Members of Unite the Union at the University of Cambridge went on strike for three consecutive days from 31 January to 2 February. Staff were offered a salary increase of 5-6 percent from August of the previous year when, in real terms, the inflation rate was hitting 11 percent.
There were seven pickets across the university, and there was massive support for the strikers. Hundreds of university workers and students signed letters to the vice-chancellor urging them to give a real pay rise.
Busses, taxis, and people were honking and showing solidarity with the striking workers. Community members and students also brought sweets and tea/coffee to the pickets.
On the last day of strikes, workers and students gathered in front of the Senate House for a rally. Workers, including Cambridge IMT members, made speeches highlighting the lies, deceptions and attacks of the university against its workers.
Alongside national bargaining of an RPI+2 percent pay raise for 2023-2024, the union branch, at the local level, is asking for a Cambridge weighting, similar to London weighting, for £5,000 for every staff member as Cambridge is an expensive city.
Until now, the university has refused to negotiate with the union on a pay rise and is currently trying to ‘cook’ its finances.
— Cambridge University Unite (@Unite0775M) February 2, 2024
During the last meeting, the Pro Vice-Chancellor, who heads the committee and earns a massive salary, stated “the university is poor and cannot afford to pay its workers”.
But they have been concealing financial information from employees. For example, they have not released the 2022-2023 finance report, which was due in October 2023.
As a result, Unite the Union employed a forensic accountant, who put together a damning report on the university finances.
The report states the university holds £6 billion in cash, which it has invested for long-term returns of CPI+5%. Annually, they only withdraw 4% of the fund. The yearly surplus exceeds £300 million.
However, due to accounting tricks and gimmicks, the university is projecting itself as ‘poor’ and claiming it cannot afford the costs of staff and students. Meanwhile, the university is investing funds into banks and other large capitalist companies.
Clearly, the university is being run in the interest of these capitalists, not workers or the students.
Indeed, those who are defending the interests of capitalists are often offered lucrative contracts in the university and are even made directors of various companies. All the while, the bosses are hiding information about their finances to deceive staff and students.
The university, despite being filthy rich and sitting on billions in cash, has for many years constantly attacked the conditions of its workers. Workers have faced more than a 20% pay cut in real terms in just the last decade!
Massive redundancies, casualisation, and cuts in wages have pushed workers into poverty. Workers are forced to move far away from the city because of the mafia-like real estate firms carving up the city and making big profits.
Workers therefore have to travel hours to reach their workplaces, affecting their health and finances. “I have to spend £16 daily to reach my workplace”, one worker said, getting just above minimum wage.
Another museum worker aptly stated the “bosses are trying to scrape as much out of workers as they humanly can, they don’t really care”.
The harsh conditions imposed on workers are ludicrously cruel. “They banned chairs for museum visitor assistants, and said that even having a bottle of water during work is unprofessional”.
One engineering research staff on a yearly contract said, “Despite the research group having huge funds, I had to work without pay for a few months. I had to do that, otherwise, the university wouldn’t extend the contract for another year!”
Cambridge University, despite being rich and famous, in reality has Dickensian-working conditions. This is why the strike is so important.
Unite and fight!
Unite has rightly exposed the deception of the university bosses. All of the university’s books should be open to its staff to scrutinise. Doing so would no doubt reveal more cash scurried away, and expose how they profit off of our exploitation!
After all, the value of the university is created by the hard labour of workers, not by the greedy capitalists and their stooges in management who are driving down the working and living conditions of workers.
The pay increase is an immediate demand being fought for brilliantly by the union members. But the struggle wouldn’t be necessary if it was the staff and students themselves democratically running the university, its finances, and its affairs. Ultimately, this is what we should fight for.
The Unite branch will be announcing further actions at Cambridge University, which will involve reaching out to other workplace unions and the students. We will keep The Communist updated with how this campaign progresses.