University strikes escalate from Monday

As UCU and EIS members briefly return to work before escalating their strike on Monday, strikers and rs21 members report from the higher education strike around Britain. Support has been impressive, including from all three Labour leadership contenders. Most of the striking universities plan to be out for four days next week and all of the following week. Building up the solidarity is vital to support this escalation.

Crowd with banners and 'Strike' lettering
Photo: Edinburgh rally, Nicholas Cimini

Higher education employers seemed surprised that many universities passed the undemocratic ballot turnout threshold in the latest anti-union legislation in two parallel disputes over pensions and the ‘four pillars’ of pay inequality, casualisation, workloads, and declining pay. Then they hoped that few staff would actually strike. They claimed their offer was final and that there was no point in further negotiations. When lively action began last week the employers were immediately back in contact with the unions to reopen talks. Speaking at a strike rally, national negotiator and vice-chair of University and College Union (UCU)’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) Jo McNeill said that talks over the four pillars dispute saw positive movement.

Clément Mouhot from Cambridge said that employers have learned to keep quiet during strikes, as previous public statements had often angered workers and helped mobilise. This fits with them binding union negotiators with confidentiality – Jo McNeill was unable to give further details on progress of negotiations. Employers want secrecy because it demobilises members and feeds distrust and divisions within union ranks. That’s why the best approach to negotiations is ‘open bargaining’, rarely practised in Britain but gaining traction globally thanks to advocacy from Labor Notes and figures including Jane McAlevey. Some Scottish UCU officials kept the fact that Vice-Chancellors (top bosses) from all Scottish universities were meeting in Glasgow last week to themselves. However, Nick Evans reported that in Cambridge ‘There is building frustration with the silence of university senior management on the issues raised by the strike on this occasion. So staff and students moved their rally onto the grounds of Senate House, the university’s central administration’.

The end of the 2018 UCU strike had been highly contentious, with no clear votes on key decisions at the HEC and Sally Hunt, General Secretary at the time, accused of going over the heads of the union’s democratic structures and balloting members directly. Jo McNeill reassured strikers that this time any decision to put an offer to ballot would be taken by the HEC in a recorded vote after branches had had a chance to discuss it.

There is some local variation in strike dates (UCU and EIS) but most striking universities will be out Monday 2 – Thursday 5 March and Monday 9 – Friday 13 March. Making a success of this escalation is vital to winning the dispute and avoiding employers thinking they can just sit it out in the hope that unions wouldn’t win re-ballots for further action. Everyone has a part to play in delivering this win.

Solidarity with the strikes has been impressive. Unions brought bodies, banners, donations and practical help. Students have organised to food and drink for strikers, taken part in teach-outs by strikers, created their own leaflets explaining the strike, and picketed urging students to boycott scab lectures. Sussex students blockaded the management headquarters and Edinburgh students occupied the Appleton Tower – action which would hit the university hard because they sub-let parts of it commercially. All these forms of solidarity are more useful than student demands for refunds, which have been widely covered in the media but which reinforce the notion of education as a commodity like any other. At Oxford University, John Walker reported that students had been intimidated into not bringing banners by a rumour that this would be illegal!

Group around Greater Manchester Unite Community banner
Photo: Manchester, Ian Allinson
Students bring cake to pickets
Photo: Bournemouth, Sadie Fulton
Students in chef hats making pancakes outside
Photo: Cambridge, Nick Evans
Students with megaphone and banner reading Solidarity: Staff, Students, unite and fight
Photo: Manchester, Ian Allinson
Tweet from @strikesussex with pictures of blockade of senior management headquarters
Photo: @StrikeSussex via twitter
Sunrise behind a occupied Appelton Tower, tweet from @Occupi_ED
Photo: @Occupi_ED via twitter

All three candidates for the Labour leadership: Long-Bailey, Nandy and Starmer, have all spoken at strike rallies or pickets, as have other MPs including John McDonnell. This would have been inconceivable before Corbyn’s leadership and shows both how expectations have changed and the pressure on candidates to burnish their left credentials. Universities need cooperation from local authorities, who could apply pressure. Ian Allinson reports that Manchester strikers want to see intervention from Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, and from Manchester City Council.

Rebecca Long-Bailey with strikers
Photo: Rebecca Long-Bailey via twitter

Some strikers clearly felt less optimistic as a result of Labour’s election defeat and the first strike days were affected by half-term. It was a remarkable feat to sustain such a high level of participation through biblical weather. Overall, numbers were up and down in different places and it was clear that some strikers are being more selective about what events they attend as the number of strike days increases and the weather remains grim. In some areas, strikers felt that union factions (Independent Broad Left / Progressive Left) to the right of the leadership had tried to undermine the action in the hope of benefiting from demoralisation, or that the full-time apparatus hadn’t pushed the strike as forcefully as they did in 2018.

Everyone can see that there is work to be done to keep the strike strong as it escalates. Strikers are experimenting with different picketing tactics – picketing later into the day, covering more locations or concentrating on key buildings. The union has divided some campuses into zones with coordinators for each zone and for each building within each zone. Building coordinators can keep in touch with all members in their building via email and WhatsApp, keeping people informed and involved.

Many union branches are focussing on different themes on different days to keep interest up.

Nick Evans reports that one Cambridge rally was about

resisting the hostile environment in our universities. The migrant pay gap is worth up to a whole month’s salary for international staff. International staff and students are subject to surveillance, charges for accessing services and restrictive visa conditions. Next week, there will be a particular focus on casualisation in the university. Casualised staff are organising in their departments to ask colleagues in more secure positions to reinforce some of the existing pickets so casualised staff can create a single mass picket on another site on those days

Mitch Mitchell added that this followed a day focused on the pay inequality theme. Nicholas Cimini reported from Edinburgh Napier that

On the picket lines, members told us about excessive workloads, top-down management styles, mindless performance evaluation exercises and widespread bullying. There’s also a real feeling that we’re striking not just for our own terms and conditions, but for the sake of education itself and for the wider labour and trade union movement

Colin Frost-Herbert said pickets at Sussex University were discussing a 79% increase in student numbers over the last ten years, but only a 15% increase in teaching staff.

Jonny Jones reported that pickets at Queen Mary were visited by Jana, the partner of Rayan Crawford. Rayan, who came to Britain when he was just twelve, was among those deported from Britain to Jamaica two weeks ago, separated from Jana and their two sons, aged twelve and three. He suffers from Blount’s disease but was deported with no money, no belongings, no medication and no support plan for his medical condition in Jamaica. Pickets signed a petition calling for Rayan to be returned to his home and family in Tower Hamlets.

Enya Sullivan says that Goldsmiths UCU have passed a motion for an investigation regarding Eyal Weizman being blocked from travelling to the USA and there is also discussion of strikes against the Evolve Goldsmiths plans.

The last planned strike day, 13 March, will coincide with a national strike for climate, providing a theme every branch can take up and which provides more opportunities for solidarity and for the convergence of the climate and labour movements.

Strikers with 'Strike 4 climate justice' banner
Photo: Cambridge, Nick Evans

The report from Grant Buttars that the best turnout in Edinburgh was from the most precarious members was reflected across Britain – pickets were disproportionately from younger workers with insecure contracts and lower pay. It is vital that any settlement to the dispute addresses their needs, not just the more senior and secure workers who tend to predominate in many union structures.

Young women with megaphones
Photo: Bournemouth, Sadie Fulton
Crowd of strikers with signs highlighting pay inequality
Photo: strikers, Kings College London

Marches and rallies also provided opportunities to bring more strikers together and raise morale. The Edinburgh rally on Tuesday (25 March) drew about 400 people and spirits were boosted by UCU and EIS members taking action together. At least four branches marched without official permission from central Edinburgh to Holyrood. Unlike some, this rally included voices of ordinary members. One was among the delegation that went to see the Minister for Higher Education. Nicholas Cimini reports that Liam McCabe, the President of the National Union of Students Scotland, and Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour Party leader, were among the speakers, alongside the Scottish National Party, Greens and Scottish Trade Union Congress. ‘There will be a need, in the coming weeks and days, to make sure that momentum from the strikes is channelled into further rank and file activism, and not controlled from above by trade unions officials’. About 30 rank and file UCU members met after the rally and agreed to set up a branch delegates network in Scotland, meeting on a weekly basis. Mike Arrowsmith reports that in St Andrews around 80 strikers staged ‘a cold but well-spirited, lively and noisy march and rally outside University management offices at College Gate accompanied by pipes and drums to mark the end of the first five days of action’.

Big crowd outside building
Photo: St Andrews, Mike Arrowsmith
Gary Younge speaking to crowd with microphone
Photo: Gary Younge at Goldsmiths, Enya Sullivan
Crowd with giant 'strike' lettering
Photo: Edinburgh, Pete Cannell

Making the escalation over a success requires the whole movement to step up solidarity, not just with donations from union branches but collections and workplace visits which build connections and build power. This is particularly important for workers in universities prevented from striking by the anti-union laws. Thousands of workers are in the same unions as the strikers and wanted to be on strike themselves. They could be raising huge amounts of money – not only to support the strikers but to strengthen their own organisation. Ian Allinson reports that Manchester Metropolitan University management responded to UCU’s failure to pass the ballot threshold there with new attacks on workload. This should be a warning to workers at all non-striking universities: this is still your fight.

2 COMMENTS

  1. In Bristol, while Tyndal Avenue and the surrounding university buildings were deserted, around 200 demonstrators gathered on the steps of the Victoria Rooms. They were there to hear speeches from local UCU officials and the union’s General Secretary, before proceeding on a march down Park Street to College Green. Trade unionists attended from nearby Bath and the not so nearby Exeter, and the crowds were bolstered by local students who had turned out in solidarity. The students are organising solidarity efforts through Bristol Student-Staff Solidarity (https://www.facebook.com/bristolstudentstaffsolidarity/). The workers I spoke to were positive about the strike’s prospects and noted that senior management at the University were more understanding than in 2018. Back then relations between strikers and management were so bad that the Vice-Chancellor had to sneak out of buildings, whereas last week he went so far as meeting workers on the picket.

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