Socialist Worker

Strikers at UCL speak out over UCU union fight over pay, pensions and conditions

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2682

Strikers gathering at University College London

Strikers gathering at University College London (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Workers and students staged determined picket lines across Britain on Monday as an eight-day strike got underway.

UCU union members at 60 universities joined the action. The strikes were sparked by two disputes—one to defend the USS pension scheme and another to defend pay and conditions.

There was a real effort to picket, with many students being persuaded not to cross picket lines.

Omer at University College London (UCL) was one of them. “I am from Sudan,” he told Socialist Worker. “We have many strikes there and I always support strikes about wages.

“My professor is on strike so who am I to argue?”

Omer joined strikers instead and was contacting students on a WhatsApp group to try to encourage more to respect the picket lines.

PhD student Fabio also refused to cross. “I don’t know much about the specifics of this dispute,” he told Socialist Worker. “But I think supporting whatever is coming from the ground, from us, is very important.”

At UCL union members were part of a wave of strikes last year to defend USS pensions. UCU branch secretary Tony Brown said that action had changed people.

“There’s a lot of self-organising,” he told Socialist Worker. “This is round two. Last time there was a lot of explaining about what to do and about picketing, but now people are just grabbing bunches of placards and going off.”

Duty

There was a steady stream of strikers arriving for “duty” as they put it, collecting leaflets and going to cover different entrances.

And some were new strikers, such as Helen. “I’m striking because of the increased casualisation in universities,” she said.

“I’m on a fixed term contract. There have been so many negative changes in universities, I think there is a lot of commitment to winning something now.”

UCL striker Nicola added, “I’m getting towards middle age. I’m starting to think about my pension and how I will afford to live in London.

“Not knowing what my financial situation is going to be is very stressful.”

Strikers are also angry about wider attacks on education, such as tuition fees. Paul Gilroy told Socialist Worker, “I’m of a generation that were paid to go to university.

“I feel ashamed of what universities are turning into. I don’t want to be complicit.”

These attacks, and worsening conditions, have also opened up more possibilities to win student support.

And in many universities strikers are organising “teach-outs” around issues such as climate change, what sort of education system is needed, gender and race discrimination and other issues.

Sudents and strikers united at University of Strathclyde

Sudents and strikers united at University of Strathclyde (Pic: Raymie Kiernan)


Matthew, UCU rep for the English department, said it was “fantastic” that the fight was now about casualisation and pay as well as pensions.

“Students are angry about precarious work and casualisation,” he said. “It helps us win support.”

Since the USS strikes last year, the UCU has engaged with bosses in a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) to look at the future of the scheme.

It recommended that workers shouldn’t pay more. But bosses and USS are ignoring this.

Matthew said, “It’s really frustrating that they rode back on compromises that were already mealy-mouthed to begin with.

“There’s a real sense that we are undervalued.”

Striker Ciaran agreed. “A lot of effort went into the JEP and for one side to just disregard the findings shows contempt.

“It’s exactly the same kind of tone deaf response that we saw during the last strike.”

Rising up for higher education - UCU activists on why they are striking back
Rising up for higher education - UCU activists on why they are striking back
  Read More

Strikers are right to continue with their action during the general election campaign. They are highlighting education issues and helping to raise the sense of class resistance.

The bosses are digging in. They refused to move during last minute talks, and some have threatened to dock money from workers who take action short of a strike.

Others have issued threatening letters to students claiming they can’t join picket lines—and even said overseas students could lose their visas if they back the strike.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady denounced their “heavy handed” response.

Workers remain determined. Tony said, “There is a raw determination to see it through. Reballoting branches that missed the turnout threshold has to be the number one priority, so we keep our momentum going.”

Several branches missed the 50 percent threshold by just a few votes. But the union has put back reballots until the new year.

Striker and UCU rep Colin told Socialist Worker, “It would be ideal to be reballoting now.

“Then if we have to take more action after Christmas it will add to the numbers.”

UCL UCU president Sean said the fact that the strikes are back on is a sign of strength. “We’ve done what pretty much everyone - including the activists - felt was impossible,” he told Socialist Worker.

“We said we had to be prepared to strike again but people didn’t think it would actually happen. Now we’ve got everything back on the road—and we’ve broadened it out beyond pensions.

“The employers can’t cope politically with sustained strikes. Last year the Chinese government threatened not to send students here because of our strike.

“Eight days is just to warm up. Now we have to fight for dates when the other universities will reballot. And we need to name more dates at times when we know we can be effective.

“This is extremely winnable.”

For a list of universities on strike go here.

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