By Sophie Squire
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2798

University strikes can win—but they’re at a critical stage

‘Those at the top of the union who don’t have the nerve for this fight should stand aside.’
Issue 2798
A crowd of university strikers and their supporters in Leeds, they hold placards and a union banner

Solidarity on the picket line in Leeds during the university strikes (Picture: Lesley McGorrigan)

Thousands of university workers mounted lively picket lines in the sun on the fourth day of a five-day walkout on Thursday. 

It comes at a critical stage in the UCU union members’ disputes to defend the USS pension scheme and over workloads, casualisation, pay and inequalities—known as the “four fights”. Strikers made it loud and clear that the fight is nowhere near over. But the disputes are in danger—and there needs to be an urgent change of direction at the top of the union.

Striker Shari from the London School of Hygiene and  Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) said it’s vital to keep fighting against inequality and discrimination in academia. “There was recently an article in the Guardian that exposed the pervasive racism at LSHTM,” she told Socialist Worker. “Of course, this was something that staff always knew, but you’d think that university management would do something about it after being exposed. But no.” 

Anna, another striker at LSHTM, told Socialist Worker, “I think this dispute will be hard and it will need to go on for some time. But if I didn’t believe we could win, I wouldn’t be out on the picket lines.” The mood to keep fighting was felt across Britain.

There were large and lively pickets at the university of York. For the second time this week, UCU and Unison union members took part in a large and noisy rally outside Leeds town hall. At Soas university in London, strikers had organised a series of teach-outs and a BBQ. And at Dundee university in Scotland, students occupied the fourth floor of the tower building in solidarity with workers. 

In Cambridge, a solidarity delegation on Wednesday included NEU education union members, FBU firefighters’ union members and a fire engine. 

On the picket lines, strikers hit back at the pessimism coming from the top of the union. Sean Wallis, UCL UCU branch president in London and national pay negotiator, told Socialist Worker that now is the best time to strike, especially over pay. “When we started in September pay wasn’t at the forefront,” he said. “But the cost of living has brought it into the front of people’s minds. 

“In the past strikes have come too late and not hit the employers as hard because they weren’t as disruptive as they could have been. But the strikes have a lot more leverage at the moment because we are striking right in the middle of term time. So this is a great time to demand a lot more.” 

Sean added that the strikes have built union membership, which will be essential for the future of the dispute.

GMB and Unison union members behind a UCU banner

On the UAL picket line in London with Unison and GMB union members on Thursday (Picture: Jess Walsh)

Maria from Soas said that she’s feeling positive about the ballots for strike and action short of strike at 149 universities, which runs until 8 April. “In my department, I think we’ll get a good mandate for strikes in the reballot. Everyone is still so angry. We want to strike again to defend our pensions and pay. If we don’t keep going, we’ll lose even more of our rights.” 

During this dispute, it has become clear that the top of the union is out of touch with what rank and file members want. The union has attempted to deescalate action and has avoided calling an indefinite strike at almost every point. 

UCU Left, which Socialist Worker supports, wrote, “ Both these disputes have always been winnable, and despite the setbacks, they still are. But control of them must be in the hands of members. Members have consistently made the right decisions about the strategy required, and UCU Left members on the Higher Education Committee have consistently tried to have those decisions implemented.” 

“Those at the top of the union who don’t have the nerve for this fight should stand aside.” 

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