Picket line conversations

Following eight days of university strikes, Hazel, a Unison member who joined the strike in solidarity with her comrades in UCU, reflects on conversations on the picket lines that offered a different vision about how universities could and should be run.

Picket line conversation
Photo: John Walker

I could have picked many favourite moments from the eight-day picket line at the Institute of Education, which is part of UCL. There were teach-outs every day. These were a continuation of the teach-outs instigated in the 2018 pensions’ strike. Topics included the protests in Chile and Hong Kong, climate change, and social reproduction. We were joined by Morris the picket line dog and his tricks, and we sang ‘Solidarity forever’ and ‘Bread and roses’. But my favourite moments were the discussions I had with colleagues I never usually have the opportunity to speak to.

The picket line offered the opportunity to chat to those we work with in a way we don’t usually get the chance to do – because there is not time in our day-to-day jobs, or because academic and professional staff are not usually afforded the opportunity to discuss each other’s work and ideas. The picket line, and the solidarity offered on it, freed up ideas and discussion and really did offer a different vision of how education and the university could and should be run for the benefit of the students who study there and the workers, whether in academic or support roles.

I joined the strike as a Unison member refusing to the cross the picket lines. Although members of my union had voted by two to one to take strike action on pay, we were prevented from taking official action as the ballot did not meet the turn-out threshold demanded by the Tory anti-union laws. A few of us in Unison had discussed how best we could support the UCU action, and we achieved a guarantee from HR that no Unison member would face any disciplinary action for refusing to cross the picket lines. In the end, a couple of us joined the picket lines for the whole eight days, and a few others struck for one, two or three days in solidarity – even though this meant a huge financial sacrifice from some of the lowest paid workers, who would not receive strike pay. Other Unison members came by to offer solidarity or to bring cake and cups of coffee.

Photo: John Walker

As well as fighting over pensions and pay, the strike has been about fighting against the gender pay gap and against the casualisation of work, especially for those starting their academic careers. Chatting to early career academics on the picket line, and following the many threads on twitter under the #precarity hashtag, has helped me deal with some of my own struggles to find an academic job after completing a PhD. So many stories from early career academics having to work on part time, short term contracts, take up insecure and precarious posts, often juggling several jobs at once, and at the same time expected to publish quality articles in academic journals, turn a PhD into a publishable monograph, undertake public engagement activities and much more. In some contexts these stories could just be a depressing tale of increasing exploitation, but telling our stories as part as an act of resistance can help us feel less isolated and can become a powerful testament of how these experiences are systemic, a result of the way that higher education has been commodified and its workforce ever more casualised.

On the final day of the strike, we were joined on the picket line by striking security guards, porters and cleaners in the IWGB union, fighting to be bought in-house and an end to precarity and discrimination. Together we were a formidable force, gathered outside the main UCL entrance chanting ‘Whose University? Our University’, and then marching down Gower Street and on to protest outside Universities UK headquarters and UCL management. Outsourced workers, academics and support staff fighting together to reclaim our University and for real equality, job security, fair pay and pensions for all.

Industrial action by UCU members will continue with action short of a strike (ASOS). The union has produced some guidance on how to take effective action. Many branches will also be discussing how to reproduce some of the collective experience of the picket line discussed in this article during the next stage of the action.

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