Our universities! Our planet!

The end of the first week of UCU strike action coincided with the latest climate strike on Friday 29 November. Twenty years after the Turtles and Teamsters joined forces at the Battle of Seattle (30 November 1999), rs21 members report on a week when workers and students came together to demand a sustainable future for our universities and our planet. UCU strikes continue next week.

Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg joins school strikers. 29 November 2019. Photo: Zareen Taj

Cambridge

Report by Nick Evans and Zareen Taj: An up-beat first week of picketing, rallies, mass-meetings and teach-outs culminated in a convergence of youth strikers for climate, pickets and student supporters on King’s Parade, in the centre of the city. For the second time in a week, Billy Bragg played to the strike rally.

Over the week, the strike rallies and teach-outs have concentrated on different themes of the dispute: workload, pensions, casualisation. Casualised staff testified to shocking levels of insecurity, and the toll taken on their mental health. At the conclusion of the strike rally on Thursday, striking workers and their supporters marched to HR to deliver hundreds of postcards pledging to raise the bar and stamp out casualised contracts.

On Friday, the school strikers assembled at Shire Hall, and then marched through the city, taking detours via extra picket lines, where they were greeted with big cheers.

Some chants linked the issues facing picketing workers with the climate crisis: ‘Cambridge, hear us say:/ Casualisation’s not okay!/ Cambridge, hear us say:/ Marketisation doesn’t pay!/Cambridge, you’re out of time!/Climate change is a crime!’ There was also a direct demand from the youth strikers to their older comrades: ‘Adults! Adults! Use your vote!’

London

Photos by Steve Eason

Staff have been on strike at UCL, which includes the Institute of Education.

Many students and workers in the Unison union have been refusing to cross picket lines. For striking Unison workers, this has meant making a significant financial sacrifice.

Unison workers were at the front of the march on Friday 29 November, when the university and climate strikers joined forces.

Workers are also taking action to end the gender and race pay gaps in universities.

Brighton

Report by Colin Frost Herbert

Brilliant picket lines. I visited two in a morning on Tuesday at Brighton University and Sussex University.

At Sussex, I joined eight or so pickets who were leafleting the steady drift of students crossing the line. There was a debate about this. We spoke of the Pentonville Five 50 years ago, when picket lines were not for crossing. In 1969, it would have seemed no more normal to pay for education that to have to place a 50 p coin in in every street light today to give illumination. Both were paid for out of general taxation. Today’s 18-year-olds face an education mortgage. The missing apparatus? Picket lines.

Photo: Steve Eason

Brighton University had a healthy picket. They were wearing yellow high visibility jackets sporting ‘picket’ on the reverse. And they had a brazier! Again, the students drifted past politely collecting the strike leaflet, as if they were handouts in a shopping centre. The meaning, history and power of the picket line has lessons to teach.

The weather was cold, the rain annoying but the pickets were organised in four-hour shifts and maintained a general atmosphere of merriment. It’s not clear whether they’re winning yet. But these cold pavements are a place of learning. These people are thinking collectively about the nature of unions, the rank and file, solidarity and what it takes to reverse half a century of defeats.

As my bus returned to Lewes it passed again the distant group outside Sussex and as it moved past the far flung A27 bus stop I saw a second picket of four on the wooded pathway in to the University. Organisation, spirit and determination: the fight on this part of the south coast has started.

Oxford

Photos by John Walker

On USS pensions, UCU is asking for a return to pre-strike levels of pension contribution: that’s 8%, as against 9.6% at the moment, or 11% in 2021.

On Pay and Equality, UCU is asking for: an above-inflation pay offer, at RPI +3%, to begin making up for the pay lost over the last ten years,

…an end to casualisation in higher education, with decent contracts for all university staff,

… and a detailed and binding plan from employers to reduce unsustainable workloads, to close the pay gaps for female and BME staff, and to make the university a more equal place to work.

The strikes continue tomorrow (Monday 2 December) at 60 universities around the UK. Join a picket and show your support.

Collect money for the UCU strike fund

You can show solidarity with the strikers and get some useful discussions about strikes, solidarity and Tory education policy by taking a collection amongst your workmates, friends or neighbours. Details of how to pay money into the strike fund are here.

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