Strike for Education


Recently, Simon Fletcher interviewed Dr Jo Grady, the General Secretary of UCU, over at his blog, Modern Left, about their ongoing national disputes over pensions, pay stagnation, pay inequality and casualisation in the Higher and Further Education sectors. Below we reproduce Simon’s excellent interview, and encourage you to subscribe to the blog here.

There is a simple way to resolve the issues in higher education… the very least and first steps would be to stop using manufactured deficits to take away the rightfully-earned retirement income of your staff, to treat the ones that you are currently employing with dignity by putting them on proper contracts… and to make people’s working lives enjoyable again, by reducing workloads.

Dr Jo Grady

By Simon Fletcher

Dr Jo Grady is the General Secretary of the UCU (University and College Union). I spoke to her last week, at a time when the union is taking strike action over pensions, pay, pay inequalities and workload.

Simon Fletcher: So, there’s two national disputes involving strike action for fights and pensions. Could you give us a quick overview of the main points of the disputes that you’re fighting and what you’re asking for?

Jo Grady: With regards the USS [Universities Superannuation Scheme] dispute, this is a long running dispute. There’s been various attempts in the past to cut the pension, in 2018 specifically to downgrade the pension from a defined benefit pension to a defined contribution. UCU remains, I think the only union nationally in the UK to prevent such a cut once it’s been on the table, but the pension has had value cut from it since 2011. It’s had £240,000 cut from it already. And in this more recent round of cuts, the employer has rammed through the negotiation process cuts of approximately thirty-five per cent to the guaranteed element of people’s pensions, completely unnecessarily. We just heard today (30 March), for instance, that the latest financial monitoring from the USS trustee has shown the assets have grown even further, over £88 billion now. But more importantly, what the report that’s just been published today has shown, is that any contribution increases that were required to address the deficit that was reported to have occurred in the scheme have fallen to zero. So the trustee itself has confirmed that on the basis of this improvement, contributions could be reduced or benefits could be increased. So in short, there is no justification for the employers’ pension cuts whatsoever. And we’ve been saying this all along, especially in this round, that the valuation was conducted in March 2020, when there was quite literally a global economic shutdown. This is not about a sector trying to ensure that it can afford to pay the contribution increases, or even a scheme that is in a position to have to reduce benefits. And we’ve been saying this all along – some vice chancellors have called for a new valuation with us, but nowhere near enough, because I think what they actually want to see is just the downgrading of the pension. This is still very much a live dispute, we’ve launched a petition today and a number of other things, there’s still strike action happening. So that’s the pension dispute in a nutshell and yet again, UCU members, higher education staff, vindicated that this is an attack on their scheme, rather than a financial reality that we just won’t accept. If there’s a financial reality that isn’t being accepted, it’s by Vice Chancellors.

With regard Four Fights, this is a very different type of dispute. It encapsulates, I think, some of the very worst aspects of working in higher education. Yes, it is about pay – pay, as in many sectors across the UK has fallen by over 25 per cent in the last decade. But it’s also about shocking equality pay gaps, that sit at sixteen per cent for gender pay, seventeen per cent for ethnicity pay, I think nine per cent for disability pay gaps. We need to close those – you would expect universities to be banging down the door of the union to seek to address to close those. But significantly, for most UCU members, it’s about absolute burnout and overwork. Fifty per cent of our members are showing signs of probable depression. Most of them are routinely working at least one extra day a week, if not more. And that overwork, is really compounded by the rampant misuse of casualised contracts in the sector. We have over 100,000 insecure contracts. So, in terms of the asks in the Four Fights dispute, they’re quite humble, I would say, actually: pay us properly, correct the degradation of pay that we’ve seen; close equality pay gaps; and allow people to work the contracted hours that they’re working rather than having such overwork, which in a way is related to those insecure contracts, which we need to see reduced.

How you sustaining morale and momentum, given the fact you’ve got these two major national disputes underway simultaneously?

Well, if you’ve ever been to a UCU picket line, you will know that they are quite jubilant places. I think it is difficult when you are constantly locked into a battle with your employer, when you know that – especially with regards the pension cuts – these are completely unnecessary. With regards black staff, women members of staff and disabled staff, the idea that your employer talks the talk when it comes to diversity, but they’re just simply unwilling to come up with national strategies to reduce those pay gaps, of course, that’s demoralising: to know that you work in a sector, contribute so much, and are treated with such institutional cruelty.

I think it’s a good question to ask how you maintain morale, but actually UCU unlike many other unions is beating ballot thresholds all the time. We have students on picket lines with us. Seventy-three per cent of students support strikes, which is a huge difference to what you see in other sectors where the very group who your management tries to weaponise against you is refusing to take part in that. So I think a lot of the attitude on picket lines has shifted to real anger. I think people are demoralised working in higher education. I don’t think people are demoralised on the picket line.

You mentioned the weaponisation of students against the dispute, to what extent have the employers tried and/or failed to do that?

I don’t even really think they’ve tried this time around, I think that they know that they’ve completely lost that. If we look back at previous disputes, such as in 2018, there was a real attempt to weaponise the ‘student experience’. And definitely you’ve seen attempts at that this year with, even from the government, the suggestion that things are back to normal, we shouldn’t be disrupting education. But it just hasn’t worked. There was massive disruption to education during the pandemic, because of the decisions of vice chancellors and government. Students know that it was staff that were the ones helping them through. So there are some attempts at it now but I think the student movement and UCU are incredibly united, we work together very effectively and at the end of the day, students, I really do think firmly understand, that investment in staff is investment in them. Students, understandably, become very attached to the staff that teach them, the staff that help them out in the lab, the staff that provide them counselling, or even the administrative staff that give them the answers to stuff that are really there for them. They don’t know who vice chancellors are. They probably don’t even know the name of the vice chancellor. Universities would continue to function for forever without vice chancellors. So I think any attempts that they’ve made have just been utterly ineffective.

On pensions, you were elected as the General Secretary against the backdrop of a previous fight around pensions. It seems that the pensions issue is locked in a kind of repetitive cycle of battles. What needs to happen to break that not just on this dispute, but the longer term pattern of that cycle?

I think you are right in terms of locked into a pattern. To a certain extent that is because of the valuation cycle. I often say that we are trapped in a triennial trauma with USS around the valuations. We have been arguing to have a new approach to the valuation, to have a moderately prudent approach to the valuation which would allow for a different type of outcome. For those of you reading that follow the disputes, emerging out of the 2018 dispute where two reports from a Joint Expert Panel talked about the valuation methodology, they talked about various other issues such as governance of the scheme, made a number of recommendations that both the employer and the union backed. We truly believe that if we saw the types of reforms around valuation methodology, that as I say employers have said they wanted, and around governance of the scheme, we would start to break free of the particular variables that inform this triennial trauma, which means that the valuation produces this supposed deficit that then needs to be remedied by a cut to benefits or contribution increases.

So there is a path out there, and employers have made clear previously that they would seek to work with us to address that, but what we’ve seen in this valuation is they have completely exploited a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic deficit valuation to ram through cuts, which as I’ve said, just today [30 March], the trustee has confirmed vast improvements in the health of the scheme and as a result no justification for the cuts.

Not limited just to the pensions, the sector just seems to be gripped with a problem of very poor employment relations, with disputes all over the country at the moment. How would you describe the state of employment relations in the sector?

No other sector has industrial action as an annual event like higher education has for the last four years. And just this week, we wrote to the government and the Education Select Committee, asking for them to launch an inquiry into the state of higher education because of this. And as you know, it is very difficult to take industrial action in the UK, so this isn’t an easy thing for people to do. It isn’t an un-bureaucratic thing for people to do. Anyone who understands the democracies of unions know that this is coming from the rank and file who want their union to ballot and fight these fights. Anyone who has an interest in good industrial relations would take one look at a sector where this is happening and ask on what indicator vice chancellors remain in a job. If you’re a CEO of a company, and there’d been industrial action every year for four years, I think people would be asking you to move on. What we’ve got in higher education is a sector full of people who are happy to see staff ballot and invest all of that time in organising in order to avoid actually doing things that they should be doing, if they’re the good employers that they claim they are. So from my perspective, and I think from UCU’s perspective, pretty much anything good that’s happened in this sector has been a result of staff, has been a result of UCU: during the pandemic, it’s fair to say that thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people were kept safe because of our campaigning to move things online. In areas of the country where that didn’t happen, such as Manchester, we saw hundreds of students locked in, some racially profiled by their own university security, fenced in.

So yes, employment relations are poor but I think actually relations that universities have with their students are incredibly poor too. So this isn’t just an industrial battle with staff, it’s a sector whose leaders are completely disconnected from the communities they have the privilege to serve.

Why do you think the employer is behaving in this way that has been so intransigent and confrontational for such a long time? What’s behind the thought process that leads to that?

That is a really good question. I would be interested to know what Vice Chancellors said to you, I can only give you my opinion. Nobody thinks of themselves as a bad guy, right. And I suspect that Vice Chancellors deploy a lot of dissonance reduction strategies to rationalise their own behaviour. Some of them, many of them, campaigned for the funding model that we have so they are, to some extent, ideologically-wedded and responsible for the managerial regime they oversee. I don’t really understand why somebody would do that, especially if they cared about education – it is ruining education. Many of them, I think, they’re just very detached from the institutions they serve. I think they are frustrated that students don’t behave, but then they want to use the fact that students that should be a customer to make staff behave. They are very cowardly when it comes to challenging government’s diktats, whether that’s the various metrics that manage the sector that make working in it unbearable, and many of them are on eyewatering salaries. A quarter of a million pounds is the average salary for vice chancellors, some of them have renumeration packages, which get up towards £500,000. These are not people who are managing universities in a way that perhaps people would assume they are managed. And that trickles all the way down to the cleaners, the caterers, the people who on a daily basis are the ones that check out if students are okay, the ones who spot if someone’s got an emerging mental health problem. And I don’t want to tar every vice chancellor with the same brush, but when it comes down to it, they are a group of people who display little compassion towards the people who are working and learning in their universities, and often seem more interested in pursuing bureaucratic cruelty in order to make people comply with the way in which they want the university to be governed. In terms of what motivates them or why, I don’t know.

Would it be fair to say the employers wouldn’t be behaving in this way if they didn’t have the government standing behind them and backing them up?

To an extent, but I don’t think it’s that simple to be honest, because I don’t think the government necessarily always stands behind them and backs them up. This is why I’ve referred to some of what we see from vice chancellors as cowardly. Sometimes during the pandemic, the government has done that, but other times they’ve attacked them, they’ve attacked the very fabric of what a university is – in terms of threatening to withdraw funding, if universities don’t comply to certain measures, more recently saying that they’re going to explore using GCSE results as a condition for a student loan. These are things that vice chancellors should be challenging, so I don’t think it’s as simple as vice chancellors backed up by the government. I think it’s more complex than that.

In terms of these two disputes, now, how does the union win?

They’re quite different. There are other things that the employers’ body tried to include in this package of cuts which have been taken off the table, such as a defined contribution scheme for lower-paid members, which would be terrible, it would obviously be the opening of a defined contribution scheme for all members. That hasn’t disappeared completely, but I think it’s fair to say that the action, and the firm stance of UCU members in opposition to that, has meant that it was removed at quite an early stage from this negotiation. We’re pursuing governance reform, still. We would like to see the cuts revoked, and for us to actually enter back into meaningful negotiations about that.

I think with regard Four Fights, especially given everything we’ve just said about vice chancellors: decent pay; a workload that allows people to actually work a working week that is tolerable, but also allows them to truly enjoy work and engage with their students and engage with their colleagues; closing pay gaps – which exist everywhere, right, it’s not just education – and actually getting people onto proper contracts; even if we got some of what we wanted in this dispute this is the bread and butter of this union going forward potentially for forever, even if we got a better lot of vice chancellors and a nicer government. We will never not be fighting on those issues, even if we were to get through this dispute a workload agreement. So I don’t want to say they will be solved this year, because we know that’s not the case and when we look around what’s happening in the UK, whether it’s what’s happened at P&O, the government is not going to help us, vice chancellors have shown that they’re not interested, so we’re going to have to be constantly fighting uphill to just stop some of the worst practices that we’re seeing elsewhere, let alone actually improve things.

But I just want to say there are other things we are doing that are not part of this dispute, which are actually quite important. In UCU, we are running a PGR-as-staff campaign. PGRs are Post Graduate Researchers. In Europe and elsewhere around the world, PGRs are considered staff, but not in the UK. So we are looking at the moment, and running a campaign, to introduce a new floor in higher education as well, to raise the floor and bring people into the employment relationship and ensure they are considered as staff. So, yes, the disputes are important. But there are loads of other things that we as a union are doing as well. And that’s just one of them.

On the point you’re making about the different disputes even within Four Fights I wanted to ask to what extent are they connected. Or alternatively, the extent to which you can continue one element to the fight, whilst others you may make headway on, how are they connected and how can they also run parallel?

Obviously, as you say, they are connected, and the fact that equality pay gaps exist – well, if you look at who manages to get put on permanent contracts, and who gets stuck on casualised ones, you start to see how those pay gaps not only exist but widen: who gets those permanent roles within the academy, who flourishes, whose work is prioritised and given more importance than others. And obviously, that’s a key part of progression in academia. So it’s not to say that equality pay gaps can and perhaps shouldn’t be addressed on their own or couldn’t be, but they are a process and they’re part and parcel of workload, on one hand being unsustainable for many, and an explosion of casualised contracts for others. We have argued that there is more than enough work in the sector to go around, there doesn’t need to be over a hundred thousand insecure contracts, much like there doesn’t need to be a number of people working at least a day extra a week. We have a special sector conference in April. People who are familiar with the democratic processes of unions know that that is where policy is set in terms of anything and everything. And this conversation, is very much going to be part of that meeting – will we be carrying on this dispute on exactly the same terms? Would we seek to drill it down, particularly to workload and casualisation? Is there going to be another way in which we might seek to address equality pay gaps? So, when I said, all of the issues in Four Fights in some ways is the industrial bread and butter of the union, regardless of whether or not we’re in dispute about them, that remains true. And the conversations that we’re going to have [in April] as a union will really decide precisely how we will take it forward, which we will – just whether or not it will have exactly the same components in a dispute but as I say, that doesn’t mean they’re still not part of what we’re doing.

You mentioned other issues beyond the two present national disputes. In terms of the disputes and those other issues, what political strategy does the union need to achieve a longer term change for students and staff?

We’ve been very clear, and even before my election, I was very clear – we are not going to be saved by any political party. Even if we had a Labour party that was shouting from the rooftops that they wanted fees abolished, we’re all long enough in the tooth to know that we don’t put our eggs in a political solution basket. We have to, as a union, grow our density, we have to make sure that we are in a place to actually do other types of community organising, and find ways to really reach out. I don’t think many unions in the UK in particular are very good at doing this in organising the entire worker and organising the community. One of the real benefits of the expansion of higher education under New Labour, for example, is that everybody knows somebody now who went to university. Whether it’s your niece or nephew, or your grandchild or just an extended family member or somebody down the road. University, I don’t think for working class communities is a faraway thing like it once was. In that sense, probably in university towns, everybody knows somebody who works at the university as well. One of the things that we’ve been doing in the last few years at UCU is building the profile of the union in order to build the profile of education and making clear to people just how important education is, just how important adult education is, apprenticeships are, working class routes into education, and therefore how important it is that education should be utterly free and seen as a public good. We know that we are battling uphill. But I genuinely think that if the pandemic revealed anything is that a lot of people when they are offered opportunities to act together collectively for progressive solutions to issues, whether that was Marcus Rashford’s school meals, people grasp them, people really want them.

As trade unions it’s very good and important that we have an industrial strategy to grow our density and things like that but we do have to think about how we build the capacity amongst the minds of the public, that actually they want to back us – in all of the competing lists of things that they would back, that they want to see our group of workers have a good deal, and what would that mean, for that to happen? I think we’re building a better profile as a union and building the profile of educators. But I don’t necessarily see that as a political strategy to do more work with any political party. If I learned anything as an academic about how you get politics on board is that you build a movement, you don’t seek to necessarily build a political movement, politicians will follow where they see people.

On that on that last point how do you think that politicians in the opposition parties have responded to your case during this present phase of disputes?

I think it’s been a mixed bag. I remain, both when I was a member on picket lines, and now as general secretary incredibly grateful and just really impressed by the sheer amount of MPs across the board but particularly Labour MPs and Green MPs, that are always on our picket lines, that are always writing to vice chancellors, and that will always champion our cause. And there are many of them and I think they really need recognising across the UK.

It’s been quite disappointing to see, even in a case of our pension dispute, where it is so clear cut of the injustice, people struggle to actually say that from the front bench unequivocally. We have had some support, and I don’t want to appear ungrateful at all because the shadow cabinet that are involved in particular with education have been supportive, particularly behind the scenes and the things that they have been doing. But from my perspective, at the moment, I think the Labour Party seem to want avoid being seen to back strikes and what they should really be concerned with, is being seen to back workers who, I guess are voters, but also really need to know that the alternative future – or even just keeping the things that we fought for and earned –  that there’s a party that represents them. And I don’t think that is necessarily clear. And if the barrier to Labour doing that is because they don’t want to seem like they’re supporting unions I think they’re being really short-sighted.

That goes back to your public opinion point doesn’t it, it’s about the voters?

I just think things like pensions, people think they’re complicated, but they’re not. Your pension, especially if you’re lucky enough to have an employer one, is your deferred wage, you pay a percentage into it, your employer pays a percentage into it. It’s part of your renumeration package. If your employer is cutting your pension unnecessarily, and you can point to it like we can, it’s just wage theft. They’re just taking it from what your retirement income is. People understand that. I grew up in a pub, right? People might not have a high level of education, but they understand money that they’ve earned been put aside for them. It’s really unfortunate if Labour aren’t willing to step into that space and articulate something that a lot of people kind of intrinsically know. Once you say it, they go yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s one of the reasons why as an education union the sky is really the limit for us in terms of how we can engage the public and build and bring people on board because our tools are communicating ideas that people sometimes are told that they can’t understand, and realising they can.

Can I ask you about trade union strategy. I mentioned your election as General Secretary. What lessons from that have you brought to the position of General Secretary and your leadership of the union since you took office?

I think what my election demonstrated, bearing in mind that we really increased the turnout during that election – it didn’t quite double, but it nearly doubled – is that people want to be part of a union that is progressive, and positive and speaks to the issues that they know are a concern. I know that sounds like quite almost a Captain Obvious thing to say but I’m not sure unions always do that. Or at least, the way in which unions operate sometimes on the ground is they can put people off, that people feel they don’t belong, or they feel othered, or they other the union. What we really tried to do when I was running for GS, is make the union a space where any problem that you’ve got, you would come to the union to try and see if there was other people who wanted to help you fix it. We were also quite clear that politics isn’t going to save us in my election campaign as well. But one of the things that we did a lot of is we talked about issues that happen in the workplace, but that people haven’t always thought of as workplace issues. I talked a lot about how we need to address issues like sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. I didn’t shy away from talking about how we should be unequivocally pro-migration, how we need to really think carefully about global climate justice and what that means to global economic justice. So very much the issues that I was referring to earlier in terms of organising the whole worker.

In terms of things that we’ve done differently at UCU, since my election – bearing in mind, when I started, we were still sort of going through the Brexit process – we were a very clear voice about how we felt about migration, which I don’t think all unions have managed to do very successfully. We have established a member-led task group on sexual violence that concluded in December, which has published a ground-breaking report with recommendations not just for the sector, but for our union, about how we need to transform things to better represent survivors. I’m really proud of that, because it’s brought together things that I think unions need to do, like engaging members that don’t tend to get involved with their union. We had so many people who said when they joined the task group, I’ve never been to a meeting, or I felt intimidated going here but this has been a really good space. It was really nice to bring together and create a new member space, which isn’t sort of dripping in the old bureaucracy of these kind of elected spaces but that also then pioneered something like sexual violence, which some people don’t think trade unions, either should be doing or have done very much.

Do you think that the present conflict in the sector is leading to changes in your activist base? What’s the knock-through into the union of the disputes in terms of the people being drawn in or other changes that might occur as a result of them?

I think there have been changes – obviously, me getting elected is probably indicative of part of that change since 2018. There was a huge influx of not new people to the union – people have probably been in the union, like I had since they joined the sector – but who began to take more of an active interest in the democratic structures of their union, who decided that rather than just being an interested party in their branch, they were going to try and get on their branch committee, or they were going to run for a national position, or, for instance, a task group position once they became available. There has definitely been, I would argue – not everywhere – but there has definitely been more newer activists, not necessarily new members, stepping up.  Being inspired, either by changes they’ve seen in the union, or things that they have not enjoyed about higher education, to take on a more active role in the union. As far as I’m concerned, I think that’s an incredibly good thing. It has meant that in some branches, there’s been a whole fleet of new people. I think that’s good in terms of representation, but it’s also good in terms of trying to prevent activist-burnout, which would be a huge issue if there wasn’t constantly people being inspired and brought on board. We’ve also – to go back to your earlier question – initiated, huge organiser training, we’ve been putting thousands of people through organising school that we’ve done with Jane McAlevey. In addition to just new people being inspired or motivated to get involved, we’ve tried to come up with a way that people will have learned more and are learning the tools of organising, so when they stay involved, they know what they’re doing.

You were asking things that we’ve done differently – we completely revamped all of our member handbooks in terms of how members need to build power in the workplace and bargain effectively. All of these things are interlinked, really, in terms of encouraging more people to get involved, because we’ve encouraged them to see the union differently – and that they’re the union not not me, [Jo Grady] the union – and also open up the remit of things that we should be engaged in.

You’ve mentioned density. How difficult is it to sustain union density in your workplaces, when you’ve got such high levels of precarious employment? What strategies have you got to deal with that?

Our density – I think this is probably the case of all unions – needs to be built amongst the most precarious. We have been possibly more successful than other unions at growing that density, particularly because a lot of our disputes recently have really centred casualised staff. But obviously, casualised staff move around a lot, they often leave the sector. And traditionally unions – this was part of what I said when I ran as general secretary – have treated casualised staff as second class members, they haven’t necessarily prioritised their demands. To a certain extent if you’re being a traditionalist about trade unions, you would understand that because they’re not the high-fee paying members. But ultimately, in a sector like higher education, where so much of the work is done by casualised staff, if you want to orchestrate and pull off a very successful dispute then you have to have density amongst the people who you need to withdraw labour from. Part of our PGR as staff campaign is about, not just trying to get a new employment floor in higher education, it is about recruiting those members. We are constantly doing anti-casualisation work in universities to raise the profile of the union and recruit them, because density in those groups in particular is very important industrially to the successes that we’re going to need to see. Let’s be real, this government isn’t going anywhere, for the moment, it’s very clear that nothing is going to budge them, and they’ve got a very big majority, and unless things change very rapidly, I can’t see anybody other than the Tories getting elected at the next general election. So this is not a short-term battle that any of us are locked in. That doesn’t mean we’ve got the luxury of time when we’re facing the attacks that we do, but building that density and growing the campaign, throughout all of our activities is really important.

On a big picture point. Your dispute is a very sharp example, certainly on the pension side and on the pay side, of how the cost the cost of living in society is a big issue now. You’re facing an element of that for your members, but right the way across – on pay prices, bills, services, pensions, fares, etc – people are facing very big squeeze. Perhaps part of the reason why the government doesn’t really want to solve the P&O dispute, despite their language, is because they’re actually quite happy for people to see that that might happen to them, and therefore, they’d be prepared to accept worsening living standards, pay, conditions. Each union has got its own struggle around these things. But how do we connect those individual struggles to the kind of wider public experience of that cost of living crisis. What sort of movement or campaign might be needed to maximize the impact of all those different things?

So, and this is actually something I think about a lot. It’s something that I’ve been talking to other general secretaries about and, for what it is worth, some Labour MPs and peers.

At the risk of sounding like I’m overindulging for a moment, part of my life before I was general secretary was as an academic and I did a lot of research around the kind of the ideological battleground that existed before, during and after the publication of the Beveridge report. And the extent to which that report was published in war-time, that it was only really established because of the minister without portfolio, establishing it at the time… And, I guess the point I’m making is, is that it generated such enthusiasm and desire to see it implemented that I don’t think that could have really been predicted by the government that allowed the minister without portfolio to establish the commission. The Conservative government didn’t get re-elected and we ended up with a Labour Government cherry-picking from a document created by a Liberal peer, to create something amazing.

Even under the bleakest of circumstances, where you have a government that should be getting support, because they kind of have this war narrative behind them and people are thinking maybe we were just lucky to get through that, something amazing appeared. The general public, were presented with a blueprint for the future, which they understood. Labour cherry-picked from Beveridge in a way that I think was problematic – they could have gone further. And Beveridge was a Liberal. So there was this sort of weird and strange coming together of all these different parties, and the idea that people wanted and deserved more, and they were just  – we’re not going to have things as they are anymore. I think that is there right now in this in this country. So I’m not in any way a pessimistic person.

I agree with the framing that you just put forward that the government probably want to exploit the P&O crisis, so that people think ‘I’m lucky’. I don’t think people are in the mood to feel lucky. You know, I’m from Wakefield, I was up there for Mother’s Day, people are angry, people are trying to get through in the best way that they can and support each other. But things are about to get really, really difficult. This is why this is a difficult time to be a general secretary but it’s a really important time to be a general secretary, because we have to make sure that people know that there isn’t just hope but there are ways in which things could be different. The people who’ve just lost their jobs at P&O didn’t need to lose their jobs. The cut that is happening to our pension does not need to happen, and we know that because we’ve just had a report from the trustee. The degradation of pay in higher education is a business choice of the people who manage it. Yes, to a certain extent that is connected to the funding regime that we have but that doesn’t have to be that way either. Because guess what, the UK is not a poverty-stricken country. Somebody needs to be out there articulating that case. We are doing it as a trade union movement. One of the reasons UCU keeps winning ballots on things like pensions, which other unions do not, is because we’re being really clear with people about what this means. I actually have a lot of faith that we can do it. There are a number of us amongst the TUC general council, general secretaries, there’s going to be a big demo, hosted by the TUC in June, we’re going to be doing town halls.

Movements and educating people take time, they need people who are good at communicating, people who can inspire passion. A lot of the networks that working class communities had were deliberately taken away from them, we’re going to have to start rebuilding them. And as I said, we’re stuck with this government for quite some time now. So we can do it. And we need to really invest our time in doing that as well as industrial work that we do.

Just as one final question. Going back to the main disputes that we started with: what is your message to the employers right now at this stage of those disputes, what can be done to break it open?

There is a simple way to resolve the issues in higher education and heal the great amount of damage in hurt that has occurred and the very least and first steps would be to stop using manufactured deficits to take away the rightfully-earned retirement income of your staff; to treat the ones that you are currently employing with dignity by putting them on proper contracts, rather than making them work nought point six over twelve weeks; and to make people’s working lives enjoyable again, by reducing workloads. In terms of those things some of them cost-neutral, some of them the right thing to do, and if they had any shred of professionalism, things they would seek to do as leaders of those institutions.

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