The RMT, trade union for train company staff, including drivers, has been in the news lately. Its leader Mick Lynch has gained a reputation for competence and skilful handling of the media, much like his predecessor but one, the late Bob Crow, as well as leading effective strike action. This is why the average train worker salary is £44,000, and just under £60,000 for drivers. Compare this with the average academic salary of about £40,000.
To be a lecturer requires a minimum six years in university education. A train driver needs GCSEs. Driving a train is of course a highly responsible job, but I imagine most lecturers feel they are underpaid in comparison. The trade union for university academic staff, the UCU, has not been very successful in negotiating real pay rises for university staff. Our pay has declined over the decades. The latest pay offer is 3%; inflation, in case you haven’t noticed, is running at 10.1% (CPI). This comes after frozen pay from 2010 for two years, and 1% rises between 2013 and 2017. Last year was zero.
There have been several periods of industrial action organised by the UCU over the years, yet university pay has slipped further in real terms. Why has the RMT been so effective with strike action compared to our union? The principal reason, other than Lynch, is because strikes are well supported by RMT members. Of course, loss of train services has far more impact on the country than academics withholding marks or cancelling lectures, but the truth is lecturers are very bad at looking out for themselves. UCU membership is under 50% and support for industrial action lower still. Picket lines outside university entrances are often a handful of people, especially at Kingston. I’ve heard several excuses for not supporting strikes. The most frequent is worrying about the students, though action is usually so brief there is really no long term damage to their education. Most lecturers say nothing and keep their heads down.
This is a poor show from the staff. In the face of aggressive university management, which has adopted the harsh right wing policies that afflict the country, pay and conditions are now in such decline that academics are more likely to leave than suffer the indignity of declining pay and being undervalued. It would make more sense to stand up for ourselves collectively and stay with the job we like. But I can already see the heads going down. Watch Mick Lynch on TV and weep.