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31 October 2013
University staff take joint strike action
Thursday 31st October saw joint strike action by campus unions across the country, and signalled the beginning of action by UCU, Unison and Unite against real terms pay cuts for university staff.
Reports from across the country suggest the strikes were well supported, with many universities almost totally shutdown, and large numbers of staff joining the picket lines, from porters to professors.
Thousands of students joined the striking workers on picket lines as well, in solidarity, but also in anger that their tuition fees are being spent on flashy student union buildings, vice chancellors' pay rises and massive financial surpluses rather than the staff who teach them, provide their services and maintain their universities!
Sam Morecroft, Sheffield UCU education officer
(See below for Sam's report of the action in Sheffield)
Joint action by university staff in the Unite, Unison and UCU unions was well supported at the Stratford site of the University of East London on 31 October.
Staff have been offered a 1% pay increase and no more by an intransigent management, Steve Martin, UCU UEL branch secretary told the Socialist, meaning that university staff have effectively suffered a 13% pay cut over the last five years while there is a £1 billion surplus in the higher education sector.
"Fundamentally", Steve said, "Enough is enough. We've got to make a stand. The feeling in the branch is that 1% is not enough. It's the straw that broke the camel's back."
UCU picket John George said that members were not just angry about pay, but also pensions, and increased workloads. "I have a wife and young child. Every penny matters these days."
Unite covers technical staff at the university, Unite Health and Safety rep Kevin Head explained. The national management side simply won't negotiate on its 1% offer made over the summer, so the strike was necessary. "We've all suffered from austerity" Unite steward Kevin Clough commented.
He reported that "all entrances are covered and no one's been through so far apart from management."
"This is the first time we've been out together for many years", UEL Unison branch secretary Sue Parkin told the Socialist. "It's good! United we stand, divided we fall! It's good to know that it is national action with support across the country.
"The universities are often confused as to whether they are private or public sector employers. Well, private sector pay has gone up by 2 ½%."
Pete Mason, east London Socialist Party
Leicester Socialist Students show support
Socialist Student members did a banner drop in support of striking staff at Leicester university. They occupied the students' union building roof and dropped a large banner supporting the workers at the main entrance to the university.
Unite and Unison campus branches backed a joint leaflet with Socialist Students advertising a follow up Socialist Students meeting.
Pickets, including UCU members handed out thousands of these flyers. The front page of the student newspaper has an article written by a Socialist Students member supporting the strike.
Swansea university saw the largest picket line for many years with over 30 UCU, Unison and Unite strikers receiving support from staff, NUS, Socialist Students, Swansea Trades Council and Swansea Socialist Party.
All of them felt they were being ripped off by management who now run universities as big business companies with the rewards going to the top and the staff being left further and further behind.
At Swansea Met university the pickets were not as large but were equally determined to stop their pay and working conditions being eroded any further.
Everyone I spoke to felt the united action of university workers should be broadened out to include other trade unionists who are also taking or preparing for their own action and the demand for a 24-hour general strike was literally an ABC answer.
Alec Thraves, Swansea Socialist Party and Swansea Trades Council.
Pickets surround Southampton university campus
Across Southampton university striking members of UCU, Unite and Unison gathered to picket out teaching, admin and works buildings.
The mood was very upbeat, very determined and very angry. "We are UNITE and we are RIGHT!" chanted one group outside the main entrance.
Activists report large numbers joining the union right up to the start of the strike. Unite members in security walked out at midnight, forcing management to staff the cameras.
Significantly a Student Union Council meeting passed a motion of support, which boosted the mood of union members and cut across the idea this a battle of workers versus students.
Socialist Students had been out leafletting students in the week, held a meeting with UCU to discuss the strike and were out giving solidarity on the picket line today.
Very noticeably the campus was quiet; standing by the main bus stop, pickets said there were very few students and staff turning up.
Kings College London
At least six picket lines were running all morning across the various campuses of Kings College, London.
Pickets worked hard to speak to every student and staff member going into the building asking them to support the strike and not cross the picket line.
Workers were pleased to have the support of the student union and a group of students joined the main picket line on the Strand.
They pointed out that it was positive to have all three campus unions out together for the first time in several years but agreed with the Socialist Party that coordinating with the other unions striking over the next week would have been even more effective.
Jim Howard, King's College Unite branch chair said: "We're on strike because the cost of living is continually rising, travel fares, utility bills and food are going up. But wages have been frozen. The more action is coordinated the better chance we have to succeed."
Many were interested in coming to the Socialist Party's 'Socialism 2013' event this weekend, especially to hear the discussion on 'Will a general strike take place in Britain?'.
Three workers bought copies of the Socialist and two Unite members wanted to know about Socialist Party meetings in their local area.
Sarah Wrack and Ian Pattison
At the University of Sheffield, we managed to almost totally shut down the university, with a high level of staff on strike and strong picket lines on all the main buildings.
This was followed by a joint march around Sheffield city centre with our brothers and sisters at Sheffield Hallam university, and a lively rally in Barkers Pool.
The level of student support was fantastic, with many students visiting us, bringing tea and biscuits, and helping us to convince students not to cross the picket lines.
In addition, a group of around 40 students occupied a lecture theatre in an attempt to prevent lectures from taking place.
This support is and will be of momentous importance as we continue with our dispute; it will give staff the courage necessary to take further action if our employers continue to refuse to negotiate meaningfully with us.
There were one or two less welcome moments - two colleagues crossed our picket line - but there were also important positives. Many staff members who did not strike in 2011 not only supported the action this time round but joined in with picket lines and on the march.
This is great to see from the point of union activists; we have to make sure that next time, not a single member of staff undermines our strike.
Most significantly, however, was the very visible number of young, vocal, early career staff who showed a determination to organise and fight back that was inspiring to older colleagues.
There were also vibrant picket lines at Sheffield Hallam, but as a significant percentage of the workforce there are GMB members these were more visibly undermined by the GMB's failure to join other campus unions in the dispute, having accepted the real terms pay cut deal fairly early on.
This dispute is far from over; the following day staff returned to work and began a period of action short of strike action - working to rule.
If there is no attempt by the employer to seriously engage with negotiations, UCU plans to mobilise further strikes in defence of pay and conditions, and we hope other unions will join us.
Thursday showed very clearly just how strong our trade unions are when they strike together, and in my branch there is strong support for coordinated action with other unions, both on campuses and in the public and private sector.
Sam Morecroft, Sheffield UCU education officer
Socialist Students and Socialist Party members in London visited pickets at at least three quarters of the 22 universities in London, from Brunel in the west, to London Met in the north, University of East London, and Kingston in the south, as well as lots in between.
Several local rallies took place as well as a lively march and rally in central London.
Like the teachers march in October these pickets were young and energetic, sick of battling for four years for decent pay, and confident to explain their case to students.
Postgraduate teachers joined lecturers, library staff, technicians and even security guards on picket lines all round London.
The fact that all three unions were on strike together made a big difference and almost uniformly pickets thought they should coordinate with other unions. There was also interest in standing as candidates with TUSC.
Paula Mitchell, London Socialist Party
Socialist Party members joined Unison, UCU and Unite pickets at Bradford university as part of the national strike over pay.
Mark Bridge, UCU deputy head of HE who was visiting the picket lines spoke to the Socialist:
"Union members have had enough of their wages been screwed down year on year, had enough of an employer that's saying to them at the national level we don't think you will do anything about it.
"Members have had enough, we know that they have the money to improve wages, they're not prepared to do it without a considerable show of action by the trade unions.
"And that's what we're doing today, this is the start of the fightback on pay in Higher Education."
But union members were also taking action over issues related to pay, such as the fact that all senior members of staff have their wages negotiated individually which has seen their pay sky-rocket (the average vice-chancellor is paid almost £250,000 a year).
Luke Hoggarth, a Unison member, also spoke to the Socialist:
"I'm on a zero-hour contract, universities are using them as an excuse to remove rights at work. I voted yes to the strike because I also earn less than a living wage.
"Everyone should get paid no less than £7.45, it would be fairer that way and that's why I'm out today."
Students joined the pickets at the university, with hand-made banners, and plan a meeting to build solidarity for future action between students, lecturers and other campus workers in the future.
Leeds - Coordination and solidarity
Amongst the older strikers, the phrase that was often to be heard was “Never did I think I would be striking again”. For some who made their way to the pickets around the University of Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan University and Leeds College of Art, it was several decades since they had participated in a day of strike action.
It was not only education institutions within Leeds that were represented in the crowds that thronged towards Victoria Square: staff from the University of Bradford and other local institutions were to be seen waving banners and passing on the many chants.
Leeds Socialist Students was one of several student groups that turned out to show solidarity with the lecturers and support staff, touring the picket lines and joining the hundreds that marched in to town.
The variety of speakers at the midday Victoria Square rally was testament to the wide coordination and broad solidarity that had made the day possible. Opened by Paul Blackledge, a member of the UCU national executive committee and a professor at Leeds Met, speeches followed from union representatives at Leeds College of Art and University of Leeds.
The words expressed from the steps of the art gallery showed regret at the lack of industrial action last year and hope that this show of might would be followed up by further action.
There was a sense that the battle had been renewed and that there was now a momentum, a reserve of energy, for the fight.
Millie Cooper, Student Union president at Leeds Met, echoed the belief amongst strikers that better paid, less overworked, and more motivated staff members are better for everyone involved in education. She pledged that students would support the staff in every way possible to make this happen.
Elizabeth Watkins, Leeds University Socialist Students
Aston university had its biggest picket line in years. One member of the support staff in Unite told the Socialist: "Really, I feel sorry for the students, who over the past ten years have been turned from learners into consumers".
Meanwhile GMB-organised security staff at the University of Birmingham, though not on strike themselves, turned a blind eye to student anti-cuts campaigners as they chained bikes to the vehicle barriers, preventing any deliveries from crossing the picket line.
A lively and upbeat rally at lunchtime brought together over 100 staff and students, with the call to link up disputes to create a general strike well received.
Nick Hart, Birmingham Socialist Students
Newcastle: United for Education
Newcastle's rally to support striking higher education workers was well supported, with plenty of workers from the three unions (UCU, Unison and Unite) flying their banners.
Boos rang out as one speaker mentioned that a vice chancellor from one of the region's universities had bought a Picasso to hang in his office - yet they say there is no spare cash!
Liz Lawrence's (UCU vice president) call for a general strike was well received. Afterwards she told the Socialist: "We've got to tie up the struggles.
"The TUC spoke about this in September [at TUC congress]. This action today had three unions involved - people like joint action!"
She went on to say: "I think we should be defending other groups of workers, such as the CWU and others fighting attacks in the public sector."
Earlier in the day, on the picket lines, it was clear that there is increased anger as university staff see their pay shrink, while over half of vice-chancellors earn over £242,000.
At Newcastle university one of the lecturers on the picket line said: "Over the course of the last few years student numbers have increased, while staffing levels haven't.
"There's now around 200 students in lectures. This is okay as far as delivering lectures is concerned, but there's little time to do marking or giving students feedback."
London Queen Mary
Pickets at Queen Mary university in East London were lively, with a good turnout from students coming to give solidarity as well as members of all three unions.
Staff and students spoke about the increasing number of people on zero hour contracts with the university, and how more and more teaching staff are only paid by the hour, including half of the English and Drama department.
A number of students agreed not to cross the picket line, and lots of vehicles turned away after appeals from staff and students.
Every entrance on campus was picketed, and the fact that Unison, Unite and UCU were striking together brought real confidence to the pickets.
Strikers were proud of the effect that the action had, and were prepared to come out again if the government still refuses to listen.
The idea of a general strike of all workers went down very well, and six pickets bought copies of the Socialist.
University of Nottingham
In a show of solidarity UCU members were joined by students at the picket lines that covered all entrances onto campus.
The staff felt enough was enough and are now prepared for further action to defend the profession and education in general. There was also a Unite march on campus.
Portsmouth - Why students should care
The 31st October saw members of UCU, Unite and Unison driven to strike action by illogical pay cuts and continued education austerity despite rising tuition fees.
The ballot held for strike action resulted in 64% of HE Unite members voting in favour of action, 62% of UCU members and 54.4% of Unison.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "If the employers try to spin the action as having little impact then it merely shows how out of touch they are with what is really happening on the ground at universities".
Although some have complained of a waning student involvement in action Debbi Richards, branch steward for University of Portsmouth Unison called Portsmouth students "exceptionally helpful" due to the time some have spent leafleting outside Park building and the library.
In a statement made by the Human Resources department staff were smugly reminded "in accordance with university policy those taking strike action will not be paid for that day". What a great way of handling the issue, aggressively docking those that are in the most desperate situations as opposed to finding a logical resolution to the issue.
To students: Even if you weren't disrupted on the 31st the problem of underpaid university staff hasn't gone away and won't for a while if the higher education management's idleness in addressing the issue is anything to go by.
You are paying an increasing amount for the basic right of education and those staff who make it possible are somehow seeing none of it. Are you complacent with seeing university funding cut despite the student loans you have had no option but to take?
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 31 October 2013 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.
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