Back the Boycott! By Tom Webster

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Members of UCU have voted to boycott marking and assessment until a resolution is rewached regarding our pensions. This has been a hard decision to take and it needs to be made clear what this dispute is about, why this decision has been taken and how it is part of a wider dispute about priorities in education.

The decision has been hard to take because it has the greatest immediate impact on students and, as you are all too aware, students are not in a position to force management to come to the table and be willing to negotiate a reasonable settlement. This goes wholly against the grain of our vocation for the provision of education as a contribution to the greater opportunities of individuals and the benefit of society. The union laws in this country seriously limit the actions we can take legally and provide management with plenty of eans to punish staff for taking industrial action. These laws are part of the heritage of Thatcher’s campaign against workers’ rights, a heritage which New Labour did nothing to assuage.

The particular issue which prompted this action is that the university employers body is intending to permanently damage our pensions which would both change the funds provided after years of contributing to the pension fund. This not only effects the post-retirement income of established staff but is an element that makes the recruitment of new staff more difficult. Once it is put alongside the 13% pay cut in real terms since 2008 and the combination of insecure contracting and the ridiculously under-estimated working hours for casual staff, the greater attention management pay to their own wallets than to the provision of high quality education becomes clear. That we had been drawing their attention to the injustice of and damage consequent upon zero hours contracts for years but they only made expressions of ‘shock’ and ‘horror’ when it was publcized in The Scotsman reveals their values.

In the short term this will create frustration for staff who are committed to providing their services and greater frustration for students who want their essays back and who are not to blame for these screwed priorities. It seems to invite suggestions of selfishness on the part of staff to take such action. However, if we continue to accept unnecessarily worse working conditions the growth of disenchanted, underpaid and overworked staff will damage the longer term provision of education. To accept the lowering of wages and the poorer return on pensions because working conditions in the private sector are also decllning is to accept the rhetoric of the coalition that ‘justifies’ the race to the bottom, rather than accepting the provision of higher education as a crucial part of the social production of a fully functioning, self-sustaining society.

We want this dispute to be as short as possible. The length of this dispute is, unfortunately, dependent on management accepting that the pension scheme proposed by UCU is sustainable and returning to the table with a previosuly absent willingness to compromise. This can be achieved in two ways. The first is that union members not only support the boycott but do so visibly, explaining why they are doing so and being willing to stand uo and be counted. The second is the publicly expressed solidarity of the students, resisting the temptation proferred by management of the divide-and-rule tactics of concentrating on the resentment produced by delayed grades and, instead, drawing their attention to the crucial element of their unwillingness to negotiate with staff to make a reasonable settleemnt. This can be done individually by emailing the management to express your support and collectively by makign clear the support of the student body for a decently funded academia with the priorities of education as a social good.

On a personal level, I complained above about the limitations on the actions that a union can take legallly and the strong hand management have in punishing and threatening mebers of the union for taking action. I should add, as an individual, that that does not, and never has, prevented me as an individual and as an academic from supporting actions and events that encourage ethical investment, promote equality and oppose the social, environmental and legal iniquities aided by the empowered wealthy, the university and the government. Whether or not you are persuaded to express your solidarity with the boycott, I am sure I will be sharing common ground on common causes again in the future.

(Dr. Tom Webster. University of Edinburgh Lecturer. School of History, Classics and Archeology.)

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