Socialist Worker

University workers in no mood to back off as strikes escalate

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2594

A rally in Sheffield last week showed mass support for the strike

A rally in Sheffield last week showed mass support for the strike (Pic: Craig Brandist)


Workers at over 60 universities began a four-day strike on Monday – and activists say that in several areas they have seen the biggest picket lines of the dispute so far.

UCU union members are in dispute over a savage attack on their pensions. They are in week three of a series of escalating strikes against the assault.

And it seems the momentum is with the strikers.

Jo is president of the UCU at Liverpool university. She told Socialist Worker, “We had 195 pickets registered at the end of the strike last Wednesday. And this morning we had even more.

“Every single day, people are joining. Our membership has skyrocketed.”

Jo said a bosses’ threat to deduct pay from workers taking action short of strikes has fuelled the anger. “People are coming in, joining the union, then going straight on the picket line,” she said.

Biggest

It was a similar story at Leeds university. “It’s week three and we’ve had the biggest picket lines ever today,” said UCU campaigns secretary Lesley.

“We worried that it might drop off but it hasn’t at all. Students made a special effort to turn out today so we had a big crowd at the front of the university. There are quite a lot of new faces on the picket lines.”

In Newcastle, UCU rep Geoff said the mood among strikers today has been “fantastic”. “The pickets were even bigger,” he said. “There is definitely no dropping of the momentum.”

The strength of the action has deepened splits among the bosses—and won retreats in some areas. Vice chancellors at Sheffield, Leicester and St Andrews universities have all backed off from threats to dock pay for strikers who don’t reschedule cancelled lectures or take action short of strikes.

Craig is president of Sheffield university UCU. “There’s a really good mood among strikers,” he told Socialist Worker. “We didn’t expect them to fold quite so quickly over pay docking. Everybody I spoke to is buoyed about it.”

Leeds strikers have won student support

Leeds strikers have won student support (Pic: Christian Hogsbjerg)


Around 500 people joined a strike protest in Sheffield last Wednesday. Other protests took place in Nottingham and Warwick, while thousands marched through central London.

The strikes have seen thousands of people join the union to take part. Students have shown solidarity as have other workers. Jo said, “None of the Royal Mail CWU union members have crossed our picket lines. It’s caused a lot of disruption not having post delivered.

“Pest control was turned away, delivery drivers and building contractors. There’s been a lot of solidarity shown.”

Student Sophia has been organising solidarity for strikers in Bristol. “We set up our own strike solidarity group,” she told Socialist Worker. “Rallies in Bristol have been really big – between 1,300 and 1,400.

“The mood is quite jolly. Students can see that this is about the future of education.”

At Ruskin College in Oxford, which is due to join the walkouts on Tuesday, students have organised a placard-making workshop to back the strikers.

The bosses’ Universities UK and the UCU began talks at conciliation service Acas in London on Monday. Talks broke down, but could resume later in the week. 

Carlo Morelli, a UCU national negotiator, said, “Our action will continue through to the 16th March.

“It is our action that is building the pressure on managements. Many universities saw their biggest picket lines ever this week.

“Our action needs to continue to build in order the break the resolve of managements everywhere.”

Liverpool rally last week

Liverpool rally last week (Pic: Rick Blackman)


Bosses want to tear up workers’ USS defined benefit pension scheme and replace it with a defined contribution one.

And they are wrongly claiming the scheme is in deficit in order to justify the attack. A small group of strikers and supporters lobbied outside. They chanted, “They say deficit – we say bullshit,” and “Don’t mess with USS.”

Colin, a striker at University College London (UCL), told Socialist Worker, “The deficit is a false deficit. But I think the strikes mean the employers’ position is changing.

“If we get a result over this, I think it will lead to fights over other things.”

In January the UCU made an offer that would retain the defined benefit scheme but would see workers pay more in contributions. It would also change the accrual rate so that workers get less when they retire.

It’s far from the attack that the bosses want to inflict. But the strength of the walkouts means that some strikers now rightly feel they can fight for more.

The UCU should use its advantage and call more strikes to ramp up the pressure on bosses.

Manchester strikers won support from other unions and students on Monday

Manchester strikers won support from other unions and students on Monday (Pic: Paddy Nielsen)


Sean, vice president of the UCU at UCL, initiated a letter to the Guardian newspaper last Saturday demanding no changes to the current scheme. It received 1,500 signatories in 24 hours.

Sean told Socialist Worker, “There’s a tension in the negotiations between a quick deal where members pay a price and a deal that secures the pension valuation for the future.

“A section of the union leadership is disparaging of workers’ willingness to fight. But why should we get less and pay more when there is no deficit?”

Cambridge striker Anne agreed. “We have to argue hard against accepting the claim that there is a deficit that we should pay more to fix,” she told Socialist Worker.

“The strength of the strikes shows we can win more than we previously imagined.”

Open University striker and UCU rep Alison said there should be “no changes to the pension scheme”.

“We’ve got massive support from across Britain,” she told Socialist Worker. “This is too important for us to back down.

Staff and student unite: Protest at the 'Office for students', Wednesday 7 March, 1pm onwards, 15-17 Furnival Street, London, EC4A 1AB. Called by UCU London region. Details and supporters at facebook.com/events/2069661013289129/ Sign the letter demanding no changes to the current scheme at https://heconvention2.wordpress.com/2018/03/03/no-deficit-letter/

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