Defeating cuts at Leeds University

Lesley McGorrigan of Leeds University UCU reports from the victory in Leeds and the tactics that made it possible.

The day before we were due to strike, a large general meeting of Leeds University UCU suspended its action because management withdrew the immediate threat of compulsory redundancies. Alongside this, a new procedure on organisational change was initiated; this promotes job security, avoids redundancy, puts academic freedom on the agenda and engages staff in the process of any change. We won this because we had the biggest, most solid strike in the history of Leeds University planned with 100 members signed up to picket.

We’ve won a lot but detailed talks are now taking place and Leeds UCU members are being vigilant; members were still signing up for the picket rota after our fantastic win was announced and the strike called off. They know management will try to backslide and that we may still need to reactivate our strike.

Leeds Vice-Chancellor, Michael Arthur, Head of the Russell Group, announced £35million of cuts in November ie. before the scale of the government cuts was even known. Heads of department had been asked to identify savings and the VC stated that compulsory redundancies cannot be ruled out. The cuts represent several hundred jobs and a very poor voluntary leavers scheme was announced.

At the same time, nine Faculties/Schools have been ‘under review’ with the Faculty of Biological Sciences (FBS) facing potential compulsory redundancies. Job descriptions had been drafted for a new structure in FBS which involved fewer posts than the current number of staff. Many of these JDs could be clearly identified for individuals ie. it was apparent that the University had selected which people it wished to remove and was taking advantage of the financial climate to restructure.

UCU petitioned, held campus rallies, lobbied University Senate and Council meetings in the build up to a series of well-attended general meetings culminating in the decision to ballot for strike action.

Union meetings have been the biggest Leeds has known and around 300 people have joined since the start of our campaign. The branch is one of the largest and best organised in the country. This is partly a result of activists campaigning within the union over a number of years eg. Fixed Term members organised over 10 year ago to abolish inferior clauses in their contracts. In 2006 an active campaign prevented the downgrading of nearly 100 staff.

We set out to win the ballot by adopting Obama’s ‘get the vote out’ campaign; aiming to make direct contact with every member. We set up a temporary action committee and broke the campus down into areas with reps and action-Cttee members delegated to their allocated patch. We received national UCU support with a team of UCU officials sent to Leeds to help. We approached 1000 members and spoke to 800. This type of campaigning turned the union into flesh and blood for its members. It resulted in the excellent 66% turnout (the best the UCU has had in a ballot) with 64% voting yes to strike action and 78% voting yes to action short of a strike.

We produced some excellent campaign materials: an alternative vision, a letter to students and parents and a fantastic blogsite (http://leedsucu.wordpress.com/) documenting all the moves in the campaign (and was read by our management). Students have organised meetings and demonstrations and set up facebook sites, petitions and organised collections for a strike hardship fund. Seeing students actively supporting their lecturers in defence of their jobs and education will have had a powerful impact on our management.

We campaigned in the same way to build for the planned 3-days of strike action to ensure maximum participation from members. It has not been easy sailing all the way, there has been much debate but we set off to present a united campaign with the aim of winning. Many of us had taken inspiration from the all-out strike at Tower Hamlets college which fought off compulsory redundancies.

We now see votes for balloting at Sussex, Kings College, Westminster, UCL and more in the pipeline as the waves of job cuts are announced. It is clear that we will need a national campaign and action over jobs rather than a series of local battles.

The arguments against cutting education in a recession when this government found £140 billion overnight to bail out the bankers are very easy to make. Our union, with the students alongside us, is well-placed to lead national action and a mobilisation to change these government priorities. We have a window now, running up to a general election, when politicians don’t this sort of public discussion and don’t want to see universities shut down by strikes – UCU should seize this opportunity to defend jobs and defend education.

About educationactivistnetwork
The education activist network provides national coordination for trade unionists, academics, university workers and student campaigners fighting to defend jobs and education in the UK.

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