There is still power in a union – but it erodes with our apathy

In a society increasingly driven towards division, the UCU pensions dispute highlights the challenges facing worker solidarity

After weeks of chanting on Broad Street, picket lines outside libraries, and countless missed lectures, the strikes are at last over. UCU members have voted ‘Yes’ to the creation of a “joint expert panel”, with the stated aim of sorting out this whole mess. And in good time, too, what with exams around the corner. Hurrah for worker solidarity!

Or perhaps too soon. For this ballot has divided a union, and the deal it produced may still unravel. As is often the case, the left and dispossessed scream a lot louder at branch meetings (and on Twitter) than the silent majority. In these arenas, support for a ‘No’ vote was sometimes deafening, with over 20 union branches and countless hashtags calling on members to reject the deal.

The fact that they were emphatically defeated in the ballot has led to outrage similar to that of the ‘45%’ in Scotland, or the ‘Remoaners’ over Brexit made all the more venomous by the UCU leadership’s undisguised campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote. For some militant members of the ‘No’ caucus, this was class betrayal comfortable, older academics selling out the young workers whom these reforms will hit hardest. This is almost certainly unfair. Both sides of the ballot had clear flaws. But if, as many speculate, the universities possessed the foresight to push for a ballot in order to divide their striking staff, then their strategy looks to be paying off.

Wider divides within the higher education section, and in particular between management and rank-and-file academics, have also become apparent. In Oxford, both the University and six of its colleges pushed for changes to the pension pot, without proper consultation of the staff it would affect. Here, and across the country, it has taken months to expose the details of how an agenda for change was pushed through under the radar by closed committees, hand-picked working groups, and flawed surveys. By this stage, despite the theatric efforts of our Congregation members, much of the damage had already been done.

And, of course, there is the student-staff divide. While picket lines were well-attended by student activists, anyone who actually goes here knows that they are an oft-derided minority. Far more have reacted to the strikes with annoyance at the inconvenience ladened on them. More still have met them only with apathy. It is these divides, and this apathy, which threatens the power of a union in modern society – especially at a time when the government is making it far harder to unionise effectively in the first place.

This isn’t just bad news for our striking lecturers. Even if, like me, you don’t plan to go into academia, the conclusions of this dispute will have far wider impacts. The Universities Superannuation Scheme is the largest private pension pot in the UK. It is just one of a number of large British pension schemes that has undergone, is undergoing, or will almost certainly undergo holistic reforms aimed at ensuring ‘less risk’.

All of this is happening at the same time as the shift towards hyper-competitive workplaces, where co-workers are compared and chastised by highly questionable ‘quality metrics’. At same time as the normalisation of toxic work cultures, which sacrifice any semblance of a work-life balance for round-the-clock stress and a box flat in Hackney. And, of course, all of this at the same time as the swift march towards automation, and with it if not managed appropriately the accompanying decimation of people’s working lives.

In short, the results that will come out of this dispute are part of a wider narrative. Yes, it’s about universities, and of course it’s about pensions. But it’s also about the future of work – a burden our generation will have to carry. 

Not that I should need to appeal to enlightened self-interest to compel continued support for our lecturers. Frankly, if university staff whom we talk to, work alongside, and brush shoulders with on a daily basis feel that their livelihood is being put at stake, then plain human decency should be enough to provoke empathy. But sometimes it’s worth reminding ourselves that, even if we’re not on the chopping block ourselves, the chances are we will be sooner or later. And who will stand with us then?