SOAS saw lively picket lines yesterday, with staff and students turning out to support demands for fair pay
Staff at SOAS and other higher education institutions were on strike again yesterday, the second of three 2-hour strikes called by the UCU over fair pay. Next Thursday, 6 February, UCU has called a 1-day strike, in conjunction with Unison.
There has been much debate within the union in the run-up to these strikes, over whether 2-hour strikes represented a de-escalation of action, and scepticism about the effectiveness of such short stoppages. In fact the picket lines were relatively well attended, with about 150 staff and students outside SOAS’s main campus.
The series of 2-hour strikes have had at least some success in disrupting the normal functioning of the university, with many students deciding not to cross picket lines. But it’s also ensured that the issue of fair pay has remained high on the agenda of SOAS and other university managements for several weeks.
Fractional staff in particular made their presence felt, handing out leaflets outlining specific demands related to low pay, insecure contracts and the general lack of transparency with regard to contracts and conditions.
Fractional staff are crucial to the functioning of the university and to the student experience because they do a substantial amount of the teaching at SOAS. Yet they are the worst paid out of all academic staff – the ‘bottom of the hierarchy’ according to their leaflet.
Teaching Fellow Helena Pérez Niño commented:
‘All of us are workers too and all of us depend on those wages, and today we were a significant proportion of the people on the picket lines. So it’s not only that we are an essential part of the production process but we are crucial to making the movement alive and dynamic, and that also needs to be recognised.’
A number of students also supported the strike. Georgie Robertson, campaigns officer for SOAS Students’ Union and co-ordinator of the Democratise SOAS campaign, urged both staff and students to raise issues over declining pay, worsening conditions and cuts to courses at an open forum this Thursday.
Students are also organising a week of action next week to protest against the selling off of the student loan book. They have put together an activists’ guide, and got over 50 universities involved in activity. The NUS has also backed it.
The scale of the crisis in higher education means that uniting the different struggles across the sector is crucial, and such initiatives at individual universities, combined with campaigns that bring them all together, could prove significant.
UCU’s fair pay campaign has the potential to win. But what is needed is an escalation of action. The combination of different types of strikes together with actions short of strike – in particular the marking boycott that UCU has threatened in the past – could get employers to negotiate. Success in the pay campaign will mean that all the different struggles in higher education will be strengthened.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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