Des Freedman highlights why it’s important not to romanticise the value of one-day strikes and what needs to be done in the pursuit of ‘fair pay’

University pay

University academics and support staff in UCU are taking a further two hours of strike action this week in pursuit of ‘fair pay’ and will be joining with other higher education unions in a full-day strike on Thursday 6 February.

Staff are increasingly outraged that while they have been offered a 1% pay rise, a pay cut in the light of inflation running at 2.7%, university vice-chancellors continue to reward themselves generously. VCs received an average increase of just over 5% last year although there were some notable exceptions. Sir Keith Burnett at Sheffield University received a 39% increase taking his salary up from £269,000 to £374,000 even though Sheffield still refuses to guarantee a living wage; Craig Calhoun at the LSE saw his pay grow 61% to £435,000, more than three times that of the prime minister. While ordinary staff have seen their pay decline by 13% over the last five years, operating surpluses – fuelled by tuition fees – are growing rapidly. In this context, the dispute is not simply about pay but about what kind of institutions we want our universities to be and how we want them to be run.


Not surprisingly, there is a huge amount of anger on campuses and this was borne out both by the very lively protests during last week’s two-hour strikes as well as the fierce debate going on inside the union about the direction of the dispute as a whole. This is particularly focused on the Higher Education Committee’s decision to turn to two-hour strikes instead of escalating to two-day stoppages and other action including an exams boycott, as previously agreed. Many activists are arguing that this constitutes a ‘de-escalation’ and that two-hour strikes are ineffective and, indeed, a sign of weakness. The HEC argues that two-hour strikes will be a popular alternative to full-day action and the resulting loss of a day’s pay.

The HEC’s decision to go for two-hour strikes has certainly proved divisive. There was no mandate for them, they were not taken in conjunction with the other HE unions and they have presented branches with all sorts of motivational and organisational problems – not least when around 25 institutions decided to dock a full day’s pay for a two-hour stoppage, effectively a lock-out for those members. Short stoppages, described by one member as ‘lie-in strikes’, are particularly difficult for hourly-paid staff, already the most vulnerable workers, and are hardly likely to bring the employers rushing back to the negotiating table.


Yet, two-hour strikes in and of themselves are not the problem. Indeed, they have certainly caught the attention of the employers and have, in certain places, led to the possibility of the dispute flaring up. As Katherine Connelly reported last week, events like the threatened lock out by management at Queen Mary have only intensified the anger of ordinary members and led both to some universities backing down from their original intention to dock a full day’s pay and to the union promising to take legal action against those institutions who do not and to escalate the action further. One consequence of this is that the employers are hardly singing from the same song sheet.

Let’s also not romanticise the value of one-day strikes which are vital to highlight our issues and to bring people together but, in themselves, will not win a dispute in which the employers are digging in.

The question, therefore, is not whether two-hour strikes are a bad thing but about how we are going to win. We need to escalate but, in doing so, we desperately need to win the active support of students to the campaign and, even more importantly, to make sure that ordinary union members are involved and willing to support escalation. At Goldsmiths, we were able to use the two-hour strikes to circulate information about the dispute to students and then to walk out with them – just as we managed to do in the previous one-day strikes – and to have a 150-strong demonstration around the campus. But we also have to campaign amongst those members who are outraged about executive pay and the direction of travel in which universities are headed but more uncertain about supporting the escalating strike action and exams boycott that will be required to win.

In part, this is also about being clear on what a victory would look like? Is 1.5 per cent going to be an acceptable offer or do ordinary staff deserve the pay increases that remuneration committees thought were acceptable for vice chancellors last year? That will need vibrant discussions in branches – in union meetings, in public debates with senior management, in common rooms and cafeterias and in conjunction with student unions where possible. It also means actually putting into practice the kinds of non-strike actions (boycotts of open days, not reading or responding to emails outside normal working hours, not attending meetings) that branches can agree collectively in order to build confidence.

Foisting two-hour strikes (without the support of other unions) on a membership that, like many other workers, is prepared to fight for a decent pay rise if it sees a coherent strategy and decisive leadership has not been helpful.  Campus assemblies and delegate meetings of all the unions involved in the dispute would help to re-focus our energy and prepare for the action that is needed to deliver ‘fair pay’ and a message to the employers that university staff are not a ‘cost’ to be lowered but a group to be properly rewarded.

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.