Friday, July 19, 2013

Unite Claim "Partial Victory" As University of Liverpool Sharpens Axe

What must surely have been one of the most pathetic and least effective demonstrations in Liverpool's history took place on Wednesday. This happened as activists gathered to protest the Vice Chancellor of University of Liverpool and guests meeting for a swanky dinner at St George's Hall, even as they are in the midst of an attempt to drastically worsen the terms and conditions of hourly staff.

In June, the University of Liverpool demanded that 2,803 non-academic staff accept drastically inferior working conditions (longer hours without overtime pay, and on weekends and bank holidays without compensation) or face dismissal. The Vice Chancellor, Sir Howard Newby, did so on the basis of new, anti-working class laws brought in by the coalition government, reducing the required notice in such cases from ninety days to just forty-five. The attacks from Newby are so far unprecedented in the education sector, and will therefore be used to set a 'new normal' benchmark for the rest of the country.

In the fortnight leading up to the dinner, Unite had spread information about a protest via texts and posts on social networks, such as that set up by the Liverpool Against The Cuts group. One typical posting via a Unite employee read:
"Lpool uni threatening to dismiss staff and re-engage on inferior terms, majority low paid staff while vc sir howard newby aka the university axe man rakes in 361,000 plus fringe benefits! Graduation week civic event with dignitaries at st georges hall costing thousands of pounds show support at the greed of vc and the attack of working people demo from 6pm onwards this Wed. Let's make as much noise as possible."
However, this was contradicted the day before the demo by a message from the same source, who argued that:
"Due to the pressure put on Liverpool university by the demo tomorrow, university management have agreed to extend the negotiation deadline. Tomorrow's demo has therefore been called off - a partial victory for the staff campaigning against the university's attempts to impose new contracts without proper negotiation."
A few points on this text:
  1. Is an extension to the deadline - to a time when there is almost no-one campus - a "partial victory", when University of Liverpool have made no commitment to reverse their attacks on conditions?
  2. If the "pressure put on Liverpool university by the demo" was so great, why not keep up the pressure and aim to gain greater concessions?
  3. Do "proper negotiations" - i.e. those involving the regional union bureaucracy - make such massive attacks any more palatable for the rank and file?
In the event, around thirty activists from various groupings decided to congregate by the fountain opposite the Walker Art Gallery at the appointed hour, despite Unite's tactical manoeuvre. But without a single person affected by the attack being represented and therefore potentially providing some sort of leadership, they took no action whatsoever, other than a few shouts directed at the men in suits from the other side of the road. One activist each from Unite and UCU took the opportunity to leaflet the guests, with the UCU rep claiming that her union had not even been invited to the Unite/U of L talks.

With the extension of the deadline, talks between Unite and the university will continue into the summer break, but an empty campus will deny workers and their allies even the slightest chance to respond to the attacks. With no strike ballots called in the eight months since the university first floated the possibility of 'sign or be sacked' section 188 notices, the only opportunity for action passed last night. A sell-out - including most if not all of the university's demands - is surely in preparation.
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