Tens of thousands of university workers began a five-day strike over pensions on Monday with solid picket lines across Britain. UCU union members at 44 universities are fighting to defend their USS scheme from cuts of up to 35 percent.
It has become a focal point for workers’ anger at wider attacks across higher education. Caitlin, a UCU member at Queen Mary in east London, says she’s “striking for my future”. “I want to stay in the field,” she told Socialist Worker. “At the moment with bad pay, worse pensions and high workload people are leaving, there’s no incentive to stay.”
“We feel like at the moment there is no future for us in academia, so we have to fight back.”
Caitlin added that, even though she’s not part of the USS pension scheme, it is essential to support the action. “Coming out together is really important, of course,” she said. “I’m striking for the people I work with.”
The UCU members’ action comes ahead of a two-day walkout at 68 universities from Monday of next week. It will unite two disputes—the first over pensions and the second over pay, workload casualisation and equalities, known as the “four fights”. And then workers at 63 universities plan a three-day walkout over the “four fights” from 28 February.
Carlo Morelli, UCU Dundee university branch co-chair told Socialist Worker, “There’s been a good atmosphere and the mood is good. A lot of people on the pickets have been linking the dispute with rising poverty and the cost of living crisis.
“But there are also a lot of questions about the UCU’s strategy being discussed as well as the democracy of the strike. To many it is very clear that what is really needed is indefinite strikes that link the two disputes.”
At Queen Mary, bosses have threatened to deduct 100 percent of workers’ wages if they refuse to reschedule teaching missed on strike dates.
Rohan, an international relations lecturer, told Socialist Worker the move is an “assault on our right to organise and strike”. “It left me speechless when I heard that senior leadership plans to withhold our wages until cancelled classes are rescheduled,” he said.
The UCU branch last week overwhelmingly voted to confront the threat of pay deductions and to call an additional five days of strikes. Striker Deivi, a second year PhD student, told Socialist Worker, “We need to keep striking for as long as it takes to get the university to take back this threat.”
Solidarity boosted the UCU picket lines on Monday. At the University of Sheffield, they were joined by Just Eat couriers, who are battling delivery bosses’ pay cuts. And in Newcastle, members of the CWU communication workers’ union and the FBU fire fighters’ union brought solidarity to the strike rally.
Up to 300 strikers and supporters joined a rally outside the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow and there were large and lively pickets at Imperial College in London and Sussex university.
Students joined the picket lines at many universities. In Liverpool, student Sky told Socialist Worker, “It’s important that students show their support and come down to picket lines. If the strike is successful, our quality of education will increase.”
The NUS student union has called a Student Strike for Education on Wednesday 2 March. It will demand “higher and further education to be funded by governments —free at the point of use for students—with proper pay, pensions and conditions for staff across education.”
Bosses have threatened to hit workers with 25, 50 and even 100 percent pay deductions for industrial action short of a strike, including refusing to reschedule lectures.
The UCU Left organisation, which Socialist Worker supports, says, “We face a simple choice. We either escalate to win, demand our union calls more national strike action for longer periods of time, making lesson rescheduling impossible in practice as in 2018 and 2020 or we leave members wide open to attack.”
Every trade unionist, socialist and campaigner needs to build solidarity for the UCU strikes. With Boris Johnson’s government deep in crisis, they can become a focal point for resistance to the Tories and the cost of living crisis.
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