Article: The UK University Strike: Pensions, Precarity and Learning from History

By Steven Parfitt

13th April 2018


The UK universities strike has lasted fourteen days. Irrespective of whether it continues, or members of the University and College Union (UCU) vote to accept the second proposal from Universities UK (UUK), the strike has unearthed wider problems, questions and issues. In my opinion, the greatest of these is the casualisation of academic work, which has rolled on apace in the last twenty years. The UCU has campaigned and petitioned on this issue, without much success. We need to think about ways to improve on that record, by drawing on historical precedents for the current growth in precarious work. In this blog post, I draw on my own research into American labour history, and on current debates about the “precariat”, to think about where the UCU might go from here. This is a debate in which anarchist and labour history can guide the way forward.

Casualisation and Pensions

The strike at over 60 UK universities is not just about pensions. Yes, the strike kicked off on February 22 after UUK, who represent the institutions that subscribe to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), proposed drastically changing the pension scheme. Yes, members of the UCU mobilised to reject the proposed deal on March 12 because it retained some of the cuts to the USS scheme, and put a three-year time limit on all the concessions offered by UUK. But the pension issue alone cannot account for the anger, the militancy, and the creativity of full-time lecturers, casually-employed academics, technical and academic support staff who have stood on picket lines, led protests, signed petitions, and written about the strike. Nor can the pension changes explain the militancy of students who have also joined the pickets, engaged in protests and even occupied university buildings to support their teachers.

As myself and many other people have explained, the anger, militancy and creativity of the strikers has derived from the sweeping changes that have been made to universities in the UK over the past two or three decades. The first is their corporatisation. Universities now operate as rather inefficient businesses, subject to a wide range of target-driven state regulation, from student satisfaction scores to the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ and now the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’. The second is a long-term process of pay stagnation, especially since the financial crisis of 2007/08. Measly below-inflation pay rises have meant a 14% drop in real earnings since 2009. The third is the sharp rise in tuition fees since Tony Blair’s Labour government first introduced them in 1998. More might soon be made of the fact that some younger academics involved in the strike first developed a political consciousness during the student protests in 2010, against the Conservative/Lib-Dem government’s tripling of fees from £3000 to £9000.

The fourth and, I think, most important change to UK universities has been the explosion of casual and precarious work. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the number of university teachers on so-called atypical contracts (i.e. not permanent part- or full-time), has jumped from zero in 1999 to about 75,000 in 2016. The career trajectories of most academics have been flattened by this growth in casual labour, as many people now see the most junior full-time lecturing position as something attained midway through their career, not at an early career stage. Before they get there, years of low-paid work, often at more than one university at a time, await them. I can certainly attest to that fact.

Many of the same people who are most militantly involved in the current strike have gone through or are going through that stage in their career path, and they have not forgotten it. For those who are already looking beyond the strike, formulating new demands and writing manifestoes, the wholesale reversal of the casualisation process almost always heads the list. Whether or not the current strike is successful, the fight against casualisation will be up next.

Casualisation and the UCU

Casualisation is not a fight that the UCU has always shown interest in. I refer here to the UCU as an institution and not of the many people that make it up. The problem is with the union as a whole, and especially the fact that many people on casual contracts look on the UCU with something like suspicion. They see the union as an organisation for the maintenance of the privileges of permanent staff in rather straitened times, and not as an organisation that will fight the corner of casual staff in any sustained way. The UCU might feature casualisation as a key issue on its website, and it might employ talented and hard-working people as anti-casualisation reps and officers, but their resources are limited and, for some union officials, there seems to be an attitude that casualisation is secondary to negotiations on the really important stuff, such as the salaries and pensions of permanent staff. While UCU are not able to negotiate over contract types at a national level, a coordinated set of local campaigns on casualisation issues by each branch would have done just as well. It is difficult to envisage the union waging a strike for the rights and conditions of casualised workers in the way they have done over pensions.

The UCU has improved in some respects in the last few years. By reducing union subscriptions to zero for postgraduate teachers, the union has made it much easier to recruit younger academic workers – many of whom will be the academics and UCU full-timers of the future. Casualised workers have begun to take a more assertive role within the UCU, even if much of their organisation and agitation still takes place outside it, in groups such as Fighting Against Casualisation in Academia (FACE) and informal networks and associations at particular universities. The secret to reshaping the UCU as an alliance between permanent staff and those in short-term and casual employment is, in part, the incorporation of these organisations, networks and energy into or alongside existing union structures.

The UCU is not alone in struggling to organise precarious workers. Part of the problem is that union structures, methods, and modes of organisation are designed with a permanent membership in mind. Meetings are set at times and locations convenient for those who are regularly in the office. Their material and campaigns assume that potential members will stay in their current posts for some time to come. The focus of discussion and activity is all centred on the workplace, and this is problematic for precarious workers. Whether at universities or call centres, short-term and casual workers are forced to move from job to job as one contract ends and another begins. They are often reluctant to openly oppose management because they fear for their job, or for the next contract, or because they feel that gaining a reputation as troublesome will damage their career progression. They do not have the stable office routine of their permanently-employed colleagues, and in the case of universities many casualised workers are only on campus for the duration of their teaching duties, with no provision of office space. They are not as easily reached by workplace meetings, are less able to participate in their local union branch, and in some industries (universities not yet being one of them) they must keep their union affiliations hidden if they want to stay in work.

Their limited ability to participate means that unions spend little time attempting to organise them, on the grounds that the resources would be better spent in arresting the fall in their full-time members. Yet this does not mean that unions are incapable of organising precarious workers. Recent strikes by cleaners at SOAS and the LSE, and by Deliveroo drivers in London, demonstrate that unions can build structures that correspond to the actual conditions and obstacles faced by precarious workers in standing up to their employers.

The UCU and the “Precariat”

Above all, we should avoid the tendency to write off unions as the instruments of an old industrial proletariat in decline, or as the means by which a relatively secure “salariat” can retain its old privileges. This is the implication of much recent work on the “precariat”, where, according to Guy Standing, the class structure of twentieth-century capitalism has been replaced by a new, rather messier structure in which new classes are emerging from the decline and wreckage of old ones. If the “precariat” – that is, the amalgam of workers on short-term, casual and other precarious contracts – is a new class, with its own interests, then, the argument goes, there is no point in trying to unite precarious workers with permanently-employed colleagues in the same industry. Different classes have different interests, different relations of and to production, and different relations to other classes. If we apply the class model that Standing uses to universities, we would divide up the academic workforce into permanently-employed lecturers, senior lecturers, professors and so on (the “salariat”) and those on fixed-term, hourly paid and fractional contracts (the “precariat”). In this view, the UCU should content itself with permanent staff and defend their interests; precarious academic staff should form their own organisations and look after themselves.

That would be a mistake. Trends towards casualisation will likely deepen, but the permanent staff of tomorrow will be sourced from the precarious staff of today. The academic precariat is not a self-contained group. Rather, academic staff rest on a continuum, ranging from the most secure tenured professors at one end to hourly-paid casual teachers at the other. At all stages in between, the level of precarity might vary, but is always there. Because of the great pool of precarious labour below them, full-time staff are encouraged to work ever further beyond their contracted hours, to complete more and more teaching, research and administrative tasks. Because a basic permanent contract now appears as a privilege, rather than a basic right, it becomes possible to expect more work of those with privileged status, as they become increasingly fearful that they might lose that status. The growth of precarious labour at the bottom extends precarity upwards.

Academics cannot be neatly divided into a salariat and precariat, because the growth of precarious labour directly affects the conditions of permanently-employed workers. Separate organisations for precarious and permanent staff will leave both weaker, and does not reflect the shared interest that both have – even if they do not always recognise it – in curbing and ending the casualisation of academic work. The UCU should not remain the domain of full-time staff, but should become the representative of all academic workers, and focus as much on those on casual contracts as those on permanent ones.

Historical Lessons?

Deliveroo drivers and the cleaners at SOAS and the LSE are recent examples of successful organisation of precarious workers. In some cases, they have worked through major unions, especially Unison and Unite. In other cases – and in most cases where migrant workers in London have gone on strike – they have looked to organisations such as the Independent Workers of Great Britain and United Voices of the World, small unions that have organised where major unions have been slow or unwilling to get involved. These struggles, however, have taken place in industries where more or less the entire workforce are on the same poor, casualised contracts, usually outsourced or “self-employed”. While the outsourcing of casual teaching has increased in recent years, academic labour is different in that there remains a much wider variation in terms, contracts and pay between the precarious and permanent members, so the transferability of the experiences of casualised workers in other industries is limited.

Historical examples are needed here. In some ways, the structure of work and labour markets in the UK and the United States today is similar to that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in terms of lack of regulation and precariousness. Even in the most advanced economies of that time, precarious labour was not some marginal phenomenon – it was the norm for most men and women who lived by their labour. As David Montgomery made clear in his classic study, The Fall of the House of Labor, even the organisation of the most crucial centre of late nineteenth century industry, the steel mill, placed a relatively small number of skilled craftsmen above a much larger number of helpers, apprentices and other workers, none of them with job security.

The major American labour organisations of the day had to deal with this reality – and their examples are instructive. The American Federation of Labor regarded the great mass of workers as more or less unorganisable, or at least not worth the attention of their organisers (and were especially prejudicial against Asian and black workers) and the leaders of the Federation preferred instead to concentrate on the skilled trades, where workers enjoyed something closer to what we think of as permanent, full-time work. These generalisations are not perfect, of course, and the Federation began to broaden their membership and horizons in the 1900s and 1910s. But the vestiges of narrow craft unionism hampered the AFL and its successor, the AFL-CIO, throughout the twentieth century.

The Order of the Knights of Labor were not an association of craft unions like the AFL, but a fraternal order-cum-trade-union-cum-social movement that opened its doors to all “producers”, a category that went beyond wage earners. Small manufacturers could and did join the Knights, and they saw domestic and reproductive labour – in the Victorian world, almost exclusively female labour – as on the same “noble and holy” level as productive, wage-earning labour (see Susan Levine’s Labor’s True Woman). The Knights shared with the leaders of the AFL many of the racist assumptions about Asian and East European workers, but unlike many AFL unions they organised these immigrants (apart from Chinese ones) as soon as they landed. They also organised an unprecedented number of black workers, North and South, on an equal footing with whites. Black people accounted for around 10% of the total membership in 1886, when that membership nearly reached 1 million.

Indeed, the Knights were amenable to unskilled and precarious workers in general. Their official philosophy revolved around the “universal brotherhood” (later, in practical terms at least, extended to sisterhood as well) of all producers, and the much promised-for co-operative commonwealth to come. As Robert Weir showed in Beyond Labor’s Veil, they tried to weave their conception of brotherhood into the rituals that began and ended each assembly meeting. The symbols that adorned each assembly hall were designed to entrench these lessons – the globe at the entrance symbolised “universal brotherhood” as a global idea, and a global mission. Knights en masse composed and performed songs and poems to convince themselves and their co-workers of the rightness of their cause, and to promote unity among all producers. This was rather different from the materialism of the AFL’s craft unions, which never put much emphasis on cultural production and rested on bargaining over wages and conditions – “pure and simple unionism”.

The structure of the Knights also facilitated the organisation of precarious workers. The basic unit was the local assembly, which could comprise anything from a dozen to hundreds of people, followed by the district assembly, compromised of at least five local assemblies, and finally the General Assembly – the Order’s annual convention. Two kinds of local assembly operated for most of its history: the trade assembly, limited to all the workers in a particular craft or industry in the same geographical region, and the mixed assembly, which could contain eligible members from a wide range of industries in the same geographical region. Trade assemblies tended to organise more skilled and permanently-employed workers; mixed assemblies tended to organise in small towns, among farmers, and in places where workers from a variety of trades wished to organise but couldn’t muster the necessary numbers for a trade assembly of their own.

The Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, went further in their welcome to all workers, especially unskilled, itinerant or precarious workers. At their founding congress in 1905, Big Bill Haywood, the leader of the radical Western Federation of Miners, made that welcome explicit: ‘I care not for the skilled mechanic particularly’, he said, ‘the pure and simple trades unionist who enforces an apprenticeship for the benefit of the man that will close down the factory or the mine at a movement’s notice and throw out the men who have devoted their time to become skilled for his especial benefit. What I want to see come from this organization is an uplifting of the fellow who is down in the gutter’.

Unlike the Knights, the IWW never conceded an inch to the anti-Asian racism of the period, and like the Knights they welcomed African-Americans as equal members, and black workers took the lead in their organisation of dock workers on the Philadelphia waterfront, which, as Peter Cole has pointed out, was a rarity in American labour history. They attracted capable women leaders, the most famous of them being Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the “rebel girl”, and organised across gender lines as enthusiastically as they crossed racial lines. The IWW proved particularly good at organising itinerant workers. Their secret was an active membership, based around the travelling delegate with the necessary experience and supplies to organise new branches on the spot, or revitalise and support existing ones.

These travelling delegates faced repression from local and state police, and violence at the hands of vigilantes with ties to the big employers. Some were even lynched, as was Frank Little in 1917 in Butte, Montana. Despite these dangers, travelling organisers took the IWW to precarious and underpaid workers in places as different as the textile mills of Massachusetts, the farms of the rural Midwest, and the lumber camps of Washington and Oregon. They took with them the radical vision, derived from Marxist and anarchist sources, of a world without governments and corporations, where workers would run the One Big Union and the One Big Union would run the world. They also took with them a rich collection of pamphlets, verse, and music – and the most popular item in every organiser’s backpack was the IWW Songbook. Songs like “Joe Hill”, “The Preacher and the Slave”, and “Solidarity Forever” poked fun at the pretensions of the clergy, the bosses and the well-to-do, and pointed to the new society that Wobblies hoped to build. That corpus of folk music, sung to popular tunes, did as much as the travelling delegates and Haywood’s commitment to “the fellow in the gutter” to ensure that the IWW played an outsized role in the organising of precarious and lowly-paid workers.

Learning by Example

It is not possible to simply project the experiences of the Wobblies and Knights onto the twenty-first century and expect good results. The IWW has survived to the present, and might yet be a factor in labour struggles to come, but the stale craft unionism of the AFL would not avail us, and the fraternal ritual of the Knights is hopelessly foreign to us today. Nor would we want to assimilate the racial and gender prejudices that infected the American labour movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the AFL, Knights and IWW still have something to teach us about organising precarious workers. We know that the more we go down the AFL route, the less likely that unions will be to organise precarious workers, or to do anything except mount ineffective rearguard actions for the remaining privileges of full-timers – which has been the pattern of unions in the UK over the last few decades.

The Knights of Labor are closer to the mark. Their mixed assemblies and their tendency to organise at a community level as well as or rather than at the workplace, might be worth emulating. The mixed assembly would allow precarious workers on short contracts to stay organised within the same geographical region, without having to move between union branches when they move between jobs. This would solve one of the major problems with organising precarious workers; maintaining and encouraging organisation despite the short duration of their employment. Organising on a community level would also make it more difficult for employers to victimise precarious workers at work – for example, the call centre workers who are the subject of Jamie woodcock’s recent Working the Phones. They face comprehensive surveillance on the job and a near-permanent probationary period that leaves them liable to dismissal or non-renewal of their contract on almost any conceivable pretext. Shifting the focus from the workplace to the community gives these workers more space to organise, outside the bounds of managerial control and surveillance.

The IWW’s emphasis on a small but active membership can reach workers who seem beyond the reach of the large established unions. Their ability to reach itinerant workers with travelling delegates might also bring in those workers who often move in search of work. Their uncompromising radicalism – and the popular ways they expressed that radicalism in song, poetry and prose – is just the thing that a new, militant labour movement needs. Cultural nourishment will be just as important as tactical nous and structural innovations.

We can see the echoes of all these points in current practice. Unite and other unions have begun to experiment with community unions, and the great success enjoyed by Momentum in bringing together a whole raft of local campaigns to a common political purpose might yet be extended to the labour movement. The active membership of the contemporary IWW and similar organisations, such as the IWGB, has already succeeded in working with Deliveroo workers and SOAS cleaners, to name only two examples. We now need to institutionalise these methods so that the large unions as well as the new, smaller and more dynamic ones can attract precarious workers in the industries where they operate. At the same time, we need to ensure that any community unions, unions on the mixed assembly model, and the active members and travelling delegates bequeathed from the IWW experience, are all operated and owned by the precarious workers who inhabit these structures. That is the key point. These models must not be diluted through bureaucratic, top-down reorganisations, but be manifested in structures designed to give precarious workers as much agency and independence as possible – and allow them to operate on an equal plane with their full-time colleagues.

In its limited resistance to casualisation, the UCU has acted much more like the AFL than the Knights or the Wobblies, to take the historical analogies offered here, even if – as in the AFL – there have been many voices demanding that the union do much more to attract precarious workers and fight for their benefit. They could do well to follow the best aspects of the Knights and the IWW instead. Building communities of precarious workers at every campus would be a great step forward in making sure that their interests are heard within the union as well as by management. Regular meetings, social events, and guaranteed representation, not in token roles, on local UCU branch committees (something that a growing number of branches have begun to do) are the minimum requirements here.  These community organisations should not be restricted to campus, where precarious workers can feel constrained by the possibilities of surveillance or interference by university management. They must have a digital component, in order to reach those precarious workers who commute long distances or are forced by the demands of other jobs to spend only a small fraction of their time on campus and are thus unable to make regular meetings and events.

Yet the UCU cannot simply wish organisations into existence. Precarious workers must feel in charge of these organisations, and not feel that they are mere auxiliaries to the more important work of defending the interests of full-timers. The UCU should provide the necessary resources and then give precarious workers the space to build movements of their own. Union leaders might not always approve of what they do with these resources, or what they say, but that kind of autonomy will rebound to the union’s benefit in the years ahead.

It is recognised that precarious workers face extra challenges that their permanent colleagues do not, but that ultimately their fates are bound up together and they need to stay and fight within the same union against the same management. The precarious workers of today – or at least some of them – will be the permanent staff of tomorrow, and if permanent staff don’t want to find their conditions and contracts reduced to the status of precarious workers below them, they must be prepared to offer more than lip service to the anti-casualisation movements that now spring up on campus after campus. An injury to one is an injury to all, as the Knights of Labor proclaimed, and if the UCU wants to survive and prosper after this current strike ends, its leaders must recognise that these are practical imperatives and not mere utopian slogans. If they don’t recognise that, either they will soon be gone, or their younger and precarious members will go themselves – or never join in the first place.



Cole, Peter. Wobblies on the Waterfront (University of Illinois Press: 2007).

Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall be All (University of Illinois Press: 1969).

Levine, Susan. Labor’s True Woman (Temple University Press: 1984).

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor (Cambridge University Press: 1987).

Standing, Guy. The Precariat (Bloomsbury: 2011).

Weir, Robert. Beyond Labor’s Veil (Penn State University Press: 1996).

Woodcock, Jamie. Working the Phones (Pluto: 2017).

Haywood, Big Bill. “Founding Congress of the Industrial Workers of the World,” 1905, from