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University workers' strike over pay, pensions and workload escalates
Workers at over 70 universities have been taking strike action against pay inequality, casualisation and workload, and in defence of pensions. The University and College Union (UCU) is out for 14 days throughout February and March. Below we carry reports from some of the picket lines Socialist Party members have attended.
UCU members at Cardiff University began the strike on 20 February with a bang, starting with a rally of a few hundred members and supporters with speakers including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Strikers have been buoyed by the vote of the students' union annual general meeting to support the strike, and the backing of more university societies for this round of action, with Socialist Students playing a prominent role.
Dani Smith, a member of Socialist Students and the Socialist Party, spoke to offer solidarity from further education UCU members in Wales who are balloting for a strike over workload, and remind university workers that their comrades in other sectors are racing to join them in taking action.
Socialist Party member Lucy Riglin, chair of the strike committee said: "Strikes can win. We've had enough of the senseless exploitation of staff and we don't think asking for secure employment and a work-life balance is a radical demand." Lucy is standing for election as president of her branch.
Corbyn gave welcome support, calling management's behaviour an "attack on wages and conditions that is damaging higher education" and linking university workers' campaign to the same issues of precariousness faced by the rest of the working class. He declared himself "proud to stand on a picket line as leader of the Labour Party".
Calling for "free education from cradle to grave," Corbyn contrasted sharply with a previous leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair, who as leader abolished free education, who spoke on the same day - not from a picket line outside a university, but from inside a lecture hall after crossing a picket line.
Ross Saunders, Cardiff Socialist Party
De Montfort University staff in Leicester have been out on strike for the first time in many years. Leicester Socialist Students visited the picket lines to show our support. There were five picket lines across the campus which were noisy and energetic and aided by a fair number of school students who were on half term.
We discussed the marketisation of higher education and the increasing use of zero-hour contracts, and the importance of linking struggles in the city, such as with the climate strikers, and the sixth form staff at Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth I College who are also going out on strike on 27 February.
We gave out our leaflet to a number of strikers and students who were keen to hear our UCU members' perspective on the industrial action. The students who we had spoken to on campaign stalls backing the strike in the run-up to the action were also very supportive and keen to get involved with Socialist Students. We held a Socialist Students meeting on the campus with UCU members and students to discuss how they could support each other.
The staff we spoke to on pickets were determined to see the action through, and many were disgusted by the threat to dock marks at University of Leicester for students if they refused to cross picket lines. Strikers were also angered by the threats made to international students that their visas could be revoked if they missed lectures.
One striker spoke about the attacks on their conditions within the wider context of austerity, and argued that enough was enough. Socialist Students will continue to support the strikers and build towards uniting workers and students in the fight against austerity and for socialism.
Lindsey Morgan, Leicester Socialist Party
"The only thing standing in the way" against low pay, high workload, insecurity, inequality and pension cuts "is the union". One UCU member said this to the Socialist Party when we went down to support their strike at Queen Mary University in east London.
At Queen Mary, the union has grown by 100 members since the strike started.
UCU is striking 14 times in a month. One worker said: "The scale of action reflects the seriousness of the problem... What's changed? We've taken real action and seen tangible results."
We also heard about the appalling management bullying and racism at Queen Mary. The gender and racial pay gap is huge - 20%. It was reported to us that a non-white colleague was turned down for a promotion and told they 'didn't have the right face to fit the post.'
On 24 February, UCU members at University of East London (UEL) started striking - with over 70 other unis already out. UEL workers have their own issues they're angry about. The workers want new workload rules worked out, agreed by the union. At the moment, degree courses start at different times, so staff struggle to get their holidays.
Ian Pattison, East London Socialist Party
There were loud and determined picket lines at Keele University with banners and loads of placards. Drivers entering the university were stopped and given leaflets about the strike. Delivery vans and many cars hooted their horns to show their support.
A key feature of the picket lines was that they included not just lecturers but students as well. Stoke Socialist Party members and supporters of the local National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) group stood shoulder to shoulder with the pickets and were given a very warm welcome. We took away a pile of UCU leaflets and will give them out on our weekly campaign stall in Hanley.
Andy Bentley, Stoke Socialist Party
A Southampton UCU member explaining why she's striking said: "In three years, I've had three jobs at three universities!" A picket line visitor was the uni's vice-chancellor, keen to find out why members hadn't accepted the 'generous' offer. Then it transpires that Southampton University management have paid themselves a bonus for spending less on staff than they'd budgeted for! What more can you say?
Sue Atkins, Southampton Socialist Party
"The time is now" said a UCU picket supervisor at Hallam University when buying the Socialist newspaper for the first time. Another rep exchanged his mobile for my papers to appear in the picket photo, later writing on social media: "I've started selling the Socialist".
Socialist Students were similarly well received at Sheffield University when half a dozen of us toured nine picket lines.
Alistair Tice, Sheffield Socialist Party
In The Socialist 25 February 2020:
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