Staff at Queen Margaret University took strike action on the 7th February to resist redundancies being put forward by university management. The plan was for around 40 staff to be cut in order to pay £1.65 million in covenants on a £35 million loan from Barclays. QMU is a small university with around 480 staff. Accounting for full and part-time staff who will be lost, this amounts to around 10% of the workforce.
By Alex Johnson and Ian Soutar
Staff were told they could apply for voluntary severance before further cuts would be made through compulsory redundancies. Voluntary severance can be tempting to individual workers as it comes with a bigger financial settlement than compulsory redundancy. It’s often the preferred option by management as it puts the burden on individual workers and alleviates the responsibility of management. When remaining workers then complain about overwork and staff shortages, management can put the blame on the workers who decided to leave. Because of this it is generally harder for trade unions fight against, especially when union reps are duty bound to represent workers applying for severance to ensure they get a good deal.
However, in reality, voluntary severances are rarely actually voluntary. In this case, the option was available to staff for several months but not many people took it. Then, a week before Christmas, a number of staff received letters telling them that their post or department was at risk. With the option for voluntary severance ending in January, this created a climate of anxiety where staff were more likely to jump instead of being pushed.
The redundancies and associated anxiety had left staff morale low. However, UCU members voted for strike action against compulsory redundancies and cuts, with 72% of UCU members voting and 65% voting in favour, one of the highest ever percentages of staff voting for strike action at the university. Alongside the UCU members, UNISON staff who work mostly in support roles voted to come out on strike.
Reactionary management and legislation
Anti-trade union laws put a spanner in the works at every turn. Unions must be very specific about the demands they are striking for, and if they deviate from this at all the strike becomes illegal. UNISON had voted to strike against compulsory redundancies. However, less than a week before the strike, QMU management announced that enough people had taken voluntary severance and that compulsory redundancy would not take place. This meant that UNISON couldn’t legally take strike action.
Voluntary severance proved to be successful from the point of view of management as it meant that over 30 staff left without compulsory redundancies. While it cost the university more than compulsory redundancies would have, it weakened the ability of unions to fight back. It leaves a dramatically reduced workforce who will have to continue with the same (or a minimally reduced) workload, minus around 10% of the staff.
Fortunately, UCU balloted to strike against compulsory redundancies and cuts, meaning that even after management announced that compulsory redundancies would be off the table, the round of cuts wasn’t over. However UCU also came up against anti-trade union laws. At least seven days’ notice must be given to an employer before a ballot is conducted. Ballots are legislated for with a raft of rules and regulations, meaning it takes about a month to carry them out and if members vote for strike action they must give the employer at least two weeks’ notification of the date on which they wish to strike. By the time all this was carried out, many staff had taken voluntary severance making it much harder to resist this round of cuts.
Trade union laws also affect the ability to campaign, restricting campaign literature to the immediate aims of the strike. In order to win staff over to joining the union and strike, and to convince students to support the strike, activists must talk about much more than the strike’s immediate aims. We need to talk about the social, political and economic context of the strike and come out with convincing alternatives. The complexity of the law and resulting ambiguity left picketers and activists confused as to what they could talk about.
In the end, UCU members were striking with the demand for concrete proposals from management explaining how they would limit the devastation caused by the cuts. Union rep Eurig explained, “We’ve made suggestions about fast tracking trade union appointees onto court, input into the remuneration committee that decides on Principal’s pay, suggested a more cooperative university, more accountability for managers, shifting people away from management tasks so they are doing the teaching and research and student support, but they’ve rejected them all.”
University management gave misleading advice, which left many students confused as to why staff were striking. They sent out emails to students saying that staff were striking despite there being no redundancies, neglecting to mention voluntary severances. The students’ union not only neglected their duty to support the strike, they went so far as to send a message to all students encouraging them to attend classes as normal on strike days. Despite this, several students joined the picket line with one giving a passionate speech at the rally saying it was vital to support the rights of staff in order to maintain a good level of education. In addition, several students from Edinburgh University came out to support the strike and joined the picket.
On the first of three planned strike days, management called union reps into a meeting the following day. Reps proposed a list of demands to mitigate the effects of the cuts, most of which were accepted. The proposed strike action for the 12th of February was called off. On the 12th there was a members’ meeting that voted to end the dispute. Reports from the meeting indicated that whilst members were unhappy with the situation, they believed that the union had done all it could do and nothing else could be achieved by more strike action.
In the climate of austerity and broad cuts to universities (such as the pensions cuts which were proposed last year), conditions and workload will only get worse. To combat this more broadly, we need more strikes and more unity across unions. As Graham, a striking UCU member said, “I think if all the unions together were to strike it would be much more powerful… I think in the future there’s going to be more challenges down the track and we need to stand together as different unions… if all four of us came out together that would be such a powerful statement.”
QMU is an NHS feeder with courses including nursing, podiatry, radiography, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, art therapy and nutrition and dietetics, which are vital for training the next generation of NHS staff. It also teaches a range of social sciences, media and management courses and has a particularly good record in widening access to higher education, recruiting a high proportion of students from poorer backgrounds. It has an unusually high proportion of women and working class people, with around 79% female students, more than any other UK university. Despite being a small university, it plays an important social role, making these cuts particularly reactionary.
Holyrood should be called on to support the university to pay its debts. If a campaign were organised, emphasising the vital role QMU plays in allowing women and working class people to access higher education and in training up new generations of NHS workers, this would put pressure on the government to help.
However, these problems are not limited to QMU, and similar issues will continue to arise in universities across the UK. As Eurig explained, “We’re not alone, university governance is problematic across the board… and of course behind that, fundamentally the funding for the university from the government is inadequate. The budget that’s just been passed saw essentially flat cash for revenue funding so essentially [more] cuts.” To begin to combat this, we need to be organising across the university workforce and student body and linking with other universities across the UK.
The strike demonstrated that when the time comes, workers are willing to lose pay and risk victimisation in solidarity with their colleagues facing redundancies. However, it also showed some of the challenges facing the trade union movement. Unions are often reluctant to speak out against voluntary severances and many individual members see them as a comparatively attractive option. It is the duty of unions to oppose all staff cuts regardless of how tempting they can be to individual members. It also revealed the need for unions to strengthen their campaigning ability in the face of anti-trade union legislation and find creative ways of putting forward wider political and economic positions.
As Marxists we know that we are entering a turbulent period of class struggle and this is just the beginning. In time, those affected by the declining conditions of capitalism will be pushed to care less and less about the fetters of anti-trade union legislation. Workers and students, faced with ever increasing cuts that affect their jobs, education and lives, will soon fight back on a larger scale.