In light of the recent university marking boycott, and its subsequent postponing, Lauren Wills explains why we have to put up with the necessary evil of strikes
Strikes are annoying because they inconvenience us when we’re the innocent party. For example, Londoners grieve on a constant basis because their travel is disrupted due to tube strikes. LBC reports that 2.5 million Londoners struggle to get to work on time because of strikes on an “all-too-regular basis” over issues such as safety, pay, and working hours. For those just wanting to get to work, many feel it’s unfair that they risk being penalised by their bosses for being late through no fault of their own.
Similarly, my initial reaction to the UCU nationwide university marking boycott was the standard student reaction: “I pay nine thousand pounds a year for this;” “I want my coursework to be marked;” “I want to graduate this year.” It’s difficult to stomach the fact that we, as third parties in this whole situation, are the ones affected by union decisions. In fact, there’s the potential to feel quite betrayed by being used as bait in order for lecturers to win their battle over changing pension schemes.
I then began to question my arguably selfish reaction to the issue. Because we’re still in the world of education and it seems so far away, it’s easy to detach ourselves from issues such as pension schemes.
What’s actually happening is that the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and the pension scheme for academics and administrative staff at pre-1992 institutions have been deemed unsustainable by Universities UK. The proposals for reform will affect employers in a range of ways, one main proposal being to end final salary arrangements and replace them with a pension based on average earnings, up to £50000.
UCU claims these figures are misleading and are concerned with the lack of fairness in the reforms. Further meetings have been proposed and the strike has now been postponed. The Joint negotiating committee commented that: “The purpose of these meetings is to close the difference between the stakeholders’ negotiation positions with a view to reaching agreement.” This makes both positions clear, and it’s all about negotiation. There are two sides to the argument; employees want a stable and affordable pension scheme, whilst at the same time universities want to minimise the effects of such strikes.
Yes, it’s annoying. And yes, it seems unfair to bring students into a dispute that doesn’t concern them. However, on considering the options available to the union, there are no alternatives to ensure that individual voices are heard on such matters. This applies to all strikes, not just the marking boycott.
Being part of a union is about representation and strength in numbers. It’s difficult to think of alternative ways in which unions can get their way and make powerful bodies listen to their grievances without taking action, which stops us in our tracks and makes us consider their needs.
The media makes it worse, being so negative about striking workers, making out that they inconvenience people’s lives on purpose. If we are really honest, marking inconveniences are frustrating, but it would probably be worse to feel like the money for which we’ve worked extremely hard and put into a pension scheme is being tampered with. People want to defend their rights and conditions of their pay, and being part of a union is the ideal way to do this.
Without deliberately trying to sound patronising, perhaps when we enter the world of full-time work, we will understand the frustration of not being heard. A recent example last year occurred when 95 per cent of British Airways workers who voted in 2013 said they would strike because of their pay claims being rebuffed. Workers were outraged that Willie Walsh earned £5000000 that year whilst hundreds had lost their jobs and were working under inferior terms compared to other workers.
This really does emphasise the importance of being part of a union in which workers can exercise their rights and be heard collectively. It also emphasises the importance of holding those up in the food chain of workplaces accountable for their decisions and potential lack of integrity.
Strikes are effective. I hope the threat of a marking boycott doesn’t end up detrimentally affecting us as individuals who are paying for our education, and that it implements enough pressure in order that changes are made without affecting innocent individuals.
The marking boycott isn’t ideal for anyone. However, if the majority of a union feels that something is unfair and that change is needed, I feel we should try and stop our initial selfish reactions to strikes and put ourselves in workers’ shoes.
In a time of financial struggle for many companies, the balance is difficult. Nevertheless, working conditions, salaries and pensions must be something consistent and secure for employees, otherwise they are left with no other alternative but to take drastic measures and strike in the most inconvenient of ways.