You may have noticed, that one of the Trade Unions on campus that represents academics and academic-related staff - University and College Union (UCU) - has voted to go on strike between the 25th of November and the 4th of December in protest over pensions, pay and working conditions. This means they will not come into work and therefore will not get paid during those dates. Those who were students here in 2017 will probably be feeling a bit of déjà vu right now.
In 2017, UCU went on strike over changes to their pension arrangements from the end of February for 4 weeks with increasing strike days each week. This year, they will be striking again because of the unresolved pension dispute, but also over pay and working conditions too.
Now, industrial strike action is not as straight-forward a topic for Students’ Unions as you might think. When it comes to this debate, there is legitimate arguments for almost *all* stances. Let me explain why.
Across the UK, there are a real range of responses that Students’ Unions take when strike action is announced.
- Officer team make an executive decision to either support or not support the strike
An argument for this decision could be that the officer team have been elected by students in a cross-campus ballot, therefore giving them a legitimate mandate to make a decision like this to represent their constituents most effectively. This is representative democracy.
If an officer team decided to support the strike, they might use the argument that lecturers’ working conditions are, by default, also students’ learning conditions. Thus, if staff have poor working conditions, aren’t paid adequately and don’t have a solid pension to fall back on at retirement, the quality of teaching from that staff is not as high as it would be otherwise and therefore the learning environment is worse. This argument favours the hopeful long-term impacts of strike action.
If an officer team decided not to support the strike, they might use the argument that their members (students) are paying for an education that is being withheld from them due to that strike action. Strike action means no access to lectures or teaching staff and therefore could have a detrimental impact on the educational outcomes of students, hence the desire not to support it. This argument favours the undesirable short-term impacts of strike action.
2. Officer team (and trustee board) decide to give students the say on whether the SU supports the strike or not
An argument for this decision is that the SU is a democratic organisation led by its members and thus students should get a say on what stance the SU takes in the event of strike action via an poll or referendum. This is direct democracy.
Again, if students vote to support the strike, it could be because they hold a view that prioritises the long-term potential benefits of strike action in winning better pensions, pay and working conditions for their lecturers. If students vote to not support the strike, it could be because they hold a view that prioritises the short-term immediate impact of the strike on their own education and concerns about the impact on their subsequent achievement as a result.
One of the key issues with a democratic medium like a referendum in a situation like this concerns the demographic make-up of our student body. We have significantly more undergraduates in our student body than we do postgraduates. Postgraduates as a group are split into postgraduate taught students (eg. Masters students) and postgraduate research students (eg. PhD students). All of these students are our members unless they have opted out. Many postgraduate research students also have teaching responsibilities meaning that many of them could well be on strike too if they’re members of a trade union. Therefore in a referendum, even if all postgraduate research students voted, they would still be outweighed by the undergraduate population vote, which in the past at Bath has historically favoured non-support of the strike.
Another pitfall of the referendum is that the strength of mandate it gives depends on the voter turnout. In the SU we have a quoracy threshold of 5% of the student body meaning 5% have to vote in order for the result to be valid. The result works on the law of simple majority – at least 51% have to vote for an option for it to be successful. So theoretically 100% of 5% of the student population could all vote the same way, but it would still only be the view of 900 out of 18,000 students.
3. Officer team could opt to not make an executive decision or do a referendum, choosing to remain ‘neutral’
This is a lesser chosen route. Though it has merit in arguably being able to freely support members’ views without being mandated either way, it also leaves the SU open to criticism from both sides of the debate. Those who support the strike will query why you’re not supporting the strike, and those who don’t support the strike will query why you’re not not supporting the strike… if you see what I mean. Perhaps worse, is the fair argument that a democratic institution has not given its membership the chance to decide for themselves what they’d like the SU to do. Tightrope walking in this way is tricky.
4. So what are we doing?
It is the SUs job to represent its membership. Yet within the membership are a range of different students all with varying views on strike action and just like in any democracy, representing the majority is not necessarily everyone. We have a charitable purpose that means we should educate all students on the issue as well as supporting all students in whatever their views are. So industrial strike action is a complex issue for SUs, hence why there’s such varying responses across the UK.
In the 2017 strikes, an indicative poll was conducted which gave an indication of student feeling but did not bind the SU to a stance. This created frustration amongst some students and arguably diluted the power of the subsequent stance because it was not mandated. As a result, after the 2017 strikes, a policy was submitted by students which asked the Union to automatically trigger a referendum process if future strike action was called. Though this policy did not reach quoracy and therefore the actions it requested did not pass, the SU did accept that calling a referendum in future when strike action was called was indeed best practice.
Therefore, we will be conducting a referendum on whether the SU should support the strike or not. Keep an eye on the website for information on both sides of the debate and make sure you vote in the referendum to make your voice heard. Whilst you’re at it, don’t forget also to register to vote in the General Election on the 12th of December.
Trade Union: An organisation that employees of a certain profession can join for representation and political bargaining (this is different to an SU. SUs are Charities, not Trade Unions)
Strike: A strike is a period of time where employees decide not to come into work in protest about a particular aspect about their employment. They do not get paid whilst on strike
Pension: A pension is effectively “deferred pay”. Each month, employees pay some of their salary into a ‘pot’ that they can access and live on when they retire
Working Conditions: in this case, UCU’s referral to working conditions concerns the gender pay gap, workload and casualisation (the transformation of a workforce from largely employed on secure permanent contracts to short-term or casual contracts)
Picket line: A picket line is a boundary established by workers on strike – often at the entrance to their workplace – which others are asked not to cross