An alleged 25% pay cut and other problems of striking

by Alan Nemirovski and Sachin Jhangiani

Picture via @LSE_UCU

In February, members of the University and College Union (UCU) at LSE went on strike. The Beaver covered their reasons for striking last term. This time, we spoke to academics, PhD students, and UCU representatives to understand the culture of striking, and why some academics choose not to strike. Their stories, including a proposal by LSE management to cut staff pay by 25% for those academics on strike who fail to make up teaching hours, paint a dismal picture of the working en- vironment for academics at LSE.

We emphasise that none of these academics want to be on strike. They feel a strong commitment to their students, and would much rather be in the classroom. “None of us want to take strike action, we all want to be in class with our students,” said Professor Fran Tonkiss of the Sociology department. They see teaching not only as a job but also as a passion. One academic even chose to not go on strike because they thought it would be unfair to students, especially third- years, who have already had their studies disrupted by the pandemic.

LSE’s management clearly understands this and is exploiting it. The School has provided little to no messaging about the strikes to staff. Indeed, in their recent town hall session, management continued to maintain that they have good relations with the UCU and are having ongoing discussions with them. Meanwhile, what little messaging they have provided to staff about the strikes has been based on guilt-tripping academics into not striking: “A lot of the messaging implicitly is [that] you should feel guilty,” is the perception of one academic.

In addition to this messaging, more pernicious ideas have been floated. Several academics on the picket line told us that the school’s management suggested a propos- al which, if agreed to, would have cut staff pay by 25% for all those who failed to make up the teach- ing hours lost as a result of being on strike. When asked about these reports, Professor Tonkiss said, “The idea was discussed and similar measures are being taken in other universities.” Queen Mary, for example, has threatened to withhold all of staff pay until teach- ing hours are made up. Such pro- posals would penalise academics twice-over, with them already losing 100% of their pay while being on strike and then taking this ad- ditional cut, Professor Tonkiss explained. The fact that this proposal was never made public begs the question, what else is going on be- hind the scenes? When we reached out to LSE for a comment, we were told that “the School cannot comment on management discussions”.

Pressure from LSE has also made it difficult for certain academics to strike. An anonymous Law post- graduate student told us how they spoke to someone who was “scared to go on strike and be found out for it”. Certainly, those wishing to pursue a career in academia need to teach and maintain good relationships with their superiors, because they may need a reference down the road. Some are worried that strike action may negatively impact these relationships. Professor James Putzel, a professor in International Development, told us on the picket lines that “of course, young academics [in particular] keep their heads down.” Another LSE academic told us that the pressure they experience from the School is direct and implicit, both of which make “people feel very uneasy about standing up to power in any variety of ways.”

Under the current LSE pay scale, members of certain departments receive market supplements. These are used to pay members of certain departments a higher salary by supplementing their base salary. LSE’s Pay Supplement Policy justifies this by pointing out that some professions “may be highly demanded by employers” and therefore the base salary is “not sufficient to attract an appointment in line with the recruitment criteria.”

This would impact one’s considerations on whether to strike or not. If one is receiving a higher salary, then they are less affected by the Four Fights and the pension cuts, because they are able to take home a higher salary relative to their colleagues, and can rely on doing so for the rest of their academic career due to their chosen field. Linked to market supplements is the pay raise process at LSE. Our conversation with academics uncovered that obtaining a pay raise can be extreme- ly difficult, and may often require leveraging an external offer. This is understandably difficult because of

the effort it takes to apply to jobs, especially in academia. Additionally, those in niche fields may not find institutions which engage in or support their chosen specialisation, drastically reducing their leverage.

With decreased pay and job instability for many, academics we spoke to are becoming increas- ingly worried about the future of the higher education sector. Dr Katharine Millar, the UCU representative for the Internation- al Relations department, for instance, notes that pension cuts are “dramatically undermining the future safety net of an entire generation of academics.” Academics, therefore, consider the UCU strikes to be crucial in ensuring that their profession can continue to be a safe and viable career path.

Additionally, roadblocks in academia continue to exist for women, as well as gender and ethnic minorities and disabled people. These roadblocks, including lower pay for some, can further discourage eager academics from pursuing research. For instance, in 2020, the gender pay gap at LSE was 9.52%, despite management claiming that they have made enormous strides in gender equality. Additionally, in 2016, the pay gap between white and “non-white” workers was 13.4%. LSE has stopped reporting ethnicity pay gaps since then, and we were unable to find any disability pay gap reports.

Furthermore, LSE has not shared data on inter-sectional pay reports. This may be because there are such few academics of a particular minority and gender, that producing a report would make them individually identifiable within their department. Aside from pay gaps, Dr. Millar explains that “women, disabled people, people of colour, and those at the intersections of those categories are also much more likely to be on precarious contracts.” This highlights the potential for an unstable working environment, where many academics have to find additional jobs to support themselves.

The next wave of strikes in the last week of Lent term will be difficult. We will have spent a month of our year with teachers striking. Still, these strikes should not be seen as an easy, or a selfish decision on their part. They are fighting for an equitable, safe, and sustainable academic workplace. LSE, how- ever, has continued to retaliate through proposed salary cuts and continues to maintain that it has good relations with its unions. We urge every student to speak to those on the picket line, just as we did. Their stories are worth lis- tening to and are worth sharing.

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