Alistair Cartwright reports from a vibrant rally of London UCU strikers in the second week of their renewed industrial action
Hundreds of lecturers striking over pensions, pay and conditions rallied together with students, administrative staff, security guards and health workers in Bloomsbury’s Tavistock square this Tuesday, before marching on the City of London to make their voices heard. The 500-strong protest was part of 10 days of ongoing strike action across 44 different universities.
Staff walked out on Valentine's day after institution heads refused to compromise over cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a move that will see a 35% loss to the guaranteed retirement income. Across the sector, workloads are reaching ‘breaking point’ with over 50% of teaching, marking and other duties at places like Westminster University now performed by staff on zero hour contracts – according to branch chair Maria Chondrogianni.
Delegations from security staff battling repressive legal injunctions at Great Ormond Street Hospital and the National Education Union, representing school teachers, showed the links of solidarity starting to grow across the education sector and beyond.
Joint General Secretary of the NEU, Kevin Courtney, said how ‘the push is towards commercialisation and marketisation’ whether through academies in schools, or the attacks on staff in universities. ‘Every attack on our members is an attack on the conditions of learning.’ Universities are increasingly central to some of the UK’s most profitable research and development activities, as well as vital public services, particularly health.
With the cost of living crisis hitting millions, Courtney made the plea to reach out beyond the public sector. ‘You are fighting for young people and you are fighting for the entire working class.’
Students were out in force from Queen Mary University, where management have threatened punitive measures including 100% pay deductions (yes, 100%) for ‘action short of a strike’. Strikers and supporters heard from QMUL UCU committee member Zara Dinnen about how the Vice Chancellor, in a bizarrely vindictive move that seems to undermine even the University’s basic offer, has written to applicants of departments with high unionisation rates warning them against their future lecturers. As a result, the union at QMUL has organised some of its largest ever meetings and is now balloting for further strike action to counter the threats.
This kind of action shows how management attacks can easily backfire. Strikers from Imperial College described how an 820 all-staff meeting recently voted for the University’s Chief Financial Officer, a leading culprit in systemic bullying charges, to step down. Their arguments have been vindicated and the CFO is on his way out.
This hard fight is far from over but if the determination of rallies like Tuesday’s and pickets around the country can be built on, there is every chance we can turn the tide on unsustainable privatisation and cuts to conditions, pay and pensions.
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Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.
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