Workers at universities across Britain kicked off 14 days of strikes on Thursday in a battle for the future of education.
UCU union members are fighting over pay, equality, workloads, contracts and pensions. Mark, a striker at Queen Mary, University of London, said the issues “could describe any workplace in the country”.
Workers at 74 universities plan to strike for 14 days throughout February and March. Those at 63 institutions began the action with walkouts on Thursday, most of them holding a two-day strike.
There were big picket lines across Britain, with strikers reporting visits from supportive trade unionists and students joining pickets.
At Queen Mary, strikers were in a determined mood.
“The conversations I’ve had with people are that they feel we are in touching distance of a win,” Mark told Socialist Worker.
“Fourteen days is a big one. But we are feeling resolute.”
Simon added, “Our strikes have already got the bosses talking about pay inequality. Previously they said they would never discuss it.
“And this time we have even more institutions involved. If we keep the pressure up we can get not just words, but action.”
UCU members across 60 universities held an eight-day strike late last year. Reballots for action mean the latest wave of strikes involves 74 institutions.
Last year’s strike forced bosses into fresh talks. But many workers—and the union leadership—said their latest offer still isn’t good enough.
Bosses have refused to budge from a below-inflation pay deal. And they failed to make promises for concrete changes on the other issues.
Simon said bosses are “playing pass the parcel, but the music never stops”.
“They always say these things are someone else’s responsibility,” he said.
But strikers are determined because they can see how high the stakes are.
“Too many people have to take jobs in several universities just to make ends meet,” explained Annie.
“This is not just about Queen Mary, but the whole higher education sector,” added Katherine, who is on a temporary contract. “It’s just not sustainable as a career path.
“We are told that higher education is valuable and respected, but that’s not how they treat us.”
Chris said he wanted to push back “marketisation” in education. “The things we are fighting are the tangible results of marketisation,” he explained.
“We have at least 65 percent of staff here on casual contracts. And there is a vast inequality between executive pay and many of the staff.
“We’re here because we care about education. Universities should be about stretching the imagination, they’re not businesses.”
Simon describes the impact of attacks on workers’ conditions on students. “I’ve had students say that when they start their second year, all the teachers they had in the first year have gone,” he said.
“It’s disruptive to students. It stops people getting up the pay scales or accruing pensions. You’ve got people doing a really good job and who want to start an academic career being deceived.”
Local teachers from the NEU union came with a banner to show their support. A student union member stopped by the picket line to say students backed the strikes, and lots of passing vehicles tooted their support.
NEU member Emma told SW, “As a primary school teacher we face similar issues such as casualisation. We’re all feeling the impact of cuts, but the UCU has been leading the way in fighting over it.
“We should be doing the same as them.”
Striker Anthony described the mood among workers as “resolved”. “The whole thing is an equality issue,” he told SW.
“If we don’t change things we will return to the days when you had to be independently wealthy to work in academia. I don’t want my advice to students who want to be academics to be, ‘Marry well’.”
In London, strikers and supporters were set to rally at the bosses’ headquarters before holding a general strike meeting. Individual universities have teachouts, rallies and other events planned.
And this week’s two-day strike will be followed by escalating strikes in the coming weeks to pile pressure on bosses.
“This is a good time for us to strike,” said Mark. “We’ve got all the issues together and more universities are joining us. We’ve never been in a better position to win.”
What you can do
- Visit a picket line at your local university. See where and when the strikes are here
- Donate to the strike fund
- Come to the UCU strike solidarity assembly, Tue 25 February, 6pm, The Tudor Rooms, Imperial Hotel, Russell Sq, London WC1B 5BB. Bring your union banner and a donation.
- Join the strikers’ march from the bosses’ headquarters to the City, Wed 26 February, assemble 12 noon, Tavistock Square, London WC1
- Invite a striker to your union or campaign meeting