Saturday, 15 October 2011

NUS President Liam Burns is a scab

Members of the University and Colleges Union have recently undertaken a "work-to-contract" as part of the ongoing campaign against pension reforms. Rolling strikes and a boycott of the research excellence framework and student assessment are also on the cards as options. With the student movement about to kick back into gear and N30 on the horizon, this certainly ramps up the pressure on employers.

Enter Liam Burns, the president of the National Union of Students - both chronological and ideological heir to the utterly dire Aaron Porter. He has declared that "here is no need for further or escalated action if employers are willing to return to the table and find an acceptable solution," and "both sides must consider the impact on students and work towards a quick resolution." Or, to put it another way, "these strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are still going on..." Though, to be fair to burns, his Scottish accent is far easier to bear than Miliband's nasal droning.

Now, the first thing to point out is that Burns's stance shouldn't come as a surprise. After he was elected, he told Times Higher Education that he wouldn't support strikes "if it affects our final year assessment and ability to graduate, that is off the table. Our members are not pawns to be used in that way." You could argue that pitting sectional interests against one another so bluntly is ironic given his stated aim of "bringing our movement back together." But then, he is a bureaucrat rather than a man of principle.

It is also fair to say that we should have no illusions in leaders and officials of any sort being on our side. In particular relation to the NUS, as I've said before, even the "left" candidates were unimpressive and ultimately it is the social interests that the role grants you - rather than the personality taking it on - which dictate its limitations.

None of this excuses Burns for his opposition to industrial action by the UCU however, nor any student who faced with a picket line chooses to cross it. Semantically, the students may not be scabs since they emphatically cannot undermine the industrial action by doing the work stopped by a striking lecturer. But Burns's position of influence means that his words will do damage to the action by eroding the bonds of solidarity between lecturers and students, and giving those students who lack class consciousness and/or political awareness all the excuse they need.

However he justifies it, Liam Burns is a scab. That alone should be enough for students who are serious about building a significant movement to fight austerity to treat him with the utter contempt that he deserves.