Universities across Britain were covered with pickets today as UCU union members struck over pensions.
The strike is the first of a planned 14 days of walkouts. In central London, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Dundee and many more places students joined strikers on the picket lines.
Student Adhijan joined pickets at University College London (UCL). “Students should show solidarity with their lecturers,” he told Socialist Worker. “Why should lecturers have to lose more money? A lot of students support them.”
Striker Russell added, “I’m supervising a lot of dissertations at the moment so it’s a critical time. But lots of students have got in touch saying, ‘We’re right behind you.’
“Management suggests that we are harming students, but they’re the ones harming students. They are recruiting so many to get the fees money and we can’t cope. Then when students say classes are too big or there’s nowhere to sit, that feedback reflects badly on us.”
At Soas University of London students gathered on the picket lines with sound systems. Student Ruby told Socialist Worker, “If pensions get attacked then more lecturers might leave the profession. That would be worse for students.
“And if they can get away with attacking pensions, what’s to stop them doing other things such as raising fees?”
Sharon is UCU branch president at Dundee university. She told Socialist Worker, “We’ve got an excellent turnout of strikers and we’re fully supported by students, who have brought homemade banners to the picket line.
“It’s an unprecedented turnout for unprecedented action.”
Dundee striker Carlo added, “The mood is very determined and very angry. Pickets are stopping people and talking to them—it’s not passive. Hardly anyone is going in. People are determined to make their voices heard.”
UCU members are on strike because bosses want to change their defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution one—slashing its value.
UCL striker Ruth told Socialist Worker, “Universities UK says there’s a massive deficit in the scheme. But there is no deficit. This has to be stressed over and over again.
“They have based their valuations on a situation where every university goes bust. In reality, the income more than pays for the outgoings. And they say they can’t afford it, but they’ve paid it when they’ve had less money in the past.”
Bethany was on the picket line at Newcastle university. It was her first time on strike. “This is the first pension I’ve ever paid into and if the changes go ahead I stand to lose over half of it,” she told Socialist Worker.
“It affects me hugely and that’s why I’m on strike.”
Bethany said students were “standing in solidarity” with strikers on the picket line. UCU equality officer Geoff added, “We’ve turned a post office van around and a couple of delivery vans.
“It’s a massive turnout on the picket line.”
Nick is the UCU rep at the school of sociology and social policy at Leeds university. “There’s an awful lot of us here,” he told Socialist Worker.
“And there’s a really positive attitude among people. I can’t remember a strike where the Financial Times gave tacit support to it. This is really starting to build into something.”
UCU member Malcolm added, “This is the biggest turnout of pickets we’ve ever had. We have all 23 entrances covered including entrances we hadn’t covered in previous strikes.
“Nearly 140 people have signed up for picketing. People are turning up all the time.”
The attack has infuriated university workers. They face losing £10,000 a year in retirement—and would have their pensions at the mercy of the stock market.
But strikers are also clear that their action is about much more than a pension scheme. The attack is part of a wider assault to push the market through education.
“I’m on strike for the first time,” said Russell. “It’s the sense of injustice that made me come out. Universities like ours are making plenty of money from fees but it’s not being invested in the people who work here or the students.
“Universities need to be given back to the people who work in them.”
Many strikers stressed the wider impact that the pensions attack will have if it goes ahead.
Rachel was picketing at the Institute of Education, in London. “If our pensions are attacked, students will have the burden of supporting us in the future as we won’t be able to afford to ourselves,” she told Socialist Worker.
“I want to be teaching students but I think on balance striking to stop this is better for them than not striking. And if this can be done to university pensions, what about everyone else’s pensions?”
After this week’s 48-hour strike, UCU members plan a three-day strike from Monday. The following week a four-day strike is planned, followed by a five-day walkout.
Many strikers were buoyed by the level of support for their action - and the solidarity they have received. John, UCU branch president at the Institute of Education, said the mood has been “really fantastic”.
“It’s astonishing,” he told Socialist Worker. “The level of strikes we are embarking on is unprecedented in recent decades. It’s a sustained, national strike over 14 days.
“I was a bit concerned about how people would react. But all the questions have been about how we can make the strike work. No one has said we’re doing too much.”
He added that the action has lifted people and boosted confidence. “You can see it on people’s faces as they get towards the picket line,” he said.
Tony, UCU branch secretary at UCL, agreed. “We’ve had over 100 people join this week alone,” he told Socialist Worker. “And it’s not just that people are joining—it’s the creativity and involvement.
“We’ve recruited a number of new reps who have gone off and organised solid picketing rotas from 8am until 4pm. We’ve got pickets on buildings that we haven’t covered previously.
“There are people who aren’t in the union as they don’t really support unions, but even they are not going into work. People are so outraged by the attack. I think management are going to get a shock.”
The action has got management worried. The bosses’ Financial Times newspaper this week argued that Universities UK should negotiate over the pensions attack. Some university vice chancellors have openly argued against the attack.
Strikers feel they have bosses on the back foot. But some bosses are getting nasty. At several institutions, strikers face a threat of pay being withheld if they refuse to reschedule lectures and seminars.
The union must stand firm against such threats - and be prepared to call further national action if bosses carry them through.
The strikes have the power to win.