We look at the latest developments in the University and College Union strike, which has successfully galvanised students to solidarity with staff fighting employers’ attacks on pensions. For more detail on the strike and its background, see here and here.
Mass rallies show public support for strikers
Large public marches and rallies have taken place at cities across the country, with university staff, students and supporters uniting to put pressure on management. Student solidarity appears to be growing stronger and more visible over time. Many day-to-day pickets seem to be becoming larger and more energetic with the passage of time (the end of the cold snap may also have been a factor).
In a further positive sign, MPs, MSPs and Welsh Assembly Members from Labour and other parties clearly felt the need to address many of the rallies – including some who aren’t normally steadfast supporters of trade union struggle.
Vice Chancellors caving on key demands
Numerous university chiefs are now distancing themselves from the position of UUK (Universities UK, the employers’ federation which initiated the pension changes). John W, of Oxford rs21, gives this account of the dramatic scene which pushed Oxford University’s Vice Chancellor into reversing the university’s stance:
“A resolution was proposed to Congregation, the governing body of the university, which is largely composed of some, though not all, of the university staff affected by the pension cuts, reversing the university’s position on the cuts.
The rules of Congregation state that a resolution can be blocked if twenty members object. The VC scraped around and found 21 people at yesterday’s meeting to object. As a consequence of the vote not being taken the mass of Congregation members walked out and held an impromptu vote in a quad outside.
The resolution was passed 418-2. While all this was happening the street outside was filled by students and others chanting ‘Let them vote!’
After the vote, the lecturers came right out and a rally was held, as various lecturers read out the speeches they would have made had the vote been allowed. We parted after a chant of ‘We’re not done!’
Everyone assumed that the vote had a purely symbolic value, but overnight the proctors, responsible for enforcing the university’s rules, deemed that the vote had been a part of the meeting proper. Fearing a vote of no confidence, the VC announced that she was calling an emergency meeting of Council to reverse the university’s position.”
Elsewhere as in Oxford, the pressure of conflict which is driving Vice Chancellors to make concessions. An rs21 member in Cardiff reports:
“On Monday 200 workers and students (although mostly workers) packed into a community hall for a meeting with the Vice Chancellor Colin Riordan. The hall was so full dozens of latecomers had to be turned away. Inside, there were reports of angry demands that the Vice Chancellor come out against the position of Universities UK. The student paper reported that it was striking staff, rather than students, who were more vocal in their criticism. In the end he admitted he wasn’t an ‘expert’ on the pension situation, and later issued a statement that said he would look again at the real valuation of the pensions scheme. Undoubtedly, he felt the heat from a group of workers who have become more determined and organised as the strike has progressed.”
Various universities, such as Keele, Kent, Sheffield, St Andrew’s and Glasgow, have also backed off partially or fully from threats of major pay deductions for action short of a strike, which is set to continue after the main industrial action ends next Friday.
Management hit by wave of student occupations
Student action in solidarity with the strike has been a consistent plus – despite years of attempts to recondition students into a consumer mentality, support has been strong, with students reinforcing picket lines, vocalising their support for the strike to management, and joining marches and occupations.
An occupation at Bristol University ended today with students accepting a number of concessions from the university management, including a commitment to call for reconsideration of the UUK changes; other occupations, in Bath, Exeter and Liverpool, have been met with violence and coercion by management and security.
UCU greenlight more action to come
The UCU Higher Education Committee (HEC) has approved 14 more days of strike action, to take place in April and May around exam season, if demands aren’t met. This would be a devastating “nuclear option” from management’s point of view, and clearly reflects the confidence and sense of shared strength which has been generated in recent weeks.