Days before a strike was due to go ahead, local University and College Union (UCU) officials at the University of Sheffield International College (USIC) suspended planned action on November 17-18. The strike, officially called off by UCU on November 16, would have been the first at a private higher education provider in the UK.
Thirty minutes before the last meeting of the USIC UCU branch before the start of the strike, the management of the employer’s study group made a last-minute taunting offer of an additional 1 per cent increase backdated to 1 September 2022 and a one-off payment of £300 for the full amount -temporary workers earning less than £25,000.
Members will vote between November 16th and November 23rd to accept or reject the offer. If members vote no, the remaining three days of planned strike action will begin on November 28th.
The 6 per cent pay deal, offered to those earning under £44,000, the bulk of the workforce, and four per cent to those whose wages exceed £44,000 still represents a pay cut of almost 6/7 per cent this year and a 10 percent pay cut in the past 24 months. The one-off payment of £300 will not go to the large number of teachers who exist on ever-fluctuating zero-hour contracts and are paid by the hour.
UCU officials said management’s offer is a second upgrade to their original offer since the industrial action vote and the third upgrade to the offer since the branch declared an official dispute.
The UCU called for a pay rise of at least 12 per cent and management initially responded with a paltry 4 per cent for the majority earning less than £44,000 and 2 per cent for those earning above that.
On the ballot, UCU wage negotiators said they believe the study group can afford to pay more. However, the union made sure to state that it was “aware” that management had declined and that their offer is described as “final”. The ballots effectively said the union had reached the limit of what can be achieved.
The UCU regional official said Julie Kelley said the suspension of “strike action planned for this week” was a “goodwill gesture” and “shows that we are ready to work towards an agreement but are in the midst of a cost of living crisis.” that clearly employers can do better.”
USIC faculty and clerks voted last month for a five-day strike Nov. 17-30 by nearly 85 percent with a turnout of 83 percent. Almost 98 percent voted to take action without withdrawing their labor. Staff also supported a work-to-rule dated November 21, which included working their contracted hours, refusing to make up work lost as a result of strikes, and refusing to fill in for absent colleagues.
The number of workers willing to strike has grown over the past year, providing two overwhelming votes for action. USIC employees voted to launch strike action back in February 2021 in response to the study group’s offer not to offer a pay rise; in a similar turnout of 86 percent of the branch membership with 79 percent voting for the strike.
With an RPI inflation rate of 14.2 percent through October, UCU’s salary entitlement is well below inflation. In addition to the 3 percent pay cut taken by USIC workers last year, imposed despite an overwhelming vote to strike in collusion with the UCU, management is seeking to cut their payroll bills by about 10 percent over 24 months.
Starting salaries for full-time lecturers at USIC are only around £32,000 for frequent PhD applicants. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average UK salary in 2021 was £38,131 for a full-time job and £13,549 for a part-time job. USIC clerks and support staff are typically hired for full-time wages that barely exceed the national minimum wage.
UCU leadership is doing everything it can to contain the dispute and settle it quickly. There is no attempt to network the struggles of educators, let alone with workers in other industries. With the exception of the last day of strikes on November 30, the dates for walkouts at USIC are separate from the planned national action taken by UCU members at 150 UK universities in November.
At no point did the study group show any signs of meeting the needs of the workforce. By delaying the negotiations, the Study Group gained weeks to organize a scab workforce to subvert any strike, including often part-time workers at USIC and from the other Colleges in the Study Group. The employer could potentially hold classes online and avoid picketing at the college. When staff at the English Language Training Center, employed directly by the University of Sheffield but based at USIC, went on strike, the study group called on scabs to undermine their strike.
More recently, Drapers’ Pyrgo Priory School in Romford, east London, was among the first to use strike-breaking laws allowing them to hire contract workers to replace striking staff. The school management sent scabs to break the strike of 10 workers who were protesting cuts in their wages and hours.
USIC uses the University of Sheffield coat of arms and Sheffield’s international status as one of the top 100 universities in the world in promotional material.
UCU appealed to the University of Sheffield to put pressure on the Study Group, but received brief swabs. The union encouraged USIC staff and students to email USIC College Director and University of Sheffield Vice-Chancellor Koen Lamberts. But the “leverage” strategy recommended by Unite general secretary Sharon Graham and others has had no effect when universities have all been pressuring their own wages, working conditions and pensions for years, and facing action from their own staff.
Preparatory courses at USIC can cost up to £22,000 per year per student. Housing and subsistence costs easily double these expenses. Study Group has affiliations with over 50 universities, online and in person, and is one of the largest corporate international education providers, working with universities in the UK, Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
The Study Group can afford to pay a wage that matches inflation, but strives to drive workers’ wages to the floor. On their books to 31 December 2020, Study Group Limited had profits after tax and exceptional items of £9.8m in 2019.
According to a study commissioned by the employers’ association Universities UK (UUK), 815,000 jobs across the economy depended directly or indirectly on universities in 2021. A 2020 analysis commissioned by the UCU found that a third of workers said the local university was important to their own job, pointing to the strategic role a fight by university workers could play.
University workers hold an important position in the capitalist economy, and their association outside the suffocating control of the union apparatus would contribute to a broader struggle against the increased offensive on wages, pensions and working conditions.
This objective force can only be unleashed if education workers form grassroots committees independent of the unions. These committees will fight to mobilize education workers and students together in a struggle against public or private employers across the education sector.