Branch Reports: Cambridge Blues
A winter of discontent, for poorly paid staff at one of the country’s wealthiest institutions.
Unite recently asked its members in higher education “Are you worried that you will be unable to pay for essentials including food, petrol and heating in the next 12 months if your pay doesn’t rise in line with inflation?” A staggering 71% responded that they were.
In Cambridge, a city with one of the highest costs of living in the country, university staff have had enough. Not a traditionally militant, our branch voted for action and held three separate days of strikes in the latter part of 2023 (see previous newsletters), braving the rain and cold to picket their workplaces, receiving support from the public and often surprisingly high-level members of the departments. Maybe that should not be surprising as Heads of Dept have to deal with the problems low wages and poor morale have on recruitment and retention every day.
The university has long supported the national bargaining approach and rightly says that giving Cambridge staff a unilateral pay rise would go against that principle. But by saying that, are they implying that they would love to give staff more money but their hands are tied? As the sector hasn’t had an above-inflation pay rise for years, this also suggests that rich universities, like Cambridge, could be hiding behind their less well-funded cousins to avoid paying fair wages.
Unite sees an obvious solution to this with regional weighting of pay (like London Weighting) which would fall outside the scope of national bargaining for pre-1992 institutions. Problem solved…
The impact of the strikes, including the shutting down of the world-famous Fitzwilliam Museum, led to negotiations opening. Our team were well prepared, with years of knowledge of how the university finances worked and the latest available information. But it soon became apparent that the university was going to claim it was running at a loss – they didn’t even bother to come up with a counteroffer to our claim.
Cambridge University is funded by a massive endowment fund that they use to adjust their balance of payments. If Cambridge wants to spend cash on something it takes a bigger wodge of cash from its pot, otherwise, it leaves the money alone to gain interest. It is insulting to our members (who are suffering due to real shortfalls in income) to claim that one of the richest institutions in the world is struggling financially.
More strike action is planned starting with three consecutive days at the end of January.