Trade unionists, Labour Party MPs and others joined a solidarity rally with the university strikers in central London on Tuesday.
The meeting heard of many donations from union branches to support the strike.
Josh, a UCL striker, told the rally, “People have taken a huge hit in their pay packets. Some people earn between £12 and £17 an hour, and they don’t get paid for all the hours they spend doing preparation. We need your solidarity.”
Labour MP Richard Burgon said he was there “as a member of the shadow cabinet” to bring solidarity. “It’s great that people are so up for this important fight,” he said.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said his union would make a donation “in the thousands” for the strikers’ UCU union support fund.
“Our solidarity is unqualified,” he said. But he added that if more unions fought, workers could win a lot more.
Jane Loftus, CWU union president, said, “We have to go further than solidarity. We have to unite beyond the disputes.
“It’s all the same dispute – the system is broken.”
Postal workers in the CWU are about to start their own national strike ballot.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell brought a message of solidarity from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And he said it isn’t enough to back Labour to win change.
“The battle is here,” he said. “It’s on the picket lines and it’s in the streets.
The action involves around 50,000 union members at 74 universities across Britain.
Chris, a striker at Soas, University of London, told Socialist Worker that the action is having an impact. “Compared to strikes two years ago, it’s fairly strong,” he said. “Classes are cancelled and there aren’t many students about.”
Union members at nearby University College London (UCL) joined the strikes this week, with a three-day walkout beginning on Monday. UCU branch president Sean described workers’ “self-organising” for the strikes.
“We have a Whatsapp group where people organise picketing,” he told Socialist Worker. “Some people just go straight to picket their building rather than coming and asking where to go.
“We picketed at least 30 entrances on Monday – it’s not a small ask. And there are still people coming who have never picketed before.”
Josh, a member of the UCU branch committee at UCL, said strikers are “more resolute” this time around.
“People are more organised with picket rotas too,” he told Socialist Worker. “It might not seem like a lot is happening at some places as there aren’t pickets. But some departments are closed because of the strike, so some people join pickets in other places instead.”
Around 500 striking UCU and EIS union members rallied outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh on Tuesday. Dozens of students joined them in solidarity too, including Stirling university students who are being victimised for taking solidarity action during the last round of strikes.
They heard speeches from Labour and Green MSPs and from NUS Scotland. Rank and file union members, including casualised staff, teaching assistants and postgrad students, also spoke.
Strikers at several universities have reported bigger picket lines during the latest round of strikes. But others, including UCL, said the turnout on picket lines has been slightly lower this time. Strikers said there are different reasons for this.
“Some people are choosing certain days to picket,” explained Josh. “So, someone I know has ‘booked in’ to do two Fridays when we will be on strike. Some people commute in from outside London so they won’t be here every day.”
It was right to call a hard-hitting programme of strikes. But some workers, especially those on lower wages, are worried about losing 14 days’ pay. It makes building solidarity for the strike, and fighting for unions to donate to the strike fund, even more important.
Sean said, “Clearly money is an issue. And that’s a stark reminder of how low the pay is for some people. Of course there are relatively well-paid academics, but there are also people who are struggling.
“Some people say they can’t afford to do the 14 days. We need to have urgent conversations with people about making sure they use the hardship fund.”
Worries about money don’t mean that workers don’t want to fight. This latest round of walkouts is the biggest yet in the dispute, after more branches reballoted and met the 50 percent turnout threshold for legal strikes.
It follows a magnificent eight-day strike by workers at 60 universities late last year. Around 3,000 people joined the union in the three weeks before the strike began – and recruitment has continued.
And anger at low and unequal pay, and casual contracts, has driven many workers to join the strikes. “I’ve been here 12 years and I’m still on an hourly-paid contract,” said Chris. “I’m tired of having all these different contracts and I’m sick of not knowing if I will get enough hours. It starts to weigh you down.”
Workers have to organise to make sure that their struggle pays off. That means making sure that ordinary strikers take more charge of the dispute, and thinking about how to pile even more pressure on the bosses.
“We know that the only time the bosses react is when we strike,” said Chris. “We have to keep the pressure up.”
“We have to create a political crisis for management,” argued Sean. “We are starting to talk about what kind of action we could take if we reballot for more strikes.
“For instance, we could strike during exams or during enrolment – which would really cause the employers anxiety. We also need to go back to branches that missed the turnout threshold, because any branch can reach it.
“I think for a lot of people the penny is starting to drop that this is a serious fight. We need to start talking about escalating.”
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