Up to 1,000 university strikers, students and supporters marched through central London on Wednesday on the final day of a three-day strike.
The walkout by UCU union members is part of a wave of 14 days of strikes taking place across 74 universities. Workers are fighting over pay, contracts, equality, workload and pensions.
They plan a four-day strike next week, and a five-day strike the week after.
The march, organised by UCU London region and rank and file strikers, took place as talks were held on the future of workers’ USS pension scheme. For many strikers, attacks on pensions, pay and conditions have come to symbolise everything that’s wrong with higher education.
Ale Lopez is on strike at King’s College London. “Everything makes me angry,” she told Socialist Worker. “Universities don’t look like universities any more, they look like private companies – and not very good ones.”
Another striker from City University said casual contracts and the gender and race pay gaps had pushed her to strike. “More brown, black, women and disabled people are being forced out of academia,” she told Socialist Worker.
“It’s becoming a white man’s game and that’s shit.”
Marchers chanted, “They say pay gap, we say strike back,” and, “Money for jobs and education, not for fossil corporations,” on the protest.
The latest strikes follow a solid eight-day walkout late last year. That action got bosses back to talks – and strikes in 2018 stopped an all-out, immediate assault on the USS pension scheme.
Many strikers said they feel it is possible to win. But there are also some worries.
Thomas, a striker at University College London (UCL), told Socialist Worker that “There are more debates,” on the picket lines. “That’s not a bad thing necessarily. People are squarely behind the things we are striking over but there are two practical issues.
“The first is the drop in income that comes with striking. And the second is the impact on students.”
Thomas said that UCL workers will have their pay for last year’s eight-day strike deducted this month. And they then face losing 14 days’ pay after that. The action has also hit students’ education.
But as Thomas said, “The point is to be disruptive, but we don’t want to harm students. We have to think about the bigger picture. Ultimately this is for the long term future of education.
“When we struck in 2018 we had momentum but the strikes were called off. This time we need to stay the course. Overall UCL is pretty solid. Hopefully if we hold our nerve, we will get this sorted.”
Students have organised across Britain to show solidarity with strikers. In Brighton, the student union has for the first time backed the strikes following a student vote.
Mark Abel, a UCU national negotiator, told the London rally, “In Brighton our picket lines are strong. Our members are determined. We’ve been buoyed up on our picket lines by our students, who have been fantastic.”
Speaker after speaker at a rally before the London march described how people have joined the union to be part of the strikes.
Roddy from Imperial College London said, “Membership at our branch has reached its highest ever level. That tells you something – that strikes build unions.”
And Anne from Cambridge university said, “We have had a huge transformation in our branch. As we went into the USS strike in 2018 we had around 700 members. We’re now up to nearly 2,000 members.”
And strikers have won widespread support from outside universities too. NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner were among those speaking at the London rally.
Union leaders and officials from the PCS, Bfawu, CWU and Unite spoke at a solidarity meeting in London on Tuesday, along with shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
Trade unionists have organised to make donations from union branches and collected for the strike fund. Now all of this needs to be urgently stepped up.
The national leadership of the UCU should follow the example of UCU London and the rank and file strikers. It has to push out to make the strike a focus for everyone who hates the Tories.
As other unions such as the CWU, RMT and PCS could be heading for national strike ballots. A win for the UCU would boost struggles elsewhere.
UCL striker and IT worker Paul said that pickets were “a bit slow on Monday” partly due to the weather. But he said numbers had built up as the strike went on.
“Before the general election last year, unions hoped a Labour government might come in and things would get better,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Now we’re realising we’ve got at least five years of a Tory government. It’s up to us to fight it – we’re going to have to step up to the plate. The strike is tough financially, but I am optimistic.”
Debby Pope from the Chicago Teachers Union is among those supporting UCU strikers. “We are all facing the same neocapitalist assault,” she told Socialist Worker.
“We need to build alliances with students. And we have to link all the struggles of working people together.”