The first day of an eight-day university strike has been a resounding success. UCU union members took to picket lines at 60 universities across Britain on Monday, with many reporting bigger turnouts than ever before.
Lesley McGorrigan, UCU campaigns officer at Leeds university and a member of the national executive, said the picketing had been “fantastic”.
“We were still signing people up for picketing this morning,” she told Socialist Worker. “We signed up 180 people, which is the most we ever had. And we always get others who just turn up without signing up.”
Umit, a UCU member at Manchester university, told Socialist Worker, “Everybody says the picket lines are bigger than last time. They have been absolutely brilliant. Hundreds of pickets were everywhere, all of the university was covered.
“And people are also very determined.”
Bruce is a UCU rep at Newcastle university. “The first day has been biggest than the first day of our strike last year,” he said. “We’ve got at least 175 people picketing. We covered all the entrances. And the number of people coming onto campus seemed to be fewer than usual.”
It was the same story in Dundee. “The university has been very quiet,” said Carlo, a Dundee university lecturer and member of the union’s NEC. “People are very upbeat and we’ve had more support from outside than previously, including from the Labour Party.
“A number of new members have come out to picket.”
Mike is one of the UCU contacts for the Edinburgh university branch. “We had 15 exits in the School of English and we managed to cover all of them,” he told Socialist Worker.
“We had a visit from Gordon Munro, the Labour Party candidate for north Edinburgh. And at a rally the president of NUS Scotland pledged solidarity from half a million students!”
The UCU said 3,500 people have joined the union in the three weeks since it announced this round of eight strike days.
There were big strike rallies in Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Strathclyde and Edinburgh among other places. And strikers have begun holding strike committee meetings to discuss the fight and the next steps, alongside teachouts.
Many more people are active this time
Workers are engaged in two disputes. The first is to defend the USS pension scheme, where members face higher contributions and lower pensions when they retire. And the second is over pay and conditions.
The UCU says workers haven’t had a real terms pay rise for 20 years. It also wants to get rid of casualised contracts, the gender and race pay gap, and unsustainable workloads.
The action follows 14 days of strikes to defend the USS scheme last year. Workers have learned from these strikes. Mike from Edinburgh university said, “It’s definitely different this time. Last year people were learning on the hoof. This time people were having video-conferences weeks in advance of the strikes.
“This morning the union office was absolutely full of people collecting materials whereas last time it was the branch officers.”
The experience of striking has also shaken up union organisation and branches. Linda is the branch chair of the UCU at Roehampton university. “There are lots of new people involved,” she told Socialist Worker.
“We used to have a committee that was a little bit staid, but now newer people are taking responsibilities. We’ve had new people joining the union since the strikes were announced. The branch is changing.”
Some vice chancellors have tried to portray strikers as damaging students’ education. But at picket lines across Britain students joined strikers and refused to cross the picket lines. Strikers hope that the scale of the action, and the unity between workers and students, will force bosses to listen.
“A lot of us are a lot angrier than we were last year, at having to be back here,” said Bruce. “I hope that those who run USS are getting a lot of angry phone calls.
“I think the bosses might have been told that, if they go hard, people would be too scared to come out. Now they’ve got hundreds of people picketing campuses—and what is USS going to do about it?”
At University College London (UCL), a strike committee after picketing unanimously voted to hold a protest on Tuesday outside talks between the bosses’ Ucea group and the union. UCU branch president Sean described how bosses had claimed their talks were taking place “without preconditions”.
Yet they have ruled out discussing pay. And strikers are adamant that they will not allow one dispute to be played off against the others. They know their demands are valid.
Linda said, “Our last vice chancellor had a pay rise of 5.5 percent. We’re asking for 4.7 percent. It’s not unreasonable. And our VC was given a four-bedroom house in Putney with no rent to pay. It’s the disparity that’s making people angry.”
Workers have the power to win. The union leadership suspended the USS strike last year on a promise that bosses would negotiate meaningfully about the future of the scheme.
But bosses and USS officials are ignoring the recommendations of an independent panel report, and are instead insisting that workers get a worse deal.
Bosses have also refused, for years, to take effective action on the pay gap, on workload, on casual contracts and on pay.
It’s right to strike – and if bosses refuse to shift then the union should call more action. And it should prioritise reballoting the UCU branches that voted overwhelmingly for strikes but missed the Tories’ 50 percent turnout threshold for legal strikes.
A victory wouldn’t just mean better pensions, pay and conditions for current workers. It could transform the whole of higher education.
As UCL picket Mary Jane said, “We’re defending our pay and pensions, but we’re also defending the future of the sector.”