UCU picket line, 2013. Photo: Wikimedia Commons UCU picket line, 2013. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ahead of the UCU strike, Vladimir Unkovski-Korica argues that mass unity creates strong bonds among strikers

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) will be striking at sixty universities for eight consecutive days starting on Monday 25th November.

The reasons for our strike are many: an attack on our pensions, excessive workloads, falling real wages, pay inequality on gender and other lines, and rising precarity.

But, for many, striking can be a daunting prospect. They will fear victimisation by their managers in the short and long term.

Striking can be hard for other reasons too. Most immediately, employers dock your pay for every day you are off work during a strike.

The broader political climate can sometimes feel quite intimidating. The dominant right wing media run stories about privileged lecturers disrupting their students’ education for the extra pound.

Indeed, taking action can be difficult when disruption ensues for the very people we serve on an everyday basis as educators.

It is even more difficult when some of our own colleagues are not backing strike action. They may even be friends or close collaborators, which adds further layers of emotional stress.

Traditionally, the picket line is in fact the method of choice that is designed to stop colleagues from strike-breaking.

The picket line is aimed at actively seeking class unity against the employer: it is all about standing by the doors of your workplace and convincing other employees not to work during the strike.

But, given the political climate in Britain, when strikes have been few and far between since the Thatcher era, even picketing has often felt difficult.

Few people have had the experience and commitment to union activism to turn up – to pay the fare to get to the workplace, to endure harsh weather conditions, to face students or colleagues who are going to work.

However, during last year’s pension strikes in the university sector, there has been a visible shift in union culture.

From institution to institution, union members formed mass pickets at a couple of entrances to the workplaces. This sometimes came at the expense of spreading coverage across the university, but it came with the added benefit of swelling numbers.

While only a few people were officially designated pickets, tens or hundreds of unions members gave the exercise of picketing added force. The power of the collective became visible not just to the employers, but to university staff themselves.

And that was important for those on strike as much as for those who were not on strike. For strikers, it reinforced the sense that, together, we were not as vulnerable as we can feel before a strike happens.

On a mass picket, we can see that our union is our source of strength. We can see that we can win concessions and protection from management. We can see that we can win.

Colleagues who did not turn up to picket lines for a couple of days would express a sense of stress, anxiety and even fear about the strike and going back to work. They would begin to think about all that work that was piling up for when they got back, facing managers, chasing new deadlines.

But the minute they returned to the picket line, they would say: gosh, it’s not so bad. In fact, they kept returning.

Picket lines were an immense resource in fighting the union officialdom’s conservatism during the last strike. When, at a critical juncture during the strike, our union leaders recommended a bad deal to us, we were able to use picket lines as a mass form of democracy.

We were anyway discussing the strike, the future of education and politics more broadly every day, but in such a crisis moment, we could get a sense on the picket line that we were not isolated in our doubts about the deal. We could hold a mass emergency meeting and demand a different policy from our trade union.

Critically, we were also able to form wider solidarities. Being mass and visible meant our students and the wider public could recognise and join our struggle.

Students in fact formed a solidarity committee, not just bringing us tea and biscuits, but talking to us and fellow students about the justness of our cause.

It is fair to say that that brought students and lecturers closer together, and made it clear that the strike was not about lecturers defending a privileged place in society, but about lecturers on strike defending the educational sector as a common good.

Moreover, all that helped bring glimpses of wider class solidarity. Unionised workers from other sectors, like the post office, often refused to cross picket lines. This time round, Unite and other unions have put in money in our solidarity fund, which will help staff, especially precarious and those in need, to weather the strike economically.

Overall, then, there can be much uncertainty during strikes, about how achievable our aims can seem to people or how hard we have to fight to overcome management or government obstacles to win our demands. But picket lines are a critical element to getting a sense that solidarity is our strength and finding the confidence to endure. They will be important this time too: so make sure you go!

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.