Striking university staff were in a buoyant mood as they entered the second day of an eight-day walkout on Tuesday.
The action, over pay, conditions and pensions, has seen UCU union members walk out at 60 universities across Britain. And they have won impressive support from students.
At Strathclyde university, students occupied in support of the strike on Tuesday. Their demands include the resignation of senior figures including the vice chancellor.
They also want an investigation into “rampant mismanagement, alleged corruption and irresponsible fossil fuel investment” at the university. And they want full negotiation with the UCU over the issues behind the dispute.
At Cambridge university there have been “hundreds” of workers and students picketing. “The mood is really buoyant,” said Anne, a lecturer.
“We have about six or seven picket lines, and flying pickets going to leaflet lecturers.
“On Monday we had a rally focusing on student and staff solidarity. Today we are focusing on unsafe workloads. Other themed days include casualisation, and we’ll have a big mobilisation for the climate strike on Friday.”
At the University of Birmingham, pickets held a banner reading, “United Student Staff.” The student support is all the more impressive given that some universities had told students it was “unlawful” for them to back the strikes.
And the UCU announced on Tuesday that it will reballot 13 branches that narrowly missed the 50 percent turnout threshold for legal strikes in the initial ballots. The reballots will begin on Wednesday of next week and run until 28 January. The news means that any future strikes could be even bigger.
Strikers have also won support from other trade unionists, Labour Party members and the general public. At an upbeat picket line at Queen Mary University in east London, there was a stream of hoots from passing drivers in support of the strikers.
Strikers told Socialist Worker that Unison union members at the university had come to join them on the picket line for an hour the day before. And the university’s student union voted to support the strikes.
At a rally there on Tuesday student union president Talhah Atcha told strikers, “Students care about you. And this is really important to us too.”
Striker and drama teacher Dominic said some of the media has misrepresented the situation. “The BBC just interviewed students who opposed the strike,” he told Socialist Worker. “It was biased.
“But the mood here has been really buoyant – lots of singing and chanting. It has a really festive quality.”
Local Unite union member Alena joined the picket line on Tuesday in solidarity. “It’s really bad that there are these anti-union laws that stop other workers from coming out with strikers,” she told Socialist Worker.
“Some people think university workers have cushy jobs. But when I was at university, my lecturers had contracts for just one or two semesters.”
Striker Amanda was in a similar position. “I’m on a very short-term contract,” she told Socialist Worker. “It’s a bleak scene for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after the term is over.”
Opposition to discrimination has motivated more people to take action. In Leeds, UCU campaigns officer and UCU NEC member Lesley described the impact of making the strike inclusive.
“Someone put out a tweet asking people to get in touch if they had accessibility needs so they could come to our rally,” she told Socialist Worker.
“People did get in touch and it meant more people could attend. More people felt they wanted to be part of the union.”
At Queen Mary, English lecturer Sarah said she was out because of inequality. “White colleagues are paid more than black ones for doing the same work,” she told Socialist Worker. “Men are paid more than women for doing the same work.
“Wages have stagnated and it is becoming impossible to live and work in this city.”
The level of support for the action is high because so many university workers and students face similar issues. And winning better pay, pensions and conditions will benefit them all.
Mark works in professional services at Queen Mary. “There are live issues about pay and pensions, but they are all a consequence of the marketisation of higher education,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Our vice chancellor acts like a CEO of a large company and takes a similar salary. Universities are competing in a battle for students and students have been commodified.”
He described how the changes in education meant worse services that aren’t inevitable can come to be seen as normal. “Student loans came in when I was in my second year of university,” he said.
“I borrowed £480 in my second year and the same in my third year. That was my entire debt from college. Not only did we not have to pay for university, we were supported in going with a grant. A lot of students now don’t know that was the case.”
From day one there has been a high level of self-organisation in the running of the strike. Union members have set up regular strike meetings and are not waiting for officials to give the go-ahead to call actions.
Strikers at University College London protested outside talks between the UCU and the bosses in central London on Tuesday morning for instance. The move came from a unanimous vote at a strike meeting the day before.
Like many union members, Anne said workers have gained valuable experience from a strike over pensions last year.
“Last time we didn’t get a picket up at the clinical school until later into the strike,” she explained. “This time the picketers there organised themselves, and are running their own picket.
“It’s a sign that people have built on the organisation from the previous strike and the campaigns that have gone on since.”
At a time when the media is dominated by Brexit, the strike is a breath of fresh air. Mike said that striking in an election period was “absolutely perfect” because “there’s a more charged political environment”.
The strength of the strike might have surprised the bosses, but it doesn’t guarantee victory. If bosses don’t back down, workers will have to be prepared to hold further walkouts. And the union must throw its energy into the reballots of those branches that voted overwhelmingly for strikes but missed the 50 percent turnout threshold needed for legal walkouts.
Mark said, “I think management were waiting to see how strong this strike is. It seems pretty strong. But so far they aren’t moving. Most of us expect to be back out in January.”
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