Staff and students at Queen Mary, University of London, rallied today in defiance of an aggressive attack on the right to strike by the college management, writes Katherine Connelly
Like other members of the University and College Union across the country, staff at Queen Mary today took part in a two hour strike for fair pay. But management at Queen Mary informed staff that if they take part in strike action management ‘intend to deduct a full day’s pay for each and every day when such partial performance occurs and will not be asking staff who take strike action to undertake any further work on that day’. Several other universities had also planned the same punitive action but were forced to back down when this threat was met with an outcry.
This is a blatant attempt to undermine the strike through intimidation. Staff striking because their pay is effectively being cut are now faced with a management that is threatening to take even more of their pay away if they dare to try and do anything about it.
Today’s rally showed that staff are not going to be bullied out of their right to strike for fairness. Salaries in universities reflect the growing inequality that the austerity agenda is inflicting everywhere. University employers are insisting that they will not negotiate from the meagre 1% pay offer to staff which, at below the rate of inflation, translates into a pay cut. Since 2009 university pay has fallen by 13% in real terms. But not everyone is in this together. While staff see their pay cut, university vice-chancellors received on average a pay rise of 5.1%. University and College Union research has found only 5 vice-chancellors paid less than the Prime Minister’s ample salary of £142,500.
Much was made of the decision by Queen Mary’s principal Simon Gaskell to donate his £50,000 pay rise to a scholarship fund at the college and while of course that is better than pocketing the money for himself, hoping for the rich to forgo their pay rises is hardly a sustainable or realistic way to achieve fairer pay. If Simon Gaskell wanted to demonstrate a genuine commitment to equality he would be supporting the staff in their strike instead of intimidating them.
Management’s attempt to stop striking staff from teaching after the two-hour strike ends seems calculated to try and divide staff from their students. Queen Mary typically sees widespread and active support for staff taking strike action and picket lines in recent years have seen a large number of students joining the pickets, handing out leaflets – both those produced by the unions as well as those made by and for students themselves, and bringing homemade banners and placards. If it was this unity that Queen Mary’s management wanted to disrupt it appears to have failed miserably. Lots of students joined the rally in the pouring rain in Queen Mary’s library square today, a representative of Queen Mary Student Union told the gathering “we have to support staff because they support us”, while another student who spoke drew parallels between the campaigns of university staff and university students who have recently been subject to attacks by police and university managements.
While Queen Mary management’s attempt to lock out staff who take strike action has shown up some of the limitations of the decision to go for 2 hour strikes instead of sustained strike action, it may also have helped to escalate the action. Richard Saull, UCU branch secretary at Queen Mary, told the rally that management’s actions have made it more likely that there will be more strike action and a marking boycott. A national representative of UCU told the rally that Queen Mary management’s actions were “an attempt to break the union” and that the union “are not going to allow that kind of inflammatory action”. She pointed out that if Queen Mary go ahead with their threat to dock a day’s pay for 2 hours strike action then UCU will be taking the management to court where it is expected that they will not only have to pay back the money they took from staff but also court fees - money that the claim to be unable to afford when it’s asked for in the form of fair pay.
What has happened at Queen Mary is not an isolated incident. The government’s austerity agenda is plunging more and more people into low paid, casualised work, ripping up hard-won pay and conditions, threatening increasing numbers of people with eviction, systematically smashing up the welfare state and taking away vital benefits that the most vulnerable in society rely on to come anywhere near making ends meet. Trade unions that dare to stand in the way of any of this are increasingly subject to repression, threats and media witchhunts. The high-profile attacks on the Unite Union, the threats to outlaw tube workers’ right to strike, and now punishing university staff for daring to strike for 2 hours all shows how much the government and employers need to have the trade unions stifled. It also shows how important it is that we defend our right to organise and resist and that is why the People’s Assembly have launched the Hands Off Our Union campaign with a rally planned for 11 February.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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