UCU union members at six English colleges struck on Wednesday in a battle over pay. Workers at Bath, Bradford, Croydon, Lambeth, New College Swindon and Petroc colleges kicked off the 48-hour strike on Wednesday morning.
There was a big turnout of pickets at all the colleges on the first day of the action.
Christa, a UCU member at Croydon College, told Socialist Worker, “We are angry at low pay but also job insecurity. There’s a lot of insecurity and if you’re on a sessional contract you just get paid for contact hours.
“If you’re sick you don’t get paid, and you don’t get paid in the holidays either.”
There was an upbeat mood at Lambeth as strikers chanted, “What do we want? 5 percent. When do we want it? Now!”
New UCU member Steve led some of the chants. “I joined the UCU last week so I could get on the picket line,” he said.
“I was in Unison but UCU seemed more active. A lot of unions seem to have nice logos and fancy websites but they don’t do the thing they were set up to do—defend workers.”
Steve has been a teaching assistant at Lambeth for around three years. But low pay has had an impact on him.
“We’re just not earning enough,” he said. “I used to get the Tube to work.
“Now I get three buses and it takes me two hours. It’s cut my travel expenses by nearly half, but it does mean I have to get up at 5am.”
The UCU says college workers have lost 25 percent in real terms pay since 2009. This week’s action marks the first wave in the union’s battle to win a 5 percent rise, or £1,500 for all workers earning less than £30,000.
A recent above-inflation 5 percent pay deal at the Capital City College Group (CCCG) has emboldened workers to keep fighting.
“The CCCG deal has cracked everything open,” Mandy Brown, joint UCU rep at Lambeth College, told Socialist Worker. “It’s proved that we were right all along—the money is there.”
Lambeth striker Zeina said, “It’s an amazing deal because it shows that it is possible.
“But it also makes me sad because it means they are choosing not to give us a pay rise. It just leaves you so angry.”
Mandy said that some people have said CCCG is a special case as it had reserves.
“But that’s not the point,” she said. “Earlier this year bosses there were saying they had no money. And now they’ve found money.”
And Lambeth strikers said a looming merger with London South Bank University means there’s a lot of spare cash sloshing around.
One homemade banner read, “£5 million going spare—where’s our share?”
Striker Nadia said, “They’ve said they have this £5 million as part of the merger, but they aren’t going to spend it on staff.
“We don’t know what they’re going to do with it.”
UCU members across 26 other colleges began reballots for strikes on Wednesday—and the union could stage bigger-scale walkouts next year.
The 26 had backed strikes in previous ballots, but didn’t meet the 50 percent turnout threshold for legal strikes.
Matt Waddup is UCU head of policy and campaigns. “This first day of action is really important,” he told Socialist Worker.
“The 26 colleges that are being reballoted will be inspired by it. In many of the six colleges on strike, whole departments have closed.”
He added, “Everyone is looking at the landmark deal at CCCG. The lesson for us so far in the campaign is that colleges often say they haven’t got any money.
“But if you push and have strikes, you often find that there is money there.”
There were big cheers as a group of Croydon strikers joined Lambeth pickets for a rally.
Margot, UCU rep at Croydon, said the picket there was “one of the best and most fun picket lines I’ve ever been on”.
NEU and Unison union members brought solidarity, as did UCU members from other colleges.
Mandy said, “Colleges need to invest in staff, not fancy buildings.
“The 26 colleges that are reballoting will be taking action in the new year, and we plan to coordinate with them.”