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University unions' ballot: Students and staff - unite and fight!
After another year of being offered real-terms cuts to pay, university workers represented by UCU, Unison and Unite are balloting for a major national campaign of strike action and industrial action against cuts, against zero-hour contracts and the gender pay gap, and for job security. Students can play a key role in working alongside lecturers in common defence of education.
Shockingly, a US lecturer Margaret Vojkto, died homeless and in poverty on 1 September after 25 years lecturing at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Some lecturers in Britain experience the same grim reality as some US academics face: living on the edge of ruin and working 60-hour weeks while vice-chancellors stuff their pockets with six-figure salaries.
As Unison notes, universities are in their best financial position in years; Cardiff University's chief operating officer, last year announced the university is "sitting on a pile of cash" and began a £130 million programme of capital investment. Management tight-fistedness is driven by the model of university as a business not a public service.
Students, meanwhile, can see they've been swindled by 16 years of Labour and Tory manoeuvres to undercut the working class's access to higher education. While tuition fees have gone from nothing in 1997 to £9,000 for most undergraduates, the Coalition are going ahead with Gordon Brown's plan to sell off the loan book and re-write the terms.
At pre-strike ballot meetings, UCU representatives were clear action should be coordinated among as many unions as possible. Rank-and-file university workers need to overcome a conservative leadership and make sure action goes beyond university walls and is built into a one-day general strike. With the NUT, NASUWT, CWU and FBU unions all preparing for action, the time is as ripe as it was in late 2010, when students last rose up.
For students, the announcement that university staff are looking towards potential strike action should give renewed focus to the fight to defend education. As part of the government's austerity programme, 'savings' of over £400 million are planned to higher and further education in the next two years.
Attacks include a £60 million cut to maintenance grants, £260 million to be taken from colleges and £45 million to be snatched from higher education teaching budgets. Students should aim to take joint action with, and fight alongside, workers as much as possible.
This means organising big student turn-outs to support workers on picket lines, mobilising for joint rallies and demonstrations and building united anti-cuts campaigns involving students and staff on every campus and in every college.
When university workers are on strike, students should be 'on strike' too. The announcement of this ballot should act as a call to arms - for students as well as staff.
Last week I brought a motion to the NUS National Executive calling for closer work with UCU and support for the upcoming strike. NUS Vice-President Raechel Mattey, part of the union's Labour Students dominated leadership, successfully opposed the unions' support with an outrageous claim that UCU had "sold students up the river" in the past. Mattey offered no evidence for her claim.
Ignore right-wing sabotage of the growing relationship between students and lecturers - students on every campus should go to their lecturers and tell them they will help build for action because, as NUS paradoxically agrees, the short disruption of a strike is better than the devastation coalition cuts are wreaking on education.
Build for a YES vote, build for strong pickets, and build for a one-day general strike to bring down this tottering government.
Edmund Schluessel, NUS National Executive & UCU member (personal capacities)
16 Feb No fudge with the right wing
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