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National lecturers' pension strike continues
At the University of Sheffield, 1,700 lecturers in the University and College Union (UCU) went on strike to resist proposed changes to the USS pension scheme.
The strike was especially strong in the Department of Politics, cancelling all but one seminar on the first day of the strike.
To build student support for striking lecturers, Sheffield Socialist Students in conjunction with other campus left groups initiated a picket tour for the first day of the strike. Striking lecturers were heartened by chants of "UCU, here us say, we support you all the way!" from 50 enthusiastic students.
This was followed by a 300-strong rally on the second day of the strike outside Firth Court, which houses vice-chancellor Sir Keith Burnett's office.
The rally was addressed by Sam Morecroft, a Socialist Party member who is Sheffield UCU's anti-casualisation officer and is seen as a local leader of the strike.
Sir Keith is one of the highest paid VCs in the country, with an eye watering salary of £422,000 a year. This is almost eleven times more than the average staff member at the University of Sheffield!
Sir Keith is due to retire this year and thus will be spared from the pension cuts. Understandably, vice-chancellor pay and benefits drew huge anger from the crowd, with chants of "Keith Burnett, get out, we know what you're all about - cuts, job losses, money for the bosses!"
Student support for the strike has been met with resistance from the university, with posters produced by the Students' Union calling for solidarity removed from university buildings by contractors.
Cracks are appearing in university management however. Sir Keith has written to the head of Universities UK calling for a resumption of talks.
Strikes will continue at the university to ensure any future negotiations are conducted in a manner which will defend staff pensions.
The Liverpool university UCU office had the air of a crowded railway station during rush hour on 23 February, the second day of the strike. Picket volunteers arrived in waves through one door, were registered, provided with a Picket Pack, shuffled through into the adjoining office where they were directed to various sites to do picket duty, (again this was recorded), leaving by a separate door, a one-way traffic system designed to minimise congestion!
The enthusiasm of these members to win the strike was palpable. Eventually branch secretary Jo McNeill was able to delegate one of her members to cover the work she had been doing, and show me to the tiny photocopier room, to discuss how the strike was going.
The university employers are claiming an 18% deficit in the pension fund, but the figures are disputed by the union, based on the advice of actuaries (accountants specialising in pension matters).
The employers want to unilaterally change the terms of the pension scheme from a defined benefits scheme, where there is a formula to calculate retirement pensions based on length of service and salary, to a defined contributions scheme, where retirement income is based purely on the state of the fund at the point of retirement, introducing uncertainty and insecurity into retirement.
Currently the university employers are complaining loudly at the amounts they have to put into the fund to allow it to meet its commitments, whilst keeping silent about the period between 1999 and 2011, when they put no cash into the fund at all!
University teachers suspect a hidden, more political agenda behind the employers' actions, a wish to destroy the pension scheme in its present form in order to make the universities more attractive to potential privatisers in the future.
The universities themselves, alone among public sector institutions, are cash rich, and to add insult to injury, Bill Galvin, chief executive of the pension scheme, has had his salary raised from £484,000 to £566,000!
Students have overwhelmingly supported their teachers, on an individual basis, and via the National Union of Students. Ironically students have a lever to pull in support of the UCU members: with the introduction of tuition fees, many are now demanding refunds from the universities for the strike days, and are considering legal action in support of these claims.
Meanwhile, the strike action is leading to increased recruitment to the UCU.
UCU members have been balloted for a total of 14 days of strike action and the minds of activists are understandably turning to what happens if the employers manage to sit this period out without a settlement. Several left-led UCU branches support escalation by a further five days, plus a marking boycott, although as a result of the anti-union laws this boycott may require a further ballot.
The determination and enthusiasm of UCU members in Liverpool points to a successful conclusion of this important dispute.
Hundreds of striking lecturers at University of Liverpool (UoL) marched and rallied on 28 February. They were joined by lots of supporters from students and the left, including Socialist Students and Socialist Party members.
The impressively big and organised dispute at UoL has tapped into a huge vein of student support. Uni boss Janet Beer ("The only Beer I don't like" is the slogan on a very popular badge on campus) also heads up Universities UK, the university bosses' organisation which launched this attack on lecturers' pensions.
Beer sent a widely mocked email to all students attacking the UCU strike. A majority of UoL students support the strike and so Beer has been inundated with angry emails from students followed by a group of students occupying part of her large office space for a day.
Socialist Students has done a lot of activity to develop student support for the strike, widely appreciated by staff and students, with several students joining the group as a result.
It is explaining that when UoL made a £44 million profit last year, and Beer's salary plus expenses looks more like a telephone number than an income, clearly cash is not the problem.
This is about a further huge lurch towards commercialisation and privatisation, with lecturers' pensions seen as an obstacle to that. But the onslaught has stirred up huge resistance and can be defeated, including in Beer's own backyard.
Drums were beaten, speeches were delivered, chants were boomed, and banners and placards were held high.
It was both fantastic and extremely moving to see the campus so alive on the day of the strike. From the picket lines of striking lecturers, researchers and professional services workers beginning bright and early at 7.30am, to the rally ending at around 2pm.
Not only was it moving to see university staff out on strike, passionately fighting against vicious attacks from their bosses, but it was amazing to see so many students standing in solidarity.
The message delivered to vice-chancellor Paul Boyle and his pal David Willetts was clear: Not in this university; not in any university! The president of the Students Union highlighted the false (although unfortunately common) perception of Leicester university as apolitical.
If ever there was a day to challenge such a perception, she argued, it was this one! Non-associated students and society-involved students alike were out in full force showing their unequivocal support for the struggle of our lecturers in fighting to keep their pensions unharmed.
Leicester Socialist Students was out from the start of the protest - flying our banner, joining in on the series of fantastic megaphone-delivered speeches, roaring out chants in solidarity with the striking lecturers and unleashing a tirade of chants scolding the sorry excuses of our vice-chancellor, Paul Boyle, and appointee-chancellor David Willetts.
It was clear from the support received by all the speakers and rallying chanters, ourselves included, that this was not a demonstration representing a narrow spectrum of student and lecturer opinion, but a demonstration voicing the outrage and discontent of a unified force of students and university workers alike, who refuse to stand idly by while our education and quality of life are under attack by an elite section of society.
This demonstration is only the beginning of what we hope will be an extremely fruitful and powerful political struggle over the next few weeks and, if it need be, months.
It has proven the raw power and potential of student-worker cooperation and organisation in fighting threats, whenever and wherever they arise.
Lecturers, researchers and professional service workers: carry on striking and standing up against this despicable attack on your future livelihoods, and know that you can rely on the force of us students who will stand beside you and fight for your rights and wellbeing.
Students: do not cross the picket lines. And if you have a lecturer who is not supporting the strike, ask why.
Such loyalty to university staff will not go unrewarded, for if and when they come for us students to further undermine our rights and futures, I am sure the staff will stand at our side and actively fight for us as we have for them.
The UCU pension strike has been largely downplayed by the mass media so far in terms of its high turnout on pickets and demos from both academic staff and students alike. The reality is, both staff and students are able to understand the severe consequences that gambling with pensions can have.
For students in higher education, the bigger picture is that if we do not support our lecturers and staff on the picket lines it will be our pensions in the future that we let slip away without a fight. Students must see beyond the 'poor value' of fewer contact hours or longer between marking turnarounds, and instead of directing frustration at those who want to share their knowledge with us and help us obtain our degrees we must be angry at those higher up.
At the University of York, the numbers on the physical pickets have grown despite the heavy snow and freezing conditions. As someone who has joined my lecturers on the pickets, it was warming to give them my solidarity in exchange for all of the support that they have given me during my undergraduate, and now postgraduate, degree. Students: contact your vice chancellors, write open letters and emails - do not stay out of this fight.
FE college lecturers also took strike action this week
Despite the -6 temperatures and threats of victimisation from management, over a dozen UCU members at Sandwell College in West Bromwich were on the picket line, showing the determination to win a better deal on pay.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 1 March 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.