Socialist Worker

University workers say ‘We're taking back our colleges’

A wave of strikes by university workers over pensions has become a focus for people’s anger and discontent at the Tories’ and bosses’ attacks on education. A win for the strikers will be a boost to everyone who wants to fight back, reports Sadie Robinson

Issue No. 2593

At the strike rally in Glasgow

Striking in Glasgow (Pic: Duncan Brown)

A magnificent strike by university workers has shown how we can turn the tide against the bosses. Workers are fighting an attack on their pension scheme that’s part of a wider agenda to increase competition in higher education.

Striker after striker reported the largest ever picket lines on the first day of the action last Thursday.

Big groups of students joined picket lines, bringing placards, banners and collections for workers.

Up to 100 students walked out in solidarity with strikers at Imperial College London. A noisy student contingent led a march of around 650 people in Leeds. And at Goldsmiths college in south London, students led an impromptu march to Deptford town hall, where they laid siege to university management offices.

Student Rebecca joined pickets in Glasgow to “make sure staff know they are respected”. She told Socialist Worker, “This is also about our future, both the kind of jobs available and the quality of education we get.”

Lesley is campaigns secretary for the UCU at Leeds university. Like many strikers, she said this walkout felt very different to previous strikes. “Neverbefore have we had students marching behind our banner,” she said.

University College London (UCL) student Daniel was one of many who brought homemade placards to show support for the strike. “I don’t think that people who have committed their lives to benefiting others should have such a drastic cut in their pensions,” he said. “It’s shameful.”

Students have brought solidarity to the picket lines

Students have brought solidarity to the picket lines (Pic: Neil Terry)

Ruby, a student at Soas University of London, agreed. “If pensions get attacked, more lecturers might leave,” she said. “And if they can get away with attacking pensions, what’s to stop them doing other things such as raising fees?”

London striker Kate said the attack would make working in higher education less attractive. “I came here from Canada two years ago,” she said. “If this attack on pensions had happened then, it would have made me reconsider the decision to come here.

“It’s just making our futures unstable. We’re incredibly stressed.”

The student support gave a huge boost to strikers. As Vijay Tymms, a physics teaching fellow at Imperial College, told Socialist Worker, “Students supporting us has been the critical thing for me.

“When the student union came out to support, I felt more able to tell students about why we were striking.”

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said that the action shut down universities across Britain. Some 5,000 people had joined the union in the run-up to the strikes to take part in the walkouts. Even more joined on the picket lines.

Roddy, a UCU rep at Imperial, said, “We’ve already had three people join on the picket line and they’re out with their picket armbands on.”

Union membership there is up by nearly 100 in just two months.

At UCL more than 100 people joined the UCU in the week running up to the first walkout. Administrator Rebecca joined the day before the strike began. “I started reading about what was going on with the pensions and got clued up,” she explained.

“A lot of people have stopped us to say they support us. I’m really happy to be here.”

Russell was on strike for the first time too. “It’s the sense of injustice that made me come out,” he said. “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.

On the picket line at University College London

On the picket line at University College London (Pic: Guy Smallman)

He wasn’t the only one motivated by anger at what bosses and the Tories are doing to higher education. As Glasgow university UCU president Jeanette said, “It’s not just that our pensions are being plundered. It’s also about the attack on publicly funded higher education.”“Universities need to be given back to the people who work in them."

Bosses claim that workers’ USS pension scheme is in deficit. But that’s rubbish. And their valuation is based on every university going bankrupt—a scenario that isn’t going to happen.

As striker Ruth said, “There is no deficit. 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.”

The attack on pensions comes as bosses fight to drive down conditions and pay across the sector. Striker Ioanna said it is “not unusual at all” to find university staff on casualised or zero hours contracts.

She’s worked as a researcher at UCL for seven years—but her contract is due to end in July. “My research department says there’s no more money to carry on,” she said.

“I’ve had so many different contracts—one-month contracts, three-month contracts. It’s a life of misery.”

Yet this dispute shows that, if a union gives a strong lead, it’s possible to launch a serious fightback. Hundreds of workers and students held strike rallies across Britain last Thursday. Up to 600 rallied in Cambridge and 300 gathered in Cardiff and Manchester.

Revealed—university bosses claim millions in expenses while workers face pensions cut
Revealed—university bosses claim millions in expenses while workers face pensions cut
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There were hundreds more in Newcastle, Dundee and Sheffield, while union members in Glasgow and Strathclyde held a big joint rally. It also shows that the Tories’ anti-union laws don’t ­automatically stop action.

University workers now have to deliver a 50 percent turnout in ballots in order to have a legal strike. In a recent series of ballots more than 88 percent of UCU members backed strikes on a turnout of over 58 percent.

And calling hard-hitting action hasn’t put workers off. The union has called 14 days of escalating strikes. The 48-hour strike last week and the three-day walkout this week will be followed by a four-day and a five-day strike if bosses don’t budge.

Some union members said the “dramatic” programme of strikes made them feel more confident that bosses would have to take notice. They felt one-day strikes often made little impact.

John, UCU branch president at London’s 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.”

Julie is branch chair of the UCU at Lancaster university. “We had about 100 pickets on the first day and it’s been a fantastic atmosphere,” she told Socialist Worker.

“Some first-time picketers said they were wary of being on the picket line at first. But now they say they’re coming back. They’ve had an amazing experience of solidarity.”

Striker Yiannis said over 150 staff and students gathered at the picket line at Warwick university. “It was the biggest picket turnout ever on campus,” he said. “There was a great mood with plenty of homemade placards, chanting and talking.

“People are donating to the local strike fund. And Warwick Student Union overwhelmingly voted to support the strike.”

For Sharon, UCU president at Dundee university, the first day of the strike saw “an unprecedented turnout for unprecedented action”.

Striker Malcolm added that the turnout in Leeds was the biggest there has ever been.

Between 150 and 200 picketed on the first day. Striker Nick said there was a “really positive attitude”.

“This is really starting to build into something,” he said.

Lesley said there were people on the picket line who she hadn’t seen in “decades”. And new people haven’t just joined—they have taken ownership of the strike. Tony is UCU branch secretary at UCL. “A number of new reps have gone off and organised solid picketing rotas from 8am until 4pm,” he said. “People are so outraged by the attack. I think management are going to get a shock.”

Carlo, a UCU rep in Dundee, said picketing had an impact. “Pickets stopped people and spoke to them—it wasn’t passive,” he said.

“Hardly anyone went in. People are determined to make their voices heard.”

Meanwhile in Newcastle, pickets turned away delivery vans and a postal worker.

The dispute matters for everyone. As London striker Rachel put it, “If this can be done to university pensions, what about everyone else’s? What about pensions for workers in the private sector?”

A victory for the bosses will make them—and the Tories—more confident to go on the offensive over other things. But if they are beaten it will show workers everywhere that it’s possible to fight and win.

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