The past few months have seen a surge in student resistance to cuts at UK higher education institutions. It has involved direct-action tactics such as occupations and has, for the most part, been built using grassroots democracy and open meetings. But what about the resistance from workers in the education sector?
There have been a number of ballots for industrial action across higher education, which have almost universally demonstrated an enthusiasm amongst workers to take action. Ballots of lecturers organised in the University and College Union (UCU) at Leeds and Sussex have both returned resounding majorities on high turnouts.
But the willingness of workers to fight has unfortunately not been adequately taken up by their union at a national level. Because the cuts are not across-the-board but are being introduced institution-by-institution, in different ways and at different times, the anti-union laws prevent UCU from easily turning the dispute into a national one that could mobilise all its members. (Balloting members at Sussex to take strike action over cuts happening at Leeds would be considered secondary action). Nonetheless there plenty of room for a more inspiring, confident and comprehensive perspective from the union.
The cross-union Defend Higher Education Campaign, which involves other unions organising in the sector, is invisible. It’s demands do not include opposition to any and all cuts. It does not call for higher taxation of the rich to fill any financial hole in the sector’s funding. The campaign effectively allows management to dictate the terms of the debate. For instance it argues against compulsory redundancies, thus implicitly accepting voluntary ones.
Unions need to fight for their own vision of how their service or industry should be organised, taking up the needs of workers and the community — and not the so-called “needs” of bosses to make money or the “realities of the market” — as its starting point.
Unfortunately the organised left in the union — which might otherwise be expected to challenge the lack of vision and fight in the union — is also lacking. The UCU Left — a collection of like-minded individuals rather than any kind of meaningful rank-and-file network — is controlled by the SWP and has become increasingly powerful within sections of the union bureaucracy, particularly within London.
Through a primary focus on international issues rather than basic industrial questions, the SWP has poisoned the political waters in UCU. Being “left-wing” in this union has become less about what strategy you advocate for organising workers against bosses and more about how enthusiastically you support a boycott of Israel.
Workers in UCU, and in unions across the education sector, urgently need solid rank-and-file networks that will allow them to develop strategies to fight and win — we need to begin a discussion on how to do that.
• Facing cuts in the college where you work? Have something to say or report? Write to us with your views:
• National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (student campaign) conventionagaintfeesandcuts.wordpress.com
Lambeth College cuts
Ruth Cashman reports:
Lambeth College have given notice of 100-plus redundancies from a total workforce of 690 as part of a £3.5 million cuts package for next year. UCU are already in dispute over funding cuts and are balloting for strike action. This is part of a package of cuts affecting Further Education across London. In Tottenham, UCU branch secretary Jenny Sutton is standing as a TUSC candidate against David Lammy to highlight the fight against cuts in FE.
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