More than 100,000 lecturers struck last week. It was the biggest strike yet under David Cameron’s government—and it showed two things.
First, the strike won huge support, particularly among students. And second, lecturers want to keep fighting—and want to strike with other workers.
The action, on Thursday of last week, hit colleges and universities across Britain and Northern Ireland. The UCU union members are fighting attacks on their pension schemes, lack of protection over jobs and derisory below-inflation pay offers.
It had a big impact. Lots of classes were cancelled and few crossed picket lines. In lots of places, more pickets were out than during previous strikes.
Martyn Moss, a UCU regional official, said the strike at Liverpool Hope University was “the most solid in history. Not a single university lecturer went into work”.
Malcolm Povey, president of the UCU at Leeds University, told Socialist Worker, “Leeds University is pretty well shut down. Union members are walking around with huge grins.
“It’s getting boring being a picket—there’s no one to stop coming in!”
Tom Hickey, a UCU executive member in Brighton, described the action as “the most successful strike in the history of the University of Brighton”.
Students occupied the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), in central London, the night before the strike to show support for their lecturers. Many Unison union members refused to cross the picket lines.
Chege Githiora, a senior lecturer at Soas, told Socialist Worker that cuts were already having an impact.
“My department has been whittled down because people retire and they are not replaced. It increases our workload.”
Soas lecturer Annie told Socialist Worker that she feared “education will become something just for the elite”.
Kathy Hilton, a UCU rep at the London College of Communication, said the cuts weren’t necessary. “The cuts are political,” she told Socialist Worker. “The government wants to privatise education.”
At Birkbeck College, students were giving free tea, coffee and sandwiches to the pickets.
Richard Bowyer, a sessional lecturer in its law department, was one of many part-time lecturers on the picket lines.
Sessional lecturers made a big sacrifice to join the strike. “My teaching is on Wednesdays and Thursdays so by striking I’m losing half my pay this week,” Richard said. He added, “I’d like to see people in different unions come out together.”
Several people agreed about the need for workers to strike together. Philip Hager, a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, told Socialist Worker, “I would like to see a general strike. What the Tories want to do to public services affects everyone.”
Naomi Bain, branch chair of Unison at Birkbeck, said that lots of Unison members had gained confidence by joining UCU picket lines.
Lots of people joined the UCU during the strike. Laura Miles, a lecturer at Bradford College, said, “Just on our picket line we gave out eight applications to join UCU, with two people joining.”
At Dundee University, some 40 people joined the union in the run-up to the strike.
Trade unionists from other unions also visited picket lines to show their support.
“We’ve had visits from the GMB union and the local trades council,” said James Eaden at Chesterfield College.
Paul Blackledge, branch secretary of the UCU at Leeds Metropolitan University, said council workers had stopped to show their support for strikers.
“They have been taking the leaflets and saying ‘too right’,” he told Socialist Worker. “You really get a sense of what’s possible.”
At the Institute of Education in London, eight members of the NUT national executive committee joined the picket line.
They talked about the need for workers to strike together. Nick Wigmore, an NUT executive member, told Socialist Worker, “I think we’re closer to a general strike now than we’ve ever been. The words ‘general strike’ are entering into people’s vocabulary more and more.”
“It’s great that the UCU has taken the lead,” added Ann Lemon, another NUT executive member. “Now we need to follow them.”
Lecturers can stop the attack on education. The strikes can also be the start of a bigger revolt against the Tory assault on public services and the welfare state.
The UCU must escalate the action. And other workers must demand that their union leaders start strike ballots so that they can join the fight too.
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