Friday, February 07, 2014

Liverpool Uni Workers Strike as Grassroots Rebellion Grows

Photo: Liverpool UCU
University staff across Liverpool went on strike yesterday, in action which coincided with the national dispute over a one per cent 'pay rise'. However, the Liverpool situation has specific differences to the state of play country-wide, and there is an element of unpredictability which from reports seems absent elsewhere. In a slow, but steady way, staff at campuses in the city are becoming more militant, and building links with each other which here and there is breaking the control of the union hierarchy.

It was the third time university staff had struck since October. On Halloween, an enthusiastic crowd of workers from all four Liverpool universities (University of Liverpool, John Moores, Hope and Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts) plus Edge Hill had gathered for a noisy demo, having shut down campuses. In early December, a large demonstration made the same points once more, before students occupied the Irish Studies building in solidarity. They raised much awareness of the dispute, before the university management erected scaffolding outside, compelling the besieged occupiers to quickly leave.

Certainly at University of Liverpool, this third strike was a big success. There were three hundred workers on picket lines fanned out across every building and car park, ensuring that it was far from business as usual for £300k+ a year vice chancellor Sir Howard Newby and co.

Compared to Halloween, the rally at U of L and subsequent march through town did not seem particularly inspired. Numbers were slightly down, with less travelling from other unis and less solidarity from the wider left. The march itself had an unusual atmosphere, with few banners or placards, no chanting, and people generally chatting in small groups as they ambled towards their refreshment destination. Scenes like this were likely repeated across the country.

So some of the immediate enthusiasm felt at the start of the dispute was clearly missing, and in some respects this is surely due to the way that the bureaucracies of University and College Union, Unite and Unison have strung out the dispute over such a long period. With UCU, there is the added factor of the two hour mini strikes which have seen lecturers to lose pay in recent weeks.

However, there have been developments in in Liverpool which make the local picture different. The roots of this go back to early last summer, when a separate dispute began at U of L. As I wrote last July:
"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."
Unite called a demonstration against a posh dinner for Newby and friends at the city's St George's Hall, but then pulled back from this on the sole basis that the negotiation deadline had been extended into the summer break. A farcical non-demonstration then took place. Alone amongst the university's unions, UCU threatened strike action over the attack, and shortly before the new September semester, management gave in to the union's members...but not those of Unite and Unison employed at the same uni!

Following this, Unite and Unison members at U of L held their own extra strike day following the one with UCU in December. Management instructed UCU members to cross picket lines. Parallel to this development, Unite officials had tried to call off their members' strike action at short notice, but the members refused to be swayed, and took the action they had voted for anyway. The U of L Unite branch had not actually met in many years, and on one member's suggestion, the event proved the catalyst for an agreement to meet regularly, in conjunction with UCU and Unison members on the campus.

These meetings are still taking place. According to one striker I spoke to yesterday, there is a growing militancy within them, which will resist any attempts to play members of one union off against another. If and when the national bureaucracies try to wind down the countrywide dispute, it seems like something else could develop in Liverpool, and particular at U of L. That militancy was buried deep yesterday, but given the right conditions, it could come to the surface. Even if that doesn't happen over current disputes, rank and file cross-union roots are growing which will help resistance develop in future struggles.
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