Disputes over pay, working conditions and pension cuts have led to the threat of continuous strikes for seven weeks
By Kani Barzani
By Andrew Cardno
During the past year, industrial action has occurred throughout the UK as schoolteachers, postal workers, and nurses have gone on strike.
Following unsuccessful negotiations with employers, Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) leadership have announced that their members will also join the picket lines.
Over 70,000 academic staff from 150 universities, including the University of Aberdeen, are striking for eighteen nonconsecutive days during February and March after union bosses and employers failed to reach an accord in late January.
On the 25th of January, UCU leaders met with Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) representatives and demanded that employers improve their pay offer, citing the rise in cost of living as well as the real pay decline in previous years. UCU also demanded that employers put an end to the utilisation of insecure contracts.
UCU General Secretary Jo Grady commented that the UCEA's subsequent offer, which would increase pay between five and eight percent, did not compensate for years of decline in real pay and thus could not begin to deal with the cost-of-living crisis. Responding to the offer, Grady stated: 'Let me get straight to the point - this is not enough.'
Grady opined that university vice-chancellors would rather let staff go on strike and shut campuses down than use the 40 billion pounds sitting in reserves to aid in a pay rise and reverse pension cuts.
UCU members believe that University vice-chancellors need to rethink their priorities in order to have a better environment for their staff and students.
Local Aberdeen UCU Branch Secretary David Anderson said, 'The recent pay-offer of 5% represents only a small and insignificant increase and pales before the increased cost of living. Other unions representing nurses, teachers, and transport workers have declined similar pay-offers. Our dispute is not only about pay, but also about the quality of education. Your lecturers and support staff only take strike action reluctantly, and we fully expect our managers to take this dispute seriously to avoid the considerable disruption that 18 days of strike action will bring.'
In a Student Council Meeting on 31 January, AUSA VP for Communities Camilo Torres Barragán proposed an emergency motion which expressed support for the strikes while urging both sides to come to the negotiating table.
'... As students,' the motion read, 'we support UCU's right to strike and believe their demands to be fair.'
However, the motion also stated that AUSA would not support a marking boycott if industrial action reached that point. Citing the effect such action would have on international and final year students, Torres Barragán told councillors, 'We cannot put lecturers’ interests ahead of students’ interests, even though they are very similar.’
On 1 February, dozens of UoA staff members walked out or picketed at the entrances to the Old Aberdeen campus with signs demanding to be valued and seeking better offers for university workers.
One Aberdeen UCU member who asked to remain anonymous said: 'I care so passionately about the students I teach [and] the work I do and, but I simply can’t make ends meet right now. I’m on a casual contract that only guarantees me 30 hours work over the whole year- even though I work more like 300 a term. I have had credit card applications turned down because of this type of contract, so I can’t borrow any money and prices continue going up and up. I need a pay raise at least in line with inflation just to even keep afloat, that’s why I’m going on strike.'
Prior to the strikes beginning, a UoA spokesperson said: 'This is a national dispute, and we note that there are ongoing national negotiations and hope that agreement can be reached, and strike action averted. The University will make every effort to minimise the impact of any industrial action on students who will be given advice and kept updated.'
Professor George Boyne, the University's Principal and Vice Chancellor, is the current Chair of UCEA and a leading negotiator in the pay disputes.
Upcoming strike dates include: 15, 16, 21, 22, 23, 27, and 28 February; and 1, 2, 16, 17, 20, 21, 22 March.