University workers across Britain began a two-day strike today, Wednesday, over pay and inequality.
The walkout involves around 60,000 UCU union members. They are fighting a measly 1.1 percent pay offer—and want equal pay for women and casual staff.
Ioanna Ioannou, a researcher and member of the UCU's national executive committee, was picketing at University College London (UCL). She told Socialist Worker, "The higher education sector is meant to have the best conditions and job satisfaction.
"But the situation is very different. We face fixed term and casual contracts, and we are paid less than male colleagues."
Ioanna said the pay inequality is partly because there are more men in positions in higher pay grades. "I feel poor all the time," she said. "I don't feel secure enough to plan my life."
Women and casualised workers are at the sharp end. But years of real terms cuts have affected many university workers.
Colin Byelong is a technical support worker at UCL. "I've worked here since 2000 and when I started it was a good job," he told Socialist Worker. "But now pay has eroded so much it's hard to pay the bills. When you see that those at the top, the vice chancellors, are getting big pay rises it's hard to swallow."
UCU branch president at the Institute of Education, John Yandell, told Socialist Worker that "a lot of people who work here are struggling".
Like many, he added that pay is only one of the things making workers angry.
"This is about the defence of universities as part of the public sector," said John. "The white paper gives a business model of education. It will restructure what education is for and turn it into a commodity."
Strikers reported that workers had joined the union to take part in the strike. Students and workers from other unions joined some picket lines to show their support.
Masters student Marine told Socialist Worker, "It's ridiculous that women still don't get paid the same as men. I want to go into academia and this will affect me. Students should be supporting this."
Pickets covered all entrances at Liverpool John Moore's university. Saira Weiner is a lecturer there and joint north west regional secretary of the UCU. She told Socialist Worker, "There were some Unison members on our picket line who were unhappy they haven't been called out on strike. We are part of the same pay claim and they want to take action too."
Saira said the picket line was "lively" and there was "very little work" going on in the university. Pickets discussed where next in the campaign.
"People feel we need to be able to make any action short of a strike bite," said Saira. "The employers have made it very clear they will dock 100 percent pay if we take action short of strike.
"But it doesn't seem to many people that the union has a strategy to deal with that. There were also some worries that some vice chancellors may make pay offers that seek to divide us. We need to stand together."
Lesley McGorrigan is campaigns officer for the UCU at Leeds university and on the union's NEC. She told Socialist Worker, "Pickets have covered all 16 entrances at Leeds university. And we've had a lot of support from Unison and Unite members, who've said they hope to be with us on future strikes.
"There are a lot of new faces and young people picketing too, including some postgraduates."
Lesley said workers have started discussing what should follow the strike. "We had a union meeting yesterday and people were up for holding a strike to coincide with an open day," she said.
"It would have a big impact if lots of parents and prospective students visit picket lines. If the employers don't back down, I think we should also go for an assessment boycott in the autumn."
We also have to defend workers if employers deduct pay for action short of strike. On paper we've got a response of national strike - but it needs to be made into reality.
Shelly Asquith, the National Union of Students VP Welfare joined pickets at the University of the Arts, London. She said, “The scale of assault on education is affecting staff and students alike—whether it's pay or student grants. At the same time managers are getting big hikes.
“The NUS is giving full support to the UCU strike across the country. Local student unions are on picket lines.
“We are natural allies—some of our members are UCU members too.”
A Unison Union member at UCL said they should be on strike too. "The other unions need a massive kick," she said.
"We're all part of the same pay claim. It's getting harder and harder to afford to live."
Strikers in London plan to protest at the employers' offices later today to demand gender pay equality. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell is set to speak at a strike rally this afternoon.
UCU members are set to start action short of a strike on Friday. And the union is preparing to call a further strike on 18 August in England when A-Level results are released—with potential for local walkouts too.
UCL UCU branch secretary Tony Brown told Socialist Worker, "It's good to have tactical flexibility so institutions can target open days and so on.
"But we also have to defend workers if employers deduct pay for action short of strike. On paper we've got a response of national strike - but it needs to be made into reality.
"This is a high stakes dispute."
Ioanna stressed that workers had the power to score a victory. "Universities can afford to pay us more and we can win this," she said. "We need sustained action involving more strikes. We need to escalate."