Dr. Hamish Thompson Resident Director


March 19, 2018

The political left and the Union movement of current democracies has part of its origin in Scotland and with Scots. One of the first national strikes took place in Scotland in 1820 involving 60,000 workers. This was largely motivated by artisans and the weavers of the very large textile industry that was flourishing in Scotland, but in the early 1800’s their earnings were halved. There was then a depression combined with high inflation of food.  In March, in a Glasgow tavern, 15-20 representative of various industries including the weavers met to come up with a plan to demand the vote be expanded beyond landowners and for a Scottish national government to be established to take control of local working conditions.  It did not end well for its leaders of which many were deported and two were hung and beheaded in Stirling.

Through the 1830s there were attempts to set up general unions - particularly one by Robert Owen (a Welshman) who managed a very large mill in New Lanark in Scotland where he introduced the 8 hour working day and other reforms to improve the conditions of workers. Attempts to form ‘unions’ were not always successful. In Tolpuddle, Dorset a group of 6 farmers attempted to form a ‘friendly society’ in order to protest and attempt to prevent the lowering of wages for agricultural workers. They were arrested and sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia to a penal colony. They were, after a long campaign, pardoned and allowed to return 2 years later.

Through the 1830’s and 40’s there was a transition to ‘Chartism’ and the use of petitions and mass meetings to influence political reform beneficial to workers and to extend the political franchise, or the vote, to workers. This culminated in a general strike of 1842 when there was an imposition of wage cuts to the mill workers which led to a walk out of half a million workers across Great Britain. More organised and less radical trade unions were established through the 1850s. The Trade Union Congress meeting of 1868 came about after a Government Royal Commission met and paved the way for the Trade Union Act of 1871 that finally legalised Union activity in the United Kingdom as beneficial to both employers and employees.  

After the vote was expanded beyond the richer landowning classes to all male workers, there was room now for a party to represent the workers. This political movement  eventually became the Labour Party which we now associate with the traditional left of British politics.  A Scot from the political left, James Keir Hardie, a trade union organiser for the miners, was elected to Parliament as an independent in 1892. He then went on to found and become leader of the Labour Party. If you go to a strike rally, you will nearly always see a representative of the Labour Party, but you will also probably see representatives from the Scottish National Party and the Green Party that currently both advocate for a left leaning political platform in addition to their other positions of Scottish independence and the environment – but it is almost certain that you will not see a Conservative Party representative!

So when you see a sign saying UCU outside lecture halls – this represents the initials of the University and College Union. Employees in the Higher Education sector can join this union and it will then represent their rights and conditions with any disputes with their employers through collective bargaining.  Any industrial action has to be agreed to by a vote of the membership of the union to ensure the challenge to working conditions of its members is worth the disruption of the action and the potential loss of wages to the staff taking this action.  Then if an agreement is eventually made between the employers and the Union representatives, this will then be taken to a vote at meetings where representatives of each sub group will decide whether to accept the terms of the proposed agreement. Often negotiations between the employees and employers will be referred to an independent arbitration group.

So why are the UCU striking? The group of University leaders that oversees all UK Universities have decided that the pension scheme is too generous and cannot be supported by the current contributions from both employer and employees so they want reduce the pension of faculty and administrators by up to £10,000 per year or what could be up to £200,000 per employee - assuming a 20 year retirement.  Higher Education employees have already had a significant reduction in pensions from a previous round of negotiations when they were told this was required to protect the pension scheme – so are not very happy at this proposed further significant reduction. The group of University leaders argue this reduction must be made to keep the scheme economically viable – although there is a disagreement over the figures and the significance of the shortfall. The UCU replies that the salaries of the University leadership is, however, skyrocketing and the introduction of tuition fees has led to much increased revenue for the Universities of which very little is being spent on the staff and faculty whom are so important to the life of a university.

So when you see a professor waving a sign – this is why.