It’s rare that real-life political upheaval ever actually breaches the borders of our little north-eastern Fife town. On Thursday 31 October, UCU, Unison, and Unite trade unions – whose membership covers all unionised university staff – will strike over the 1 per cent pay rise offered to staff this year. This 1 per cent rise is not unusual over the last five years, but because raises have not kept up with inflation or cost of living rises, it represents a 13 per cent real cut in pay since 2008.
I don’t think that anyone would disagree that these pay conditions are difficult, and university staff have some right to feel hard done by. But when you contextualise these figures, it really doesn’t seem so special. UK-wide wages have fallen in real terms by nine or ten per cent (depending on who you read) in the last five years, while unemployment has risen from 5.3% to 7.7%. This is not a country with a healthy economy for workers. Surely this gives the staff even more reason to strike? If this problem is affecting everyone, then we can stand up with the support of the whole country?
On a very basic level, yes, that is true, but when you look at the riots in Greece over austerity, then compare our own strife, you might wonder if any strikes in the UK are not similar. The Greeks became comfortable with a country where the civil service was a golden ticket for life, and where public sector workers were over-paid and under-worked. I would never claim that university staff are over-paid or under-worked, but public sector workers have to accept that their industry is just as vulnerable to market forces as private sector workers, who more often are laid off than face pay-cuts. Everyone is facing the squeeze: last night I had dinner with two doctors and a teacher, all of whom have seen no pay scale changes in years. Their real pay decreases are almost exactly the same value as the CPI. The private sector is naturally more volatile, and unemployment figures reflect that, but there are plenty of jobs in private companies whose pay will not have changed since 2007/8. What frustrates me about the strike is the student body’s blind support of it. We seem to think that because we are students, we are obliged to be in support of industrial action. Our parents were the activists, the campaigners of the 70s and 80s, and now those nostalgic conversations are becoming real again.
I won’t be going on strike, and neither will my lecturer on Thursday. I have no doubt that many of my peers will take the opportunity to get involved a little bit of history, however. The Students’ Representative Council voted to support it; national newspapers report that the St Andrews student body will support the strike. Well, I didn’t vote for it.