By Sophie Squire
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University strikes are at a key turning point

There is plenty of life in the dispute and picket line enthusiasm
Issue 2798
15 UCU members at Liverpool university with UCU placards

Picketing at Liverpool university on Tuesday

As workers at 27 universities began a five-day strike on Monday it was clear there are urgent questions about how their battles can win.

UCU union members have been fighting for months to stop massive cuts to the USS pension scheme. They are simultaneously fighting over workloads, casualisation, pay and inequalities—known as the “four fights”.

On Monday a meeting of the UCU Left group discussed the way forward. The disputes can still be won but there needs to be a sharp change.

Mark Abel from Brighton university said, “I don’t think there’s a sign of this dispute crumbling.” But he added, “Those at the top of the union have tried to demobilise, decouple and deescalate these strikes. We need a strategy with a chance of winning.”

Right from the start of the action last December, union general secretary Jo Grady had to be pushed to call anything but the most meagre strikes—and not to separate the two disputes.

Her reluctant and divisive strategy has never been wholly overcome. And now Grady seems content for workers to become gradually disenchanted with the battles.

UCU members are voting on whether to renew the strike mandate. A big vote for more action, at as many universities as possible, would show the determination to keep striking. But that’s been undermined by a lack of direction from the top and restricting the time for the voting to just three weeks.

Activists at the UCU Left meeting discussed if a boycott of exam marking could be an effective tactic. But many argued it had to be combined with strikes.

“A marking boycott will likely mean employers will withhold all or a large part of our wages as a tool to try and break us. This means we can’t just stop at marking. We need to have strikes as well,” said Anne from Cambridge university.

Mark from Liverpool added, “At our university during an earlier dispute, strikers came under enormous pressure from management to get back to work and complete marking.

“It was picket lines and members’ meetings that kept people together. That meant we could beat back a wave of redundancies.” 

Large group of university strikers with big UCU banner

Pickets at Staffordshire university were joined on Monday by activists from other UCU branches

There’s no doubt that large numbers of workers are still up for taking on university bosses.

At the university of Nottingham on Monday, a delegation of CWU union members joined UCU pickets.

There were strong pickets at Keele university, Dundee university, Sheffield university, Liverpool university, Westminster university and other institutions.

In Swansea strikers chalked “Another uni is possible” on the road.

And in a local battle happening at the same time, Staffordshire university workers are striking for two additional days against plans to create a two-tier workforce.

Bosses want to employ new staff on worse contracts than the present ones.

The push for more strikes nationally—and escalating action—has to be linked to a more democratic structure that reflects the views of workers on the front line.

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