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Universities strike takes fight to bosses
Academic staff in the University and College Union (UCU) are striking at 60 universities for eight days until 4 December.
If the university bosses donít immediately back down, the pressure needs to be kept up, with more strike action in the New Year. And university UCU branches that didnít meet the Toryís anti-democratic 50% threshold should be re-balloted so they can join in.
In Liverpool, management lied when they said students would be breaking the law if they joined picket lines. They even threatened international students that they risked jeopardising their visa if they refused to cross the picket lines.
But Socialist Students is building support for the UCU action among students.
The whole union movement should come to the aid of the UCU.
Unis like Leicester have threatened to remove membersí strike-day pay, all in one go. In London, the UCU strike rally is being held jointly with the postal workers in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) who have had their right to strike - against precariousness - blocked by the courts.
Strikers at the University of Leicester amassed at all entrances with drums, whistles, placards and leaflets. No regard was given to the anti-trade union laws restricting pickets to six people. One worker said: "Didn't know, don't care".
Dozens were discussing the action and talking with passing students and non-academic staff. Honks of support came from almost every third vehicle. The mood was exuberant.
An admin worker and Unite the Union member came to say that her office had set up a strike-support campaign, and they brought regular hot drinks and supplies out to the strikers.
Tessa Warrington, Leicester Socialist Party
"I have lost belief in the capitalist project." This was how one picket described his experience of the insufferable workload placed on teaching staff at Southampton University. "When I asked for a review of my work, I was offered a return to last year's. I reminded them that was the workload that led my ill health and time off work."
From senior staff to part-time PhD teachers the story was the same - an endless drive to deliver more with less.
Pickets surrounded the campus from 8am and stayed in the rain until the rally finished at midday. Socialist Student members visited pickets and were warmly greeted everywhere they went. Hundreds turned out to chant, "Workload, Overload!" and listen to speeches from striking UCU members. This included Socialist Party member Bea Gardner from the UCU branch executive. Bea brought a message of solidarity from students who had voted to back the strike. That brought another loud cheer from the strikers.
Nick Chaffey, Southampton Socialist Party
This is a young, militant workforce, who are prepared to fight to ensure decent pension rights. One of the strikers at Newcastle University, Geoff Poole, told us: "There's still a residual memory of our last strike, which was only 18 months ago. So it has been easier than I thought to get back into the swing of things."
Strikers explained how the strike had been called off 18 months ago in good faith. Back then UCU members had felt it was a sensible approach for both sides to take advice from an independent panel regarding changes to their pension. However, university bosses are ignoring the main recommendations and want to impose a flawed scheme.
The majority of these workers aren't on full-time contracts. One striker told how difficult it is to plan your life when you don't know how long your current contract will last.
But, there was a very upbeat mood. The UCU leaflet explained how much they love their jobs, and are so proud of their students. Unfortunately love doesn't pay the bills!
Elaine Brunskill, Newcastle Socialist Party
There were nearly 20 picket lines at the University of Bristol. Pension robbery and the precariousness of short-term contracts were repeatedly cited as reasons for the solid turnout.
In the run up to the last strike, the branch grew by 40%. That hasn't been repeated, as most of those new members have been retained. But over 100 new members still joined the branch in the run up to this strike.
The mood was determined, more hardened than the joyous atmosphere last year. We asked people about the impact of calling off last year's strike. Someone said 14 days was too long and it was losing momentum throughout the strike. But others felt it had been called off too early.
There's still some frustration, but it doesn't seem to have caused any cynicism or undermined this strike in any way.
A rally and march of over 300 lecturers and students concluded the event, just as big as in 2018. UCU leaders made plain that further action will inevitably follow if the employers do not take practical and immediate steps to address and resolve members' grievances.
The vice-chancellor and other senior managers were visiting the pickets and on the march. People weren't buying the gesture of friendship. Many pointed out the uni could do a lot more on fixed-term contracts, workload and the gender pay gap, etc.
Tom Baldwin and Robin Clapp, Bristol Socialist Party
There was a determined turnout at UCU strike pickets across Glasgow. Glasgow Caledonian and the Art School were on strike this time along with Strathclyde and Glasgow universities who mobilised in 2018.
At Glasgow University over 150 picketed the main entrance. Staff assembled at the main building before separating into smaller groups to picket the rest of campus.
Across the picket lines, there were lively conversations about the central issues of workload and precarious contracts. Hundreds of students, including Socialist Students, joined a march round campus at Strathclyde. Pickets from Caledonian joined in.
A Glasgow Uni striker told us: "Over the last decade the number of students in my department has more than doubled." She went on to explain how this has impacted on her ability to maintain a high level of engagement with her students. "While extra staff were hired before this semester, the effect was too little too late."
This is the most damaging effect of the greedy and irresponsible growth policies pursued by the employers, Universities UK. The actual quality of teaching is being reduced by unmanageable working hours. The effect this has on lecturers' mental health and personal life is of even greater concern. "The average UCU member does over 13.5 hours of unpaid overtime per week", Ross Gibson, UCU member at Strathclyde, told us.
"We are out on strike for a variety of reasons. There's been a 41% increase in mental health absence because of workload, the gender pay gap at this university is 13%, over the last four years nationally pay in higher education has dropped by 20%. Precarious contracts are affecting staff and students. We appeal to students to join us on the picket lines and discuss the dispute with us."
Importantly, Strathclyde UCU are raising motions within the union that call on the Scottish leadership to demand the SNP-led Scottish government use its powers to pressure universities on pay, inequality, cuts and precarious contracts.
Socialist Party Scotland and Socialist Students will be mobilising support for the UCU strike over the next days of strike action.
Oisin Duncan and Matt Dobson, Socialist Party Scotland
All Glasgow UCU rally with Jo Grady General Secretary. Monday 2 December, 12:30pm, Buchanan Steps
Socialist Party members joined Socialist Students on the picket line at Goldsmiths University. Banners made by the strikers included the demands of the strike: 'strike for equal pay', 'strike for pensions', 'strike for your weekend', 'strike for job security'.
They also expressed the frustration felt by lecturers that they are forced to strike again following last year's campaign. One read: "What the F-UUK AGAIN". UUK being Universities UK.
Goldsmiths Socialist Students members had gone round the cafes and library before the strike to build support among students. Three more students signed up to Socialist Students on the picket line.
Socialist Party members also visited pickets at other universities in London, including Queen Mary and University College London.
Paula Mitchell, London Socialist Party
Joint UCU and Communications Workers Union (CWU) rally on day of climate strikes: Friday 29 November. Assemble 11am, Malet Street WC1E 7HY. March 12 noon to Parliament. Rally 2pm, Westminster Central Hall SW1H 9NH
Members of the Cardiff branches of the Socialist Party, along with comrades from the Socialist Student Society, joined university workers on the picket lines at Cardiff University.
The feeling of determination that resulted in the decisive yes votes for strike action on pensions (79%) and pay and conditions (74%) was reflected on the picket lines as university workers showed that they are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder and fight for their rights.
Socialist Students visited each of the picket lines throughout the campus to offer solidarity and support and thank the UCU members for being willing to stand up and be counted in the battle against the attacks on pay and working conditions. Those workers on the picket line appreciated our support and were keen to emphasise that standing up against precarious and casualised work is something that all workers must be prepared to do under this Tory government.
Later, at a rally organised by the UCU in support of the strike action attended by hundreds of strikers, the need was stressed for all workers to seize the opportunity afforded by the 12 December general election to vote in an anti-austerity government that will invest in our education system and end the unfair trade union laws which prevent workers from across all industries joining in the united struggle for better pay and conditions for all working class people.
Dani Smith, Cardiff University Socialist Students and UCU FE
Lucy Riglin, Chair of Cardiff UCU strike committee, said:
"We have people on temporary contracts that the university refuses to recognise are on temporary contracts who actually are doing work that isn't temporary -there's a permanent need for it. We have postgrads who work for the university who the university claim aren't employed by them - they're merely 'engaged'! By giving people nine-month contracts, or by not recognising postgrads who teach as employees, or by employing hourly paid staff, our employer doesn't have to provide sick pay, or holiday pay, or parental leave. By making staff feel dispensable and undervalued, staff are more likely to work more for less, to take on extra responsibilities they aren't paid for, to work unreasonable numbers of hours, and work under levels of stress that are bad for their health and wellbeing. This is exploitation."
In an era where students are paying more money than ever, why can't we simply have the resources we need? That was the feeling at the picket lines at the University of Bradford when Socialist Party and Socialist Student members visited and gave our solidarity.
One UCU member, Anthony, said staff are regularly working 50-hour weeks plus, to get the workload done. University guidelines state that a dissertation should only take an hour to mark. But it takes far more time and input to decide on such an important grade that could affect someone's future.
This is an issue that affects staff on strike in UCU and support staff in their union Unison. However, Unison's ballot earlier in the year failed to meet the threshold.
Bradford made 200 support staff posts at risk of redundancy last year, but action by members managed to save a majority. Universities have shrunk support staff. The weight then falls onto staff that remain.
Striking workers on the ground are frustrated they are not being consulted on workload. They feel it's far more efficient and ultimately cost effective to hire enough well-paid staff. This will reduce stress levels and improve staff retention.
UCU members know how much money they are bringing into departments from their research and students attracted to their academic programmes. So they know that there is enough money to secure their pensions and pay and to reduce workload.
Tory-commissioned reports have proposed reducing tuition fees, but insist that the difference would not be made up by the government. Universities would be forced to compete for 'business' more than ever.
Jeremy Corbyn should ensure that free education would come with a full-funding promise from a Labour government.
Amy Cousens, Bradford Socialist Party
Hundreds of University of Leeds lecturers, staff and students rallied against pension cuts, unstable zero-hour contracts, overwork and wage inequality. Leeds Socialist Students are enthusiastic supporters of the movement, along with other student groups and individuals.
The strike is a crucial last resort in the fight for fair working conditions. Many lecturers and other staff live without the security of knowing that they will be employed until the next academic year or semester. Even those with long-term contracts have seen their pensions slashed.
Many staff are paid hourly, which does not include time spent planning for and evaluating work outside of class hours. Wage gaps remain static. Non-white people earn less than their white counterparts. Women earn less than men.
The strike has been criticised for disrupting students' education - a claim deliberately blind to the fact that education cannot take place without quality teaching. Quality teaching can't take place without quality of life for those teachers. Staff at Leeds must feel valued and secure at work to impart knowledge and expertise effectively.
The mistreatment of Leeds University employees is directly at odds with the enormous fees paid by students. We deserve investment in education, rather than market demands, and we will stand for nothing less.
Molly Rampton, Leeds Uni Socialist Students
UCU members in three higher education institutions in Liverpool are taking strike action, Liverpool University, Liverpool Hope University and Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. On the second day of the strike UCU organised a demonstration, bringing the three branches together, which was enthusiastic and lively.
Pensioners and members of other labour movement bodies, including Socialist Party members, also joined to show their solidarity with the UCU members, swelling the numbers on the demonstration to around 600. Many shoppers and workers in the city centre applauded as the march went past, and speakers at the end of the march received a warm reception from the crowd.
Clearly UCU members have plenty to strike about; when one passer-by asked what they were on strike for, a UCU steward replied: "Zero hours contracts, short term contracts, job insecurity, poor wages and bullying at work!". Another UCU member shouted across to her: "You've forgotten pensions!", and the woman that asked the question replied: "Blimey, well good luck to you!"
Roger Bannister, Liverpool Socialist Party
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 25 November 2019 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.