Representatives of the University and College Union (UCU) have called off a five-day educators’ strike that was due to start on February 13 at the University of Sheffield International College (USIC). The strike was called off on February 8 to put UCU members to a vote on a revised wage offer that amounts to another slap in the face.
Around 80 USIC educators became the first to strike at a private higher education provider in the UK last November with three days of walkouts.
They carried out another four days of strike on January 30 and 31 and February 2 and 3 and have carried out a work to govern since November 21. The five days of strikes represented an escalation in industrial action. This was suspended by the UCU based on the latest offer submitted which in no way meets the mandatory demand for a 12 per cent pay increase.
In the announcement of the decision on the USIC UCU Twitter page it said: “We have suspended our strike next week. We have been offered a 10 per cent pay increase over two years for staff earning less than £44,000 and an 8 per cent increase for staff earning more than £44,000. Most of this is retroactive. We will now consult members on this offer.”
USIC is connected to the University of Sheffield and uses its coat of arms, providing preparation courses for foreign students and is owned by the Study Group. It has contracts with 50 universities to deliver online and face-to-face learning and is one of the largest corporate providers of international education to universities in the UK, Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
On the pickets, full-time professors and those on short-term contracts joined with homemade banners refuting the claim that a higher cost of living was unaffordable. These showed charts of the salaries of senior managers from Study Groups numbering over £100,000 a year tripled in recent years and director positions advertised for up to £130,000. The starting fee for a full-time professor at USIC is approximately £32,000, well below the national average of £38,131. Office and support staff are hired full-time at just over minimum wage.
Three days before suspending the action to recover the substandard treatment, a thread on the USIC UCU Twitter page read: “Last week we also notified our employer that we would be taking a full week of strike action, starting Monday, February 13. (next week). We demand a fair wage increase.”
Study Group’s latest paltry pay offer is: three percent payable beginning September 1, 2022; two per cent for staff earning less than £44,000 per annum payable from 1 January 2023; one percent for all staff payable effective January 1, 2023; and four per cent for all staff for the 2023/24 academic year with 4 per cent paid on 1 September 2023. A one-time payment of £300 to clerical staff earning little more than the minimum wage has not been reinstated since management withdrew it in the latest ACAS arbitration service talks.
At every stage of the dispute, the UCU leadership has worked to downplay and suspend any strike action after claiming that their campaign has obtained concessions when they are the only side involved in an escalation.
The latest suspension of the strike is just the latest in a series of moves that have seen UCU leaders and representatives of the branch obfuscate and cancel the industrial action.
In March 2022, the union called off eight days of planned strike action at the USIC after agreeing to a longstanding dispute over wages and vacation rights for 2021. The UCU-brokered deal involved a pay increase, retroactive to September 2021, 3 percent This meant a real pay cut of 3 percent, but it was disguised as a “win.” It was even suggested to members that it was positive that the employer would commit to starting wage negotiations for 2022 as soon as possible with an initial figure of 3 per cent.
USIC educators rejected a 5 percent offer from Study Group in October and gave an 84 percent majority in favor of the strike on the UCU industrial ballot.
The first strike at a higher education provider in Britain only occurred after initial attempts by the UCU to derail it failed. The union suspended the first two days of strike scheduled for November 17 and 18 under the pretext of a 1 percent improvement that covers just four months in the management offer.
Enthusiasm to maintain cozy relations between the Study Group and the union bureaucracy was expressed by UCU Regional Officer Julie Kelley, who described the suspension as a “gesture of goodwill.” Only after the staff cast another decisive vote rejecting the company’s proposal did the strike go ahead.
The accommodation to the Study Group has continued ever since with the UCU’s rejection of the 12 percent demand. After the first strike in November of last year, the union unilaterally backed down to a “reasonable and achievable” 9 percent, substantially below RPI inflation. The UCU representatives later said they would inform the Study Group that they would recommend an offer of 8 percent to members.
Finally, before returning to ACAS in January of this year, UCU offered Study Group a total deal of 8 percent this year and 2 percent next; in effect, a 6 percent cut this year and, according to current projections, another 5 percent next year. This was rejected out of hand by the Study Group, which actually reverted to a previous lower offer on conciliation services.
At the behest of union representatives, the 12 percent demand has been reduced to the point that they filed 6 percent this year, half the demand demanded by members, and an additional four percent next year. The union disguises Study Group’s “new” offer as a 10 percent raise over two years when it actually represents a 10 percent cut in real terms.
With the RPI inflation rate falling slightly from 14.1 percent to 13.4 percent, this represents a hefty 7 percent pay cut this year and, according to calculations based on current projections, another cut. 3 percent next year.
The UCU desperately wants to close the dispute in double the time. His request was that Study Group offer a wage deal this year and next as a deal breaker, in order to hide from union members the protracted nature of a substantial pay cut. The UCU agenda was to keep the strike against a UK private education university hermetically sealed from the broader struggles of educators and the working class because the increased exploitation and pay cuts faced by workers at USIC are legion throughout the education sector and, indeed, throughout the economy. .
The UCU has made no effort to unify the USIC dispute with a simultaneous UCU pay dispute at the Sheffield Colleges which provide higher education at five sites across the city. The five-day strike now suspended from February 13 at USIC would have coincided with a three-day strike by UCU members at Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam University staff on February 14, 15 and 16 as part of national action in 150 universities by 70,000 educators.
The suspension of the strike will also place USIC educators in the envious position of crossing the picket lines at the institution set up by UCU members of the English Learning Training Center (ELTC), who work at the university but are employees of the University of Sheffield. That the UCU bureaucracy created this situation to vote on the deficient deal is a rebuttal to their claims to unify action by educators at colleges and universities.
USIC educators must reject this miserable betrayal by the UCU and the savage attacks on their income by the Study Group. USIC staff must draw lessons from the dispute, especially the UCU’s campaign to impose a pay cut on members.
Faced with the crushing of the resistance of the UCU and the isolation of the dispute, the formation of a grassroots committee would take control of the struggle and call for links and mobilization with other educators, teachers and students. together in a fight against employers, public or private, in the entire education sector.
The fight for a cost-of-living wage increase is inseparable from reversing decades of commodification that undermines the provision of public education as a fundamental democratic right and turns higher education into a source of income for people like the Study Group.
The globally organized, highly profitable corporation cannot be faced without overcoming the struggle that is restricted to one locality, but USIC educators become colleagues at Study Group across the UK and internationally.