As lecturers at 60 universities around the country began eight days of strike action, Counterfire activists reported from picket lines on day one of the strike
Queen Mary, University of London
Queen Mary, University of London is one of the colleges where the vote for strike action met the high turnout required by the anti-union laws. The multiple issues which have caused the strike – over pay, pensions and inequality - are felt urgently here.
Mojisola Adebayo, the black members' rep, explained:
“It’s shocking how bad it is here. The struggle isn’t just about pay and pensions. If you look at pay you’ll find where the inequalities are. Women paid 13% less; black and Asian 21.9% - nearly 22%; and black women 31% less.”
Mojisola pointed out this is happening at a Russell Group university in one of the most culturally diverse parts of London.
This year, Sandra Brown, who had been Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Queen Mary, resigned from her post. Her resignation letter to the Principal concluded:
“On 30 April 2018 you met with me and another academic and asked us both do we think QM is institutional racist. I paused before answering as you were new and I did not want to be judgemental. I can now answer the question and my answer is YES.”
She also cited a culture of bullying.
The blatant unfairness has resonated with students and the Students Union have pledged their support for the strike. Mojisola said that when she has told her students about disparity in pay, “their mouths drop open – that’s when they say: that’s not ok.”
Mark Baxendale, on the Executive of Queen Mary UCU, said “The figures about discrimination: that’s really cutting it with students.”
Another picket, Martin, said “Once students understood about the levels of inequality they were enthused by it, because they were thinking: when I go into a workplace do I want to go into a workplace so unequal?” Jen, also picketing, added, “And do they want to study in a place so unequal?”
Students have also been able to relate to the other issues of the strike. Mark said, “they get all the rest too because they are facing it themselves and so are their peers – they are doing 2-3 jobs to pay the rent.”
Mark explained that the culture inside universities has been changed by the increasing marketisation of the sector, with the raising of the fees in 2013 and the lifting of the cap on student numbers in 2015. Marketisation has had a detrimental effect on the treatment of staff, many of whom have been kept on casualised contracts.
Mojisola told me that over 60% of staff are casualised and that students “don’t necessarily realise that they may be being taught by someone who is just paid for 2 hours, and they then get trains across London to teach somewhere else.”
Mark added that many casualised staff opt out of the pension scheme. “Low pay and casualisation runs right through the system” because “the average age for permanency is 38, so if you do your PhD in your late 20s you are on casualised contracts until your late 30s” – and that reduces the pension that people can expect at the end of their working lives.
The strike at Queen Mary was well organised. Mojisola explained that one way the turnout was maximised was by organising “a series of lunch gatherings whether people were unionised or not – and we did it across unions, both UCU and UNISON. We had meetings about the issue of equality, specific to each community – black and Asian; women; disabled peoples; LGBTQI gatherings to just give space for people to give their experience around the question of equality and to collect the actions that we want the university to take.”
The UCU strike at Queen Mary began with lots of people turning out to picket, horns tooting in support from passers-by and a specially-made playlist.
Jen and Mark commented on how important it is for staff, who might not often come into contact in such a large organisation, to use the picket line to meet and support each other. Jen said that while “it’s a sad thing to strike, and we’re only doing it because conditions are so poor and because of the lack of communication” it’s all the more important that Queen Mary is a “great place to picket, and the spirit is amazing, and it’s fun.”
University College London
Having arrived at UCL for just before 8am, I was met by an already well-attended picket line with double figures of UCU strikers.
They had picket lines already set up around all of the main entrances into the main campus which they were completely engaged in ensuring their message was got out onto the street and to those crossing the picket lines.
The atmosphere was really strong with solidarity being shown in strength with all UCU members. Everyone I spoke to were fully prepared to be there on the picket line until 4 December. The strength of their cause is very much real, in what is uniting them over the core issues of their pay, pensions and workload all becoming worse and worse.
We were asked to move around the corner to a second entrance where they were a bit light on the feet. This is where I started talking to a senior researcher called Danielle who was researching in Acute Day Units who told me in depth about why she is striking. Danielle said to me:
“For me, the workload is the biggest reason for why I am striking. Everyone in higher education has too much to do and it’s just got worse and worse and worse.
I’ve been working for nearly 20 years and all my colleagues I know have never experienced it as bad as this and I don’t know how to cope with this, I don’t know how to keep going
The equality issues are important as are pensions, but for the day to day life, it’s the workload which is impacting on our wellbeing the most.”
These strikes are extremely important and are invaluable in helping to create change for those in academia.
An excellent start to the eight days of strike action in Newcastle. We estimate more than double the number of pickets today than were out on the first day of the 2018 pensions strike. The mood was very good and confident with picket lines covering all the main sites around the campus. A daily strike comic has reappeared to lift spirits. There was an excellent show of solidarity from students who turned up with their society banners, both the Labour students and the Marxist society, along with the local Newcastle People's Assembly. Students kept the pickets going with biscuits and delicious millionaires shortbread. The union office has turned into battle HQ as it was the last time with strikers making placards as fast as can to be taken out to the picket lines.
Picketing took place 8am till 11am, following which strikers and students went to a local pub where the landlord has once again turned it over to the strike to hold a series of teach-outs. Today there was a talk on poster art from Paris 1968 and after posters were made for tomorrow. Following that a rally at Old Eldon Square heard Chi Onwurah MP pledge to end the scourge of casual contracts should a Labour government get elected.
One of the features of the strikes, as it was the last time, is the number of interesting conversations you have with colleagues from other schools. Management come up with all these wacky schemes to get us "out of our silos" as they like to put it and communicate with colleagues across disciplines but the picket line is by far the best mechanism I have come across yet to achieve this.
There was a very lively start to the eight days of strike action by UCU members over pay, pensions and equalities at Goldsmiths. The solidari-tea stall staffed by students was back in action following the 2018 pensions strikes with dozens of pickets spreading out around the College to make our case not only for fair pensions and decent pay but also against rising workloads, casualisation and entrenched gender and race pay gaps.
Teach-outs started during the morning with a discussion on what solidarity looks like followed by the first of our regular staff-student assemblies, This one was attended by at least 60 people with a specific focus on how to address the crisis in housing for students and the community.
Unison reps, Labour activists and UCU members, including several heads of Department, addressed the picket lines over the course of the morning. UCU members at Goldsmiths are furious that the University has decided to parrot the official line of the employers in docking all eight days’ pay in a single month – hugely increasing the stress on the most vulnerable strikers – and refusing to rule out pay deductions for members engaged in action short of a strike, in other words, working to contract. Scrooge memes and placards are being readied as we fight both on the national issues as well as local ones.
UCL strike committee meeting
SOAS hosted a UCL strike committee meeting today, the first day of 8 days national UCU strike action. There was representation from Anthropology, Geography, Institute of the Americas, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, Bartlett Institute, IoE and many more.
Saladin Meckled-Garcia, Vice-President of UCL UCU, said, ‘if the employers break this strike they will win forever. That’s why this is strike is so crucial. Students should join us on the pickets lines.’
It is clear that the lecturers are striking as a last resort. There was a long discussion about how this strike is impacting students, and lecturers are concerned about the impact on their students’ education. One lecturer said, ‘But we are also striking for their pensions - if they ever get jobs in academia, they will have worse conditions than ours if we don’t strike.’
Picketers aren’t crazy or eccentric, they are fighting for our future. Another lecturer said, ‘We have seen more organisation in departments and more people who haven’t been on strike before. This is so encouraging.’
To colleagues crossing picket lines, Meckled-Garcia said, ‘ask them why it's acceptable for them to be in a union and not abide by its democratic mandate.’
Meanwhile, UCEA has announced that they want to negotiate with the union and will hold talks tomorrow at 10am at Friends House. They have said there are no preconditions, but at the same time, they have declared that they will not talk about pay.
Sean Wallis, President of UCL UCU said, ‘we should give them a welcoming party at 9.30am, and give them hell. We don’t want your preconditions’.
The IWGB joined the meeting and will be striking together on 4 December.
Meckled-Garcia ended the meeting with one question: ‘What do you need to know about marketisation of the university other than what you see every day? We are the university.’
UCU members are on strike until 4 December. You can show your support for this important battle about the future of education by joining a picket line and the rallies and events organised. Further details can be found here.
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