On the first day of this historic strike, Goldsmiths lecturers show they mean business and are fighting to win
“It’s the first day of the strike!” echoed around the front entrance of Goldsmiths University on this early morning in February, as lecturers stood covering all the major entrances, with students hovering, and banners held defiantly, hopeful that the next couple of weeks of strike action will amount to a win.
Support for this 14-day strike, called by the UCU (University and College Union) over cuts to pensions, has been strong amongst students across the country, and with the general public. Not all students are on board, with frustration at the loss of course time, but here at Goldsmiths their solidarity, and the solidarity of other workers and locals is plain to see, with hundreds out supporting the strike. Even those that voice concern, aim their criticisms at the Vice-chancellors and the government. As Eva Crossan Jory, President of Goldsmiths Student Union declared to the picket line “This disruption is nothing compared to Tory cuts”. There is anticipation of a big turnout for the ‘Teach Out’ event the next day, with Owen Jones, Gary Younge and Paul Mason just a few of the big-name speakers set to join strikers on the picket line.
Those striking are hopeful that the pressure put on by this historic action, the biggest strike from university lecturers in decades (64 universities are involved), will push enough Vice-chancellors to back down and sway the balance of forces.
As everyone gathered for the huge strike rally, held just outside the front entrance, where students would normally be flooding through the doors, messages of support were read out, and various workers took to the mic to decry not just the slashing of pensions, but the whole marketisation of higher education, of which this is just one symptom. It is mentioned that the high fees students pay pit lecturers against students in situations just like these. This is, of course, the point.
A new lecturer could lose some £208,000 of retirement income, and with the rise of shorter and more volatile work contracts within the profession, this was, to many, the final straw after a host of attacks. The proposals move risk from the institution to the workers, insisting on a ‘defined contribution scheme’, which basically means pensions are gambled on the stock markets, leaving them vulnerable.
Professor Des Freedman, Vice-president of Goldsmiths UCU, spoke of the daylight robbery of pensions and misuse of student fees:
The sector makes £1.5 billion in surplus. Where is this going? Students are right to ask where their fees end up, as it isn’t with general staff pay, as this has been reduced significantly over recent years… We must break up the fragile consensus of our employers. With this strength of solidarity, we are more than capable of doing it.
Marian Carty, President of Goldsmiths UCU, summed the mood of the strike up: “They think we are weak - they could not be more wrong”.
Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the UCU, pointed to a poll showing that three-fifths of students support the strikes, with students at universities affected by the strike showing more support. She also told the crowd of how this strike was headline news across all of the media, and that it would give strength to workers across all sectors to fight back. At a time, where low levels of union membership are often a source of dismay for many on the left, Hunt reported 5000 new members over recent weeks, consisting mainly of new young lecturers, librarians, and administration staff.
But then the remarkable significance of striking at this moment in Britain was highlighted, as Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell turned up to show his support:
You are standing up for the whole labour movement... While they cut taxes for the bankers, we fight back, for our pay and our pensions.
McDonnell also brought a message of support from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
This is the beginning of a long haul. But these lecturers are politicised and ready for it. Never mind the stereotype of academics only being interested in theory, hidden away in their ivory towers. These are teachers, researchers and mentors who are up for a fight too, out in the cold, and out in number and in voice.
Good luck to all of the strikers across the country, there are reports of strong picket lines everywhere. See you again tomorrow at 8am. Wrap up warm!
Cameron Panting was formerly National Organiser for Counterfire. He is active within the People's Assembly and Stop The War.
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