Tens of thousands of university workers are nearing the end of a wave of inspiring walkouts that have challenged the status quo in universities.
UCU union members are striking over pay, casual contracts, workloads, equal pay and pensions. Some 74 universities will have been hit with 14 days of strikes in the latest wave of action.
Now strikers are debating where next if bosses don’t make any serious offer to resolve the dispute.
“I think we will need to look at an exam boycott,” said Ian, who has been picketing every day of the strike at Oxford university.
“That would put pressure on them because they don’t like being sued by students!”
Oxford UCU committee members John said the mood there is growing for a marking boycott. “Some people see it as an individual response,” he told Socialist Worker. “But when I first started here, we had a marking boycott that brought medical sciences to a standstill.
“Two out of 12 workers did the boycott, but the rest refused to cover our work. So it was very effective.”
For Eli, another picket, more strikes will he needed if the bosses refuse to back down. “We’re going to have to go out on strike again,” she told Socialist Worker.
“That’s the only thing that gets anywhere.”
The union branch has grown by around 40 members since the strikes started. “That happens every strike,” said one picket.
Reballots for action are due to start next week, as many current ballots expire. But whatever form any future action takes, it is clear that many workers do not want to give up the fight.
“It is tiring being on strike for 14 days,” said Eli. “But it would be utterly demoralising to lose all this pay for nothing. I’m in it for the many, not the me.”
John agreed. “We had a committee meeting yesterday and there seems to be a strong mood for the reballot,” he said. “People are worn out after four weeks of strikes, but there’s no sense that they want to stop.”
And striker Leen added, “We have put in so much effort and made so much sacrifice that it would be bad to give up now.”
Students have organised to back the strike, with the university Labour society organising a solidarity protest and making a donation to the strike fund. One striker said bosses were showing “complete contempt” for students by refusing to resolve the dispute.
Labour student Patrick told Socialist Worker, “It doesn’t make sense for students to have people overworked and on casual contracts. And I’m also supporting the strike because I want to stop marketisation of education.”
At Oxford, around 80 percent of staff are on casual contracts. This has driven many of those striking to be part of the action. But there is also a sense that the union’s decision to fight over all the issues together has made the struggle stronger.
As one striker put it, “When we struck in 2018 over pensions, a lot of people on strike were on fixed term contracts or had just finished their PhDs. I was one of them.
“We struck to protect the pensions of others, and we said we wanted professors to strike over casual contracts too. That’s what has happened.”
He added that it is a “clever tactic” to run two disputes together. “We met the turnout threshold in one ballot but not the other,” he explained. “But calling people out over both means we can always join the strikes.”
Fears about how universities will respond to coronavirus came up often on the picket line. Strikers said Oxford has been noticeably quieter after two confirmed cases at the university. Some university bosses have suggested workers produce online lectures so students can study at home.
Striker Marion told Socialist Worker, “We are still engaging in action short of a strike and that means not doing extra work. This should include producing any online materials.
“Open University workers have told us it takes months to produce good quality online tutorials. You can’t just invent it like that.”
John added, “We should demand that nobody should lose any pay if they have to self-isolate.”
Workers remain determined. And although some described the “anger” that workers feel at bosses’ intransigence, there is also some optimism.
“The bosses have agreed to negotiate on certain issues for the first time,” said Marion. “The mood is good. We believe in our power.”