LECTURERS AND senior admin staff brought universities to a standstill this week as 50,000 members of the AUT union struck over pay. Students protesting over New Labour's top-up fees scheme joined them on Wednesday.
University bosses (vice-chancellors) are driving both the fees plan and a pay deal which would see staff losing thousands of pounds. Meanwhile they have awarded themselves salary rises well above inflation. Yet the government reserved its fire for lecturers, who it absurdly accuses of 'opportunism' because they are fighting both for decent pay and against fees which will lock out working class students.
If management can drive through its proposals in the universities, New Labour and bosses across the public sector will be more confident to attack other workers. 'Fees and low pay for staff are linked,' third year Bristol University student James Plunkett told Socialist Worker from his lecturers' picket line.
'They are both a product of the marketisation of education. We are against both variable fees and variable pay. The National Union of Students is standing shoulder to shoulder with the AUT. And we are having a referendum at this university to rejoin the national union.'
Activists report that the AUT strike was incredibly well supported. 'That was no surprise here,' says Malcolm Povey from Leeds University. 'We had 400 people join the union in the run-up to the strike. There were 70 volunteers for the picket line.'
'We are fighting top-up fees and variable rates of pay,' Karen Evans from Liverpool University reported on Tuesday, 'We have 70 people on picket lines around the campus. We've turned away office staff who are members of Unison and the canteen workers have not even come in to work. Even the Aquacool people who fill up the water coolers refused to cross the picket line. The whole place seems to be shut down. Very few students have turned up and we've had great discussions with people about fighting top-up fees and fighting variable rates of pay.'
'The strike on Monday at Swansea University was very solid,' says Mike Pany. Universities across the UK struck together on Wednesday with Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland striking on separate days as well throughout the week.
He adds, 'No AUT members went in other than a few heads of department. 'There were 50 people on the picket line and we turned away a BOC delivery, the post, most lorries and (alas) the beer wagon. Members of the Unison union joined us on the picket line.
'People's spirits were kept high by recordings of working class anthems such as 'Solidarity Forever', 'Which Side Are You On', 'Bella Ciao' and Lisa Simpson's (of The Simpsons) 'Union Strike Folk Song'-'They have the plant but we have the power'.'
There were similar scenes at Warwick University and many others. Chris Talbot from Leicester University says, 'There's been a really brilliant response to the strike among people who do not normally come to union meetings. Other unions said they won't cross the picket lines. 'We have also linked up with the Natfhe union members who are on all-out strike at Leicester College.'
Other activists report that some of those now taking a lead in organising the strike had come into union activity through involvement in the Stop the War Coalition.
Lecturers have seen their pay relative to other groups fall by 40 percent over the last 20 years. That's gone hand in hand with less money for each student, and market-driven targets which have wrecked the rest of the public sector. These pressures have forced the traditionally moderate AUT union to take a stand. The ability of the union to stand in the way of pay cuts, attacks on education and wholesale privatisation is at stake.
That's why support is growing for a call from the AUT branch at Stirling University for a lobby of the union's national conference at the end of March. From next week lecturers start an assessment boycott and other forms of action short of a strike. That can hit university management and also provide a springboard for further action.
'An assessment and administration boycott, properly enforced, can really hurt university management and the government,' says Tom Behan from Kent University. We've got to build on the mood this week to organise it.
Leicester strikers keep pressure up on college bosses
LECTURERS AT Leicester College entered their fourth week of indefinite strike action on Monday with management under pressure to talk and strikers holding out for a negotiated contract. The strikers are members of the Natfhe union. College bosses are continuing to mess students' education around in an effort to claim the strike is having little effect.
Students at the Abbey Park campus told pickets they supported the Natfhe union's action. One had walked out of a psychology lesson after finding it was being taught by the head of hairdressing. Delegations from other workplaces attended a lunchtime picket on Monday, making it a great success.
The Natfhe national president was there and a delegation from Nottingham Trent University brought a banner and £425 in donations. Other delegations included Leicester University AUT, De Montfort University Natfhe, Amicus, Leicester Trades Council, some Leicester University students, the NUT, Unison health and local government workers.
A postal worker invited strikers to speak at the CWU meeting on Sunday. 'After that we went to the branch meeting, where we learnt that management had finally budged on talking to Natfhe while the strike was still on,' says Siobhan Logan.
'The principal had met Barry Lovejoy, a Natfhe national official, that morning. Our mass meeting was told of another proposal with the promise of further talks once action was suspended. What they offered was:
'On this basis, we were to suspend the action. The first reaction was unprintable. There followed a wide-ranging debate. Lots of people, myself included, argued that this was the same contract they'd offered us before. 'It was agreed to vote on this proposal after we'd seen the detail firmed up by Wednesday. But after the meeting management DID in fact agree to further talks. That shows that our action can budge them. 'This week we were stepping up solidarity work to boost the strike and put pressure on management. We remain determined to win a negotiated contract that does not worsen our conditions. 'That was the message we gave to our national official and the one we are taking out to other workplaces.'
Please send donations, messages of support and invites to speak at meetings to: Natfhe Leicester College Strike Fund, Natfhe Birmingham Office, 2nd Floor, Alpha Tower, Suffolk Street, Queensway, Birmingham B1 1TT. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the strike website at www.natfhebranches.org.uk/leicester_coll