserve army of labour: the unemployed.

Furthermore, money is the lifeblood of the market economy, the golden ticket to survival, the omnipotent placeholder commodity dictating who languishes and who thrives. Access to money dictates one’s access to both luxury/recreational goods as well as the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter, and those of us who are without the seniority of the capitalist have no choice but to sell our labour in the desperate struggle to survive. Take a stroll through any major city centre in the UK and you will see this for yourself, reflected in the desperate eyes of every homeless soul you see: powerless, languishing in scarcity due to the brutality of the market, starving and locked out of even the basic safety of having a place to call home. Wealth dictates not only how you will spend your evenings, but also whether you live or die. Employers in our society play judge, jury and executioner, as money is power, a power that capitalists control and that we all compete for with only ourselves and our skills to offer. 

In the case of higher education, it is not as clear cut as ‘private enterprise’ being the cause of the contradictions that exist today and capitalists in the traditional sense, as most universities in the UK are public. This means that instead of being owned by capitalists, these institutions are state-owned, who own them on behalf of the general public, but in capitalist societies like the UK, public institutions are ran in a hierarchical fashion that roughly reproduces the same contradictions as conventional businesses when they are ran for profit and not to provide a universal basic service (such as healthcare or education up until the point of university): within this state capitalism with profiteering tendencies, there is an administrative body of employers seeking further luxuries and there is a group of contracted labourers (some of whom are on temporary contracts) selling their labour to survive in a world where money dictates access to goods and services. 

The cost of living crisis and privatisation: how ‘the invisible hand’ of the market is choking university staff

As we are all painfully aware by now, we are living in a time of heightened economic hardship: the prices of basic household goods, utilities and services have shot up since the invasion of Ukraine, exacerbated by Brexit, all during the longest squeeze on wages since the Napoleonic War. For an extra 6 million people in this country, the terror of precarity has arrived, with decisions on household budget cuts and in extreme cases the choice between heating and eating being a course of action that an expected 31.9mn people will confront this winter.

Over the last thirty years, there has been a ‘privatisation by stealth’ of our higher education system. Ever since Tony Blair’s administration introduced tuition fees in 1998 and ever since these were tripled in 2011 by the coalition government, there has been a shift in the purpose of universities through a shift in dependence from the state to students in funding, pushing them to expand and adopt a profiteering mindset like conventional capitalist enterprise. These tendencies bring the aforementioned contradictions within capitalistic entities to a new audience, pitting university administrators seeking pay rises and greater wealth against their staff who seek to have dignified existences with just pay and just working conditions, as the logic of entrepreneurs comes to silently murder the humanity left within our tertiary education system in favour of higher turnovers and even shinier cars. 

Let us not forget the situation of the university worker is not merely that of the lecturers alone, but a burden felt most by those at the base of the pyramid: staff such as shopkeepers, cleaners and catering staff on campus who make university life possible. These are the people who have to suffer most in the cost of living crisis, often on temporary and zero hour contracts, having to support families as well as themselves. These are ordinary human beings who work tirelessly to make the intricacies of university life away from the whiteboards possible, often with children to feed and partners to care for. They have the same hopes and aspirations as the rest of us, and they bring life and colour to a world that desperately needs it. It is unthinkable that these people should have to suffer, and that their families suffer by extension, as a result of profit-seeking greed infecting the system. 

Happy staff, happy students

For those who still remain sceptical of the industrial action taken and are not convinced by the real struggles that university staff face this winter, as customers within our commodified higher education system, it has to be pointed out that we all stand to gain massively by our professors and all who make their work possible being given what they are owed. Think about it: when staff are happy and feel as though they are being treated well and looked after by their employees, they are more likely to work harder and provide better quality services such as our education. 

In the case of lecturers and seminar tutors, this is a job that the vast majority of them love dearly: in order to be in such a position, one must devote an inordinate amount of time to the mastery and pursuit of their academic field, driven by a burning passion to pass on their knowledge and inspire new generations of students to carry the torch forward: to be in a position of stress and worry poisons the chalice of passion that they drink from, undermining their ability to effectively teach us the material we pay thousands annually for and leading to us receiving an objectively worse education, likewise when this is not the case and when they are happy with their pay, working conditions and pensions, they can self-actualise in their careers to be the educators that they strive to be. Furthermore, many university staff in different roles to those who directly teach us feel similarly about their work, and by having unhappy supporting staff within universities under the stresses of attacks on their standards of living and (in lower paid roles) their ability to survive in this cost of living crisis, the very framework that holds up our educators like the prize jewel in an ornate crown collapses under the inability of these overexploited workers to shine in their jobs, leaving our university infrastructure broken. 

This logic is demonstrated in the economy more generally with empirical data: a Harvard University study from 2020 showed a positive correlation between higher pay and higher productivity, with pay rises of $1 yielding an over $1 increase of productivity. This tells us that there is something in it for us students as customers, as we receive a superior service as a result of higher productivity: it is empirically and logically true that people with better pay will perform better, and we have a logical framework to understand why. 

Conclusion: For the union makes us strong

As the trade-unionist firebrand MP Zarah Sultana often likes to remind us, there is safety in solidarity, and as people bearing witness to living class struggle in higher education, we can see this to be a cold hard fact. From the cleaning staff to the professors, they all depend on our support to tough it out and brave the picket line so that they win, as we all have much to gain by their victory.

Each and every one of us, no matter who we are (whether we are staff, students or onlookers from outside of our institutions) deserve futures of dignified pay, secure pensions to live off, and working conditions conducive to us reaching our full potential, not just because we are likely to work harder but because we all share a common humanity. None of us deserve to fear going without the essentials required to live and thrive and it is a grave injustice that some can consciously decide to take more from the pot to satiate their appetites for luxury when the people who actually make our universities work have to go without the essentials in a cruel society that punishes scarcity with malnutrition, hypothermia and homelessness. 

There is an incredible amount on the line this winter, and university staff cannot afford to continue onwards as normal when they have families to feed. We need to take a stand together. When we stand atomised, their suffering continues, but when we stand as one, the only way forward is up. 

Stand with the workers. Stand with the UCU.

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