University strikers have been cheered by news that their union is set to reballot more branches to join the fight.
UCU union members are into the third day of an eight-day strike at 60 universities across Britain. Workers are engaged in two disputes – one to defend the USS pension scheme and another over pay, workloads, equality and contracts.
On Tuesday the UCU announced it would reballot a number of branches that had voted for strikes but missed the 50 percent turnout threshold. The reballots begin on Wednesday of next week.
Mark Abel is a striker at Brighton university and is on the union’s national executive committee. He told Socialist Worker, “It’s great that the reballots are going to get underway. But it should have happened quicker, and it should have involved more branches.
“The ballots end in late January, so there is a worry about momentum.”
Roddy Slorach is the branch organiser at Imperial College London, one of the colleges that will be reballoting. He said there is a strong mood to strike there. “The day after we got our initial ballot result, I organised a Get The Vote Out campaign for a reballot,” he told Socialist Worker.
“We got loads of extra volunteers who wanted to help out with the campaign.”
Roddy said the union branch voted unanimously for a “short, sharp reballot”. “We wanted it to start on the first day of the first round of strikes and wrap up before Christmas,” he said.
“It would have been great if the bosses went into Christmas knowing that the cavalry is coming over the hill. But now the second wave of action is unlikely to start until the second week of February.
“There is clearly some opposition at the top of the union about the radicalisation that’s going on in the strikes. Some people don’t like the idea of energised strikers going into other universities to help win the reballots.”
It is good that future strikes will involve more people. But if the union had held the reballots faster, it would have capitalised on the momentum of the first walkouts to pile more pressure on bosses.
The strikes have been magnificent, with many strikers saying picket lines are bigger than during previous walkouts.
Jo McNeill is branch chair of the UCU at Liverpool university. “We had an excellent start with around 150 registered pickets on Monday,” she told Socialist Worker.
“We had a big demo on Tuesday with Walton Labour MP Dan Carden, our general secretary Jo Grady and lots of sister unions speaking in solidarity.
“Support from our students and the wider trade union movement as always makes the world of difference. This fight is well and truly on.”
John Parrington, a striker at Oxford university, told Socialist Worker, “It’s going really well here. Pickets have been bigger than last time. Students raised around £300 baking and selling cakes, and we’d raised over £1,000 in donations by Tuesday afternoon.
“That’s important to support lower paid members who will be hit really hard – 80 percent of academic staff at Oxford are on temporary contracts.”
Mark said picket lines at Brighton “are stronger than we’ve ever seen”. Roddy added, “People are really angry. They say this is about pay, pensions, marketisation – it’s about everything. This dispute is more politicised than the last one.”
Despite bosses’ attempts to threaten students, big numbers have joined picket lines. Students at Strathclyde, Edinburgh and Stirling universities have staged small occupations in solidarity with the action.
Nix is part of the occupation in Edinburgh, where around 30 students occupied the David Hume Tower on Tuesday. He said students were supporting workers’ demands on “casualisation, pay equality, a fair workload, secure pensions and more”.
Mark said students at Brighton are furious after their student union tried to undermine the strike. “The student union tried to put out statements against the strike and it’s provoked a backlash,” he said. “They consulted no one. Students are spitting mad.
“It has told societies to take down any posts about the strike. Some students say there have been threats to withdraw funding.”
Yet despite all the threats from bosses and some student union officials, strikes have been strong. John said the action is opening up other struggles too.
“A big issue in Oxford is that the colleges don’t recognise any unions,” he said. “So we are now campaigning over that. Before it was assumed that we can’t really do anything about it.
“The strike is raising other issues beyond the specific disputes.”
And the action may already be worrying bosses, who met with the union for talks on Tuesday morning.
Mark was in the talks. “The meeting wouldn’t have happened at all without the strikes,” he said. They had done everything they could to indicate there would be no more negotiations.
“But at the meeting they confirmed that they didn’t consider the issue of pay closed. And they were prepared to talk seriously about the other three elements of the claim. They previously said they had no mandate to talk about these things.
“It’s clearly the strike that led to this.”