Leaflet distributed by the CWO during the last round of strikes at universities across the UK.
More than 170 years ago, Marx, whose work has helped us understand the basic dynamic of capitalism and the historical ebb and flow of the class struggle, wrote that:
“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.”
In higher education across the world we see just that. Precarity and insecurity are now widespread in universities where students are customers and teaching staff have become disposable tools. We are faced with an industry which generates more than £90 billion in gross output, where everyone competes for funding on a market of teaching and research metrics, where student numbers keep on growing, while a workforce of increasingly exhausted staff remains divided by profession, outsourcing, and union membership (solidarity between lecturers and non-academic staff during disputes remains uncommon and limited in scope). All while top university bosses enrich themselves with salaries of £300,000 and up.
Enough token solidarity. Different Sectors, Same Struggle!
Casual contracts, dwindling wages, and the simultaneous dismantling of pensions and the “welfare state” (indirect wages through services and benefits) affects workers in all sectors, not just education. The struggle in the universities may have begun over pensions (which in reality are deferred wages) but it is about much more – it is part and parcel of the ongoing capitalist crisis. If we delegate our power away, and fail to involve other sectors of the class, victory will not be on the horizon.
The union-controlled struggles of the past 50 years are the history of defeat after defeat. Be it the 2009 Royal Mail strike, the 2015 junior doctors strike, or indeed the 2018 higher education strike, the story is the same. Union officials have been quick to do deals behind workers’ backs, accepting worse working conditions in exchange for a few minor concessions from the employers. Unions have become so integrated into the system that they can no longer lead a successful struggle, even with an elected “left-wing” leadership. We’ve also been fed constant propaganda from another false friend of the working class, the Labour Party. Turning last year’s pickets and rallies into electoral publicity stunts, we were promised that “everything will change on 12 December”. Of course nothing has, and even had the election result been different the same battles would have to be fought. The role of the capitalist state does not change with a different tie in 10 Downing Street. Our hope lies in self-organisation, and no saviour JC can help us.
So what to do? In France, where the state is trying to reduce pensions and increase retirement age, there are signs of a wider fightback. A first step in any struggle is general assemblies, where we can decide how to conduct the movement and forge the weapons needed to resist the never-ending attacks and sacrifices demanded by the bosses. At universities this means calling mass meetings of all students and staff (whether in a union or not, whether academic or not) and taking the struggle into our hands (we had a brief taste of this in March 2018, when UCU tried to sell out the strike for the first time, but mass meetings and protests pushed back). It means reaching out to other sectors of the working class and explaining how this strike is part of a reaction by the working class to a general onslaught on our conditions and wages.