University staff strike over pay and work conditions

By Emer O’Toole

Striking staff gather outside Glasgow City Chambers
Striking staff gather outside Glasgow City Chambers










Thousands of members of staff from Scottish universities, including Strathclyde, held a one day strike in a debate over pay levels and conditions last month.

The national strike was staged by the three primary university unions- University and College Union, Unison and Unite and was the first national industrial action since 2006 where an assessment boycott also took place.

Unions were disappointed at this year’s pay rise proposal of only one per cent for university lecturers, administration staff and technicians.

This stems from recent ballots by all three unions.

In the UCU ballot, 62% of votes were in favour of the strike, while 64% of Unite and 54% of votes cast by Unison members called for strike action.

The strike also considered increasing amounts of zero-hours contracts given to young university technicians and academics as well as the 36% of Strathclyde staff not on full time wages.

Unions claimed that the strike would bring universities to a “standstill” but Strathclyde remained open on the day with Student Experience and Enhancement Services ensuring that students experienced minimum disruption.

Andrew Higgison SUCU Branch Coordinator said: “A strike is the last resort when negotiations break down. Eventually people have to realise that enough is enough. There are a lot of issues bubbling under the surface about the kind of the environment young people are moving into. For example, women are being paid significantly less than their male counterparts.”

He continued: “People feel vulnerable on zero hours contracts since they are not entitled to sick pay, holiday pay or maternity leave. These are all issues that the trade union movement has fought for and won for people in the past.”

Higgison also spoke of recent changes such as open plan offices; another measure used alongside zero hours contracts to cut costs.
However, he claimed these cost cutting techniques made it “more difficult to maintain the quality of the student experience.”

Students were authorised to be absent on the day, in support of the lecturers on strike.

Second year student, Scott McNee said: “It’s a pretty minor inconvenience for me and I’d rather be taught by someone happy with their salary, to be honest.”

Some of Strathclyde’s catering staff are on zero hours contracts or receive low wages but were too afraid to strike.

Commenting, Janet Sams, School of Education Resources Centre Manager stated: “Some staff were guaranteed 17 hours last summer but only worked 7 hours. This has led to a lack of job security. Costs are increasing all the time and pay rises have been smaller.”

UCU head of higher education Michael MacNeil agreed:

“The suppression of academic pay is one of the most sustained pay cuts since World War II 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.”

The strike came after three consecutive years of below-inflation salary increases that unions claim are the equivalent to a wage cut of 13 per cent in real terms since October 2008.

A spokesman for University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) revealed that employers are aware that the 1 per cent pay rise is “frustrating” to trade unions.

The spokesman continued: “However, we also know that much more than this is going into pay increases for HEI [higher education institution] staff: 3% incremental rises for many plus merit payments beyond this.”

The UCEA also stated that, including the one per cent increase, over 40 per cent of staff affected by the consultation were entitled to an additional salary increase, raising their total pay rise to around four per cent.

Between them, Scottish universities have earned more than £1.1 billion but have refused to spend this on increasing the salary of their staff.