A series of strikes has transformed universities across Britain—and the workers in them. What were once stultifying businesses that treated students as consumers have been places of debate, solidarity, excitement and fun.
The outcome of the dispute is crucial. But whatever the result there are lasting lessons and important insights for workers everywhere.
Paul, a striker at University College London (UCL), said, “It’s been fantastic. There’s so much camaraderie and I’ve made so many new friends. I’m going to miss the picket lines when we go back into work.”
Newcastle university striker Barbara added, “The atmosphere has been absolutely brilliant. Morale is really high. You feel like you’re part of something, and part of changing something.”
Des is on strike at Oxford’s Ruskin College. “Every day you’re on the picket line, you feel a few inches taller,” he said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that striking doesn’t get you anything. The strikes have given us confidence.”
Tens of thousands of UCU union members held a four-day strike last week and began a five-day walkout on Monday. It follows previous two-day and three-day strikes—a total of 14 walkouts in the first wave of action.
Workers are fighting a big assault on their pension scheme. But the action has lifted the lid on much wider anger that exists over attacks on education, casual contracts and inequality. Des said, “The strike is like a lightning rod for everything people want to change.”
Huge numbers of people have taken part in picketing, many for the first time. Students have organised teach outs, occupations and other activities to support the strikes.
Jane, a UCU rep at King’s College London (KCL), said she was “galvanised” by the action.
“A lot of us have said that the university on strike is more like a university than it is when we aren’t on strike,” she said. “We actually have time to talk to each other. It’s exciting and there are so many debates happening.
“There’s still learning and teaching going on with the teach outs, but it’s unalienated.”
Edinburgh university striker Talat said, “The mood here has been excellent, really superb. In one school we had a lone scab going in to give a lecture.
“But a teach-out was set up under the room where the lecture was, and it was so noisy that it had to be abandoned. Many students then came out and joined the pickets.”
There have also seen regular strike meetings where workers get together and discuss the dispute. The meetings are a chance for strikers to debate tactics, such as picketing for longer periods, and to raise arguments or issues.
Newer union members are taking a leading role in the strikes and have done so in the strike meetings too. Michael is UCU president at Imperial College London (ICL). “Management has been shocked to the core by the activity that’s taken place,” he said. “We’ve had over 100 members picketing.
“We’ve had people addressing strike meetings with a megaphone who’ve never done anything in the union before.”
ICL UCU rep Roddy explained how the union group is making sure to involve new members. “Last week we elected a social media group and a strike bulletin group,” he said.
“We’ve also got someone in charge of outreach work, building solidarity. We have three new union reps.”
The strike, and the solidarity, has changed the dynamic between students and workers. KCL student Ramona said, “We have a different relationship with our lecturers now. It’s the first time we’ve seen eye to eye with some of them. It’s different when you’re stood next to each other on the picket line.”
Student Tom added, “There’s been more community on these picket lines than I’ve ever seen at KCL.”
Ramona hoped the action would help to “build an environment where we look out for each other”. “We’re rebuilding the culture of universities that my mum had, when education was free,” she said.
Many pickets said the strike has a longer term importance. “Some people haven’t heard about strikes or unions before,” said Paul. “But now people are realising that it’s worth being a member of a trade union.”
Scandinavian Studies lecturer Erin agreed. “It’s given us a real sense of agency,” she said. “It’s cheering to think that taking collective action can work.” UCL lecturer Emma added, “I think they’ve underestimated how much this might bring us together.”
More than 5,000 people have joined the UCU since the dispute began. Those picketing for the first time have had a positive experience, despite some initial nerves.
“I really enjoy it,” said UCL striker Ciaran. “I’ve spent the whole time with people I didn’t really know, and I’ve learned a lot from talking to people.
“At first it felt a bit odd telling people not to come in. But when you can persuade students to turn around, it’s really rewarding.”
Newcastle university worker Sam is also on strike for the first time. “I joined the union about ten days before the strikes so I could take part,” she explained. “I’m just at the end of my PhD and I’m hourly paid, so I’m quite precarious.
“But I just had to be part of it.”
The strikes have boosted workers’ confidence—and made them more convinced that they are doing the right thing.
ICL striker Vijay said, “Being on strike and on the picket lines will open your eyes. You will end up supporting the cause even more than you did before.”
Sam said, “If I had a problem at work before, I didn’t feel I could say anything as I’m at the bottom of the pile. But now I know I can ask other people for support.”
The strikes have grown stronger as more people have joined the action.
Ciaran said he didn’t strike on the first two days because he wasn’t sure his “absence would make a difference”.
“But then I saw everyone else out in the snow and felt I had to join them,” he said.
“Now I’ve realised that even if people don’t notice my absence, they notice my presence out here. It’s really important to be here.”
And workers have shifted their opinions on other things too. Barbara said, “People get involved because of the strike and they go away thinking about all kinds of other things. It’s changing people’s perspectives.”
She added that the strike has the potential to break down the stereotype that most university workers are part of a rich elite.
“A lot of people think academics are privileged,” she said. “But a lot of us are on casual or zero hours contracts. I work in a university and I live on a council estate. Those two worlds need to meet.”
ICL worker Vijay said being on strike has been “highly emotive”. “I’ve been in the UCU since 2008,” he said. “But I’ve never been particularly active, and I’ve certainly never struck before.
“I voted for the strikes this time and that was a big decision.”
Vijay said he initially worried about the impact that strikes would have on students. He was “perturbed” when the UCU called 14 days of action.
“But it forced me to think about it in much greater detail,” he said. “The more I talked to people and thought about it, I started to think that going in extremely hard was the only way.
“A big turning point was when the student union voted to support the strike. When I went on the picket line for the first time, I felt a lot better because of the student support.”
The strikes will have a lasting impact on those who have taken part. As Vijay said, “I’ve never been politically active before, but this has made me feel that I need to be.”
UCL striker Kathryn added, “In the past I’ve thought that strikes don’t work. But this is starting to change my mind.”
Workers know the stakes are high and are determined to win. Ciaran said the dispute is “setting a precedent”. “It demonstrates that worse pensions aren’t inevitable,” he said.
Workers also know that a victory for them would be about more than just one pension scheme—it could boost other struggles too. “I hope we can set an example to other unions,” said Paul.
“And we need to fight on other things, such as pay. We’ve had 1 percent rises which don’t keep up with inflation—you feel like you’re working to get poorer.”
Kathryn said, “The UCU has to make the most of its new members. We can use some of the momentum from this dispute to fight for other things.”
The action has shown that workers are still a force in society—and that it’s possible to resist the Tories and the bosses.
Des said, “The strikes and the picket lines has shown the power we have when we’re organised. I’m completely optimistic that we can win”