strike

Unions strike gold: York Uni’s lowest paid get a raise after industrial action

[My latest news article for Nouse, the UoY campus newspaper]

The University of York has increased the pay of its lowest-paid staff, in a move welcomed by unions on campus.

Management said they made the move as they were “concerned” to protect the worst-off at the university.

It comes at a time of national negotiations over a below-inflation pay offer of 1% by HE bosses’ group the University and College Employers’ Association, in what appears to be an initial strike victory by Unison and Unison who took co-ordinated action alongside lecturers’ union UCU on the 31st October.

In a statement, the university said: “We have decided that, regardless of the outcome of the [UCEA] pay settlement nationally, we will ensure that no employee of the university is paid less than £14,719 per annum (pro-rated according to the number of hours worked).”

The figure equates to £7.65 an hour for a 37 hour working week – the new non-London Living Wage – in a move that affects the first two salary points of Grade 1 staff. The rise will also be backdated to August 1 2013.

UNISON regional organiser Steve Torrance said: “This is a positive step from a university in the Russell Group of universities.

“While we welcome moves from any employer towards implementing the living wage for the lowest paid, all of our members need a fair pay rise of more than 1% after five years of real terms pay cuts.

“We echo York University management’s call for all parties to return to the negotiating table to resolve the current dispute.

“However, negotiations are like dancing and it takes two to tango. So my message to UCEA is strictly come dancing!”

With an £8.7m trading surplus, unions are convinced that the university has the money to afford an at- or above-inflation pay rise for all staff who have seen a 13% real-terms pay cut over the past few years.

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The #fairpayinHE battle is about the future of education. Time for some solidarity

[A version of this article was first published by The Yorker]

York strikers rally outside management's offices

You’d think for institutions that pay their Vice Chancellors nearly £250,000 on average, over £100k more than the Prime Minister, the rest of the staff would be paid pretty handsomely as well. Universities with millions in surplus, raking in £9k-per-student fees, should be able to remunerate their staff fairly. They should. But they don’t.

At the same time as 1,633 members of Senior Management are paid more than £140k – the salary of the government’s Secretary for Higher Education – nearly 5000 struggle to get by on the Minimum Wage in HE.

This is the national trend, made clear after a Young Greens report, The Fair Pay League, revealed last week that If university heads took a pay cut to £140,000, the money raised nationally would be more than enough to pay every minimum wage worker (there’s nearly 5,000 of them in the sector) a Living Wage. At the current rate however, the lowest paid have to work on average 18.6 years to earn the annual salary of the head of their university. At York the figure is similar.

Indeed, the same report revealed that in 2012, the number of senior staff paid over £140k in our universities:

‘…gives a total of over £228 million spent annually on high wages in Higher Education. If the 113 highest paid employees are not included, the remaining 1,520 paid over £140,000 could take a reduction in pay of no more than £10,774 each (a maximum of 7.7%) in order to give the other 6,769 lowest paid staff in the Higher Education sector a raise to the Living Wage.’

So the level of inequality in Higher Education is staggering. It’s no wonder then that workers launched the first ever joint national university strike on the 31st against a measly 1% pay offer – a real-terms pay cut when inflation is taken into account.

The lecturers’ union, the UCU, was joined by thousands in the Unite and Unison trade unions in an unprecedented move of unity following strong votes in favour of action last month.

It’s about time. The 1% pay offer comes after 4 years of pay freezes and below-inflation rises, equating to a 13% cut in university workers’ incomes. This is happening while the highest paid in our universities are seeing their pay rise, while tuition fees have been hiked and while courses are closing and universities face privatisation by the back door. Even the student loan book is being sold off to private companies to make a quick buck – and make no mistake, our debt will soar as a result.

So these striking workers are fighting for education as a whole in the face of brutal attacks from central government in terms of nigh-100% cuts to humanities subjects, the butchering of other departments – and eternal attacks on pay and conditions.

If you care about the people who teach us, who clean up after us, who serve us in canteens and who keep our university going, back the campaign. If you care about what this government is doing to education, and you think sky-rocketing inequality in the education system has to stop, back the campaign. If you think everyone deserves fair pay and not an endless race to the bottom, back the campaign.

How? The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have put out the following call for students to, over the coming days and weeks:

  • Hold meetings, protests and rallies on your campus in support of the strikes, and against the privatisation of student debt
  • Build contacts with staff and co-ordinate action at every level: across cities, on campuses and in departments
  • Hold flash occupations – ‘shockupations’ – in solidarity with the pay dispute

To sign the call, email againstfeesandcuts@gmail.com. Get organising, folks. With Sheffield, Sussex and SOAS all going into occupation over the past few days, this is a rare radical upsurge the left can’t afford to miss.

Young Greens join university strike pickets and call for student support

[My first press release for the Young Greens in my new post at Press Officer on the national committee! See original here]

Young Greens groups across the country will be backing lecturers and other university staff on strike this Thursday, following a unanimous vote by the Young Greens National Committee to support the industrial action over pay and other issues.

Members of the Green Party’s youth branch will be joining picket lines in Manchester, Norwich, York and elsewhere.

The strike action is over a 13% real-terms pay cut over the last four years and a below-inflation 1% pay offer this year, as well as calls for equal pay between male and female workers. There is currently a £1bn surplus in the higher education sector which the Unite, Unison and UCU unions argue should be used to ensure fair remuneration.

Manchester Young Greens will be joining the action, with Young Greens national Co-Chair Clifford Fleming speaking at a strike rally on the day, where he will say: “We are united against an ideological affront to Higher Education, an affront which has resulted in tripled tuition fees, course closures, cuts, and the shoddy treatment of workers in the sector.

The attacks to university pay and conditions are part of a broader attack on education by the coalition government, and it’s vital that students support the strike.”

In Norwich, University of East Anglia Young Greens will be joining picket lines on the day. Chris Jarvis, society Equality & Diversity Co-Ordinator, said: “The UEA Young Greens are proud to support our lecturers and other university workers faced with a measly 1% pay offer – a real-terms cut in the income of thousands of staff at the University.

‘Students must show our solidarity in the face of the government’s attempts to undermine education and the public sector as a whole. This race to the bottom has to stop. With 15 members of staff at the top paid more than the Minister for Higher Education, decent pay for our cleaners, catering staff, technicians and other workers should be a given”.

University of York Green Party members have launched a student petition in support of the workers taking action. Chair Nick Devlin said: “We are encouraging all students to visit the picket lines during the strike and show some support for the people who keep our university running. This petition is calling for fair pay for all at the University and is a show of solidarity from students.

“With the Vice Chancellor paid nearly 18 times more than the lowest paid, it’s time for fair pay on campus – a Living Wage for all and a maximum pay ratio of 10:1.”

The petition is available here, and calls on students to boycott lectures and seminars in support of striking staff.

The strike comes after the launch of a Young Greens report, The Fair Pay League, which shows that the average Vice Chancellor pay is over £248,000, and 1,633 senior staff members in the sector are paid over £140,000 per year – more than enough to pay the nearly 5,000 workers on the Minimum Wage at Universities a Living Wage.

More information on the strike and a petition for those backing the strike to sign is available here: http://www.fairpayinhe.org.uk/

Shocking state of university pay inequality revealed

Originally published by York Vision, the University of York student newspaper

The sky-rocketing state of pay inequality in UK universities was revealed on Thursday, as a new report revealed UK universities spend £228m on executives earning over £140k each year – at the same time as nearly 5,000 Higher Education workers struggle to get by on the minimum wage.

The report, The Fair Pay League, shows that York ranks 65th out of 113 Higher Education institutions, paying its top exec – presumably new Vice Chancellor Professor Koen Lamberts  – £251,892, meaning the pay gap between the lowest and highest paid at the University is 17.9:1. While this is just under the Higher Education average of 18.6:1, three members of senior management take home more than the Secretary of State for Higher Education’s £140,000 pay packet.

The new research comes to light as a result of Freedom of Information requests by the Young Greens, the youth branch of the Green Party, with The Fair Pay League report demanding a Living Wage of £14,000 (pro-rata) for all university staff, along with maximum pay ratios of 10:1. The research also revealed if all Vice Chancellors took a pay cut to £140,000, there would be enough money to pay all workers a Living Wage – and still have £3.7m left over.

Commenting less than two weeks before the first UK-wide joint strikes by university unions on the 31st October, York TUC President Leigh Wilks told York Vision: “I’m tired of hearing the same old argument about universities being in a competitive global market as an excuse for the justification of high executive pay, while those at the bottom get a pittance.

“We have some of the finest universities in the world – despite this Coalition jeopardising that by crippling young people with debt – and Universities would do well to remember that this is supposed to be higher education, not a ruthless corporation.”

Rustam Majainah, the lead author of the report, said: “Universities have no excuse to pay less than the living wage. Living costs are rising for everyone, students are having to pay £9,000 a year to go through higher education – yet university vice-chancellors are still paid disproportionately large salaries.” He branded the state of pay inequality “unacceptable”.

The University Registrar, Dr David Duncan, condemned the research, telling Vision: “All of the Russell Group universities except York come in the worst 33 performing universities.  In other words, not surprisingly, the highest ranked universities generally pay their VCs the highest salaries.”  He noted that York is 32 places higher up the table than its competitors.

Duncan also questioned the report’s methodology, arguing “The figures for the VC’s salary are completely misleading”.

But the Young Greens challenged the University’s performance argument, claiming “Seven universities pay their top earner more than the highest paid staff member at the University of Cambridge.”

Imperial College London was ranked the worst performer nationally, with a pay ratio of 25.5:1, while the University of London had an income gap of just 9:1.

Lecturers and university staff in first UK-wide joint strike over pay

Originally published by Nouse, the University of York student newspaper

Thousands of lecturers and non-academic staff will go on strike over pay on Thursday 31st October, after members of the University and College Union, Unite and Unison each voted strongly for joint action over the coming weeks.

The announcement follows a ballot of academic staff in the UCU – the union representing nearly 120,000 workers in colleges and universities – which saw 62% back strike action and 77% support action short of a strike in a long-running pay row that has led to increasing tensions between higher education workers and the Universities and College Employers Association, which represents university managements. It will be first ever UK-wide joint strike by university unions.

UCU representatives called the ballot after university bosses allegedly refused to budge on a 1% pay rise offer, and the industrial action will hit nearly all UK universities, including York, unless university employers’ representatives agree to urgent talks.

Speaking to Nouse, Joanna de Groot, President of the University of York Branch of UCU, said: ‘At a time when universities have healthy financial surpluses of around £1bn, and feel able to award senior staff substantial pay rises, their offer to the staff who deliver the core activities of universities leaves us with something like a 12-13% fall in our pay over the last four years.

‘Industrial disputes in universities are always challenging for university staff who are very committed to students, to colleagues and to the work they do; having received a mandate to take action we shall work with all our members to ensure they understand how important it is to support it’. She noted that locally the union has good relations with Unison and Unite.

UCU head of higher education Michael MacNeil said: ‘staff have suffered year-on-year cuts in the value of their pay. Quite simply, enough is enough. We urge the employers to reflect on the fact that they are about to face their first ever strike by three unions at the same time and come to the negotiating table to resolve this dispute.

‘The suppression of academic pay is one of the most sustained pay cuts since the Second World War and, while strike action is always a last resort, the fact that staff are prepared to take this step demonstrates just how angry they are.’

A former member of the UCU’s National Executive, Doug Rouxel, told Nouse: ‘Ultimately, this industrial action is about protecting the Higher Education sector from a dangerous gamble being made by Vice Chancellors.

‘The employer representatives must start negotiating with the unions on the claim, not dismissing it out of hand, as they have done so far.’

A Unite union ballot of 20,000 non-academic staff at universities, including York, saw 64% also backing strike action. The staff include technicians, laboratory assistants, administrators and facilities’ management staff. Unison members, also represented at York, voted for strike action by 54%. Solidarity action from students is expected after a statement of support was launched on Wednesday by the Student Assembly Against Austerity.

Speaking before the announcement, a University of York spokesperson said: ‘We have contingency plans in place in the event of industrial action, and will keep staff and students informed as and when we hear of any plans for action’.

The pay campaign will include action short of a strike including slow-downs and an overtime ban.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – A Round-Up

Over 4000 gathered in Westminster Central Hall in London on Saturday for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, organised by the Coalition of Resistance with the backing of major unions. The day aimed to be one of ‘discussion and debate’ focusing on how to ‘turn the tide on austerity’. 15 sessions and workshops took place to discuss how to tackle the cuts, protect public services and launch co-ordinated action – building on massive local PA gatherings in recent months.

Owen Jones began the conference, describing workers as ‘the real wealth creators’ and calling for unity on the left, as well as mass civil disobedience to reverse austerity.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady also spoke in the opening plenary, describing the Tory-led government’s attacks as ‘class war’. ‘They fight for their side – so we will fight for ours’. She called for the bedroom tax to be scrapped and replaced with a mansion tax. She encouraged delegates to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ in communities and workplaces across Britain. Unite’s Steve Turner spoke to promote the TUC and Unite bus tours currently going round the UK, with Unite’s ‘People United’ tour launching from the People’s Assembly on the day.

In the ‘Mobilising Millions: Re-Unionising the UK’ session, a range of speakers from both the floor and panel discussed how to revitalise the trade union movement here, especially among the traditionally unorganised.

  • Kelly Tomlinson from Unite explained the urgency of educating young people about unions, and urged delegates to talk to their friends who are not members and get them involved. She pointed to the recently established Unite Community membership scheme as a way of organising those who aren’t in work.
  • John Hendy QC explained ‘the problem of the British economy is the collapse of collective bargaining’. He noted the spectacular decline in collective bargaining coverage in the UK, from 82% in the late 1970s to just 23% now, despite the European average still being around 80%. The UK has been hit hardest by anti-union crackdowns, despite collective bargaining being an internationally-recognised human right.
  • Speakers from the floor noted the surge in outsourcing, the continuing stagnation in wages (a pre-recession trend), the dramatic rise in executive pay and inequality (the CEO average being £4.5m), and the fact that 2/3rds of children in poverty live in a household with at least one parent in work. Others described the rise in casualised labour in Further Education (at 60%), the recent successful organising campaign by BECTU among (largely young and non-British) Visual Effects workers, and other recent organising drives among service sector workers, such as BFAWU’s 100% union density among Greggs workers in Leeds!  One speaker congratulated last Thursday’s strike at Huddersfield College which was 80-pickets strong. A key call from delegates was for the TUC to ‘name the date’ for a general strike.
  • Unite construction workers also pointed to low union density not always being a barrier, noting the recent successful ‘sparks’ campaign against pay cuts by grass-roots activists in the sector. Another speaker also said being a small workplace was no barrier – indeed in his own outsourced company it made it easier to organise and quickly reach high levels of density (in his case over 90%) due to campaigns being easier to win with a small workforce.

In other sessions, Unite’s Andrew Murray spoke of the need for workers to make the country ‘ungovernable’ if austerity continues, pointing to up-coming co-ordinated industrial action. A huge groundswell of potential support for an alternative to austerity exists, with PA organiser Sam Fairbairn noting that around 30% of the public consistently oppose all cuts. Co-organiser John Rees called for national action of all forms on the 5th November – Bonfire Night. He also proposed the draft PA declaration, to be fully ratified at the recall People’s Assembly in early 2014 and discussed by local PA’s in the meantime.

Excellent participatory workshops saw groups split off to draw answers to important modern problems – media ownership, fixing the political system, reforming the City and so on. The workshop on building local People’s Assemblies saw regional People’s Assemblies begin to emerge through discussion, with one planned for Yorkshire and cities within it. A Facebook page and email list will shortly be established, along with an informal meeting at the end of June in Leeds.

Green MP Caroline Lucas used the conference to announce her plans to introduce a bill this week to renationalise rail. She also called for hope among the left and an end to negativism.

The People’s Assembly trended on Twitter over the whole of Saturday, and was covered by most of the major news networks.

In the closing plenary, Len McClusky called for co-ordinated anti-austerity strike action, mass civil disobedience and all possible resistance – even so far as breaking the anti-union laws – to reverse the cuts. He demanded of the wealthy – ‘pay your taxes, you greedy bastards!’, and explained the annual earnings of the top world billionaires could wipe out world poverty. Disabled activist Francesca Martinez said the country’s elite are keen to ‘keep their profits, but share the deficit’.

Throughout the day speakers called on delegates to support the NUT/NASUWT joint strike action over the coming months, to march against the Tory conference in Manchester on September 29th, and to rally on the NHS’s 65th birthday on July 5th.

We Need to Talk About Brighton

This is an edited version of an article cross-posted from Green Left, the eco-socialist current within the Green Party

Ask a Green a few years back whether they’d expect to be in council, and they might not have been too optimistic. Ask them whether they’d think a Green council would ever face strike action, and they may have laughed at you. Yet that’s exactly the situation we face today as a party. A Green administration, albeit a minority one – is facing hundreds of its refuse workers going on strike for a week, starting on the 14th (today), against proposed pay cuts that could see some losing up to £4000 a year, according to the GMB. We are in office, as the saying goes, but seemingly not in power.

Several local parties and individuals – including the local Brighton and Hove Green Party, Caroline Lucas (who has pledged to join the picket lines), and some university branches (including my own) – have spoken out against the bin worker pay cuts in a thus-far shambolic dispute that has seen a noble attempt to equalise pay between male and female staff leading to up to £95 a week income reductions for the (largely male) CityClean workers, idiotic comparisons to the winter of discontent by certain Greens, plausible accusations of potential strike breaking (yes, strike breaking from a Green council), and the outsourcing of the pay proposal decision altogether in order for Greens to claim ‘it wasn’t our decision’. Yet Jason Kitcat seems determined not to budge. It is, frankly a mess.

Internal discussion about this sorry state of affairs has sadly been minimal at best, actively stifled at worst (as a proposed motion to the next conference illustrates). This will not suffice. The Greens are coming under attack over this from all other sections of the left, and Labour (as well as every other supposedly progressive grouping) will exploit this to its fullest unless we change tack and handle the situation properly. If we don’t tackle the issue head on, the other parties will do it for us. We need to talk about Brighton partly because, frankly, everyone else is.

It’s not good enough to say that since the Greens are a federal party ‘it’s up to Brighton’. Brighton Greens – both the local party and our only MP have spoken. It’s now up to the rest of the party nationally to back them up in this. We have, bar some very honourable exceptions in the likes of Alex Phillips and others, a rogue council, refusing to cede to the wishes of its local party, its constituents, and (from what I gather) the rest of the party nationally. Sadly GPEX and Natalie Bennett have appeared silent on the issue.

Worthy though bringing in a Living Wage and attempting to equalise pay between male and female workers is, a Green council should never cut the pay of some of the least well off. That should be a given. As a party which has the strongest record on workers’ rights in terms of policy, strike busting should never have even been rumoured, let alone an actual possibility. Let’s be clear. The bin workers are by no means living gold-plated lifestyles. A Living Wage is a solid base, but it should be a minimum and something to build on, not to undermine through slashing allowances. Though the motives of the Labour-affiliated GMB union aren’t entirely pure, the grassroots members’ reasons for going on strike (on a 96% majority) are.

There are some hopeful signs. Leading figures in Brighton & Hove Greens have at last made public statements about the strike action, though still seemingly refusing to back down over the pay cut proposals. The GMB has agreed to re-enter negotiations. And the candidate for the Hanover & Elm Grove by-election, David Gibson, is a solid trade unionist who opposes the measures to equalise pay down instead of up.

Nonetheless, myself – and I imagine thousands of other Greens – never thought we’d have to ever be in the position of backing workers striking against our own council. We need to be having a serious discussion about the possibility of setting ‘needs budgets’, and if not, discussing whether we should be in office at all if we are forced to act as a mere smoke-screen for Tory-Lib Dem cuts. At what point do we start to consider that to stay in office and continue to implement cuts would be to breach our fundamental principles? As the Green Party conference in Brighton approaches (provided it isn’t moved to avoid potential strike ‘embarrassment’, as has been considered), it’s time to get backtracking on the proposed pay cuts, fast – and time to start talking.

Josiah Mortimer (@josiahmortimer) is a Green Party activist and student based in York.