Reports from different campuses


February 24, 2020

Warwick striking workers

For those who have not experienced it, picketing on a sprawling suburban campus can be disorienting. There are dozens of vehicle and pedestrian entry points and certain buildings—the Students’ Union, the grocery store, student accommodation—are not part of the strike yet built into the fabric of the campus. How do you ask someone not to cross a picket line when you cannot tell if they are going to their flat or to deliver a lecture? For better or worse, Warwick UCU has gained ample experience in the last 2 years and learned that focusing pickets on the road and near the bus drop-off at the front of the campus lets us demonstrate our strength and collective support for the strike.

While today’s picket line started in the rain, spirits were high as music played from the speakers and supportive honks sounded from passing cars. In lieu of a teach out, we played The Social Strike Game (created by Plan C), collectively strategizing how to take over a city council and stop the incursion of fascism–with only a brief interlude after a gust of wind toppled our purple gazebo. Naturally, the weather improved just in time for us to pack up for the day.

In related news, local Royal Mail workers have voted to support our strike. A few UCU Warwick members are due for an early 6am start later this week to be present on the picket line and disrupt mail delivery to the university.

QMUL

QMUL pickets were today 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. The online petition can be found here.

UAL

At UAL it was no mean feat to cross the 50% threshold to secure our right to strike. Inspired by comrades at the 60 institutions who took 8 days of strike action in November & December, UCU CSM, LCC, LCF & CCW (together UAL-UCU) reached out to hundreds of members through phone-banking, personal emails and conversations with colleagues. The result was a phenomenal rise in turn-out from 34% a few months earlier, to 54% in the reballot, with 81% in favour of strike action.

Being one of 22 institutions not in the USS dispute, our first days on the picket line have focused on UCU’s Four Fights: Pay, Equality, Workloads & Casualisation. We are also mobilising UAL’s 2500 Hourly-Paid Lecturers under the slogan “Cas-UAL-ised” — with our new blog — asking HPLs to submit anonymous stories about their working conditions and sign an open letter to students. Also, we have combined forces with the UAL: End Outsourcing campaign, with cleaners and security staff devoting their next demo (on 26th Feb) as a show of solidarity with the UCU Strike. Pickets have been showing solidarity with UCSC & RMT too.

Goldsmiths

Attention at Goldsmiths’ picket line has been taken up by the urgent threat of the recently announced ‘Evolving Goldsmiths’ restructuring plan. Pitched as a necessary rationalisation of underperforming departments aimed at tackling Goldsmiths’ significant financial challenges, the recently appointed Warden, Frances Corner, is yet to provide sufficient financial detail of how this nebulous austerity rhetoric is actually going to recover coffers. A voluntary severance scheme has been rolled out but there has been no information given about the jobs that are at risk. Already workers at the university gym look to be out of a job after it was announced that the facility would be closing as part of the restructure; projected module reductions for as soon as April threaten the jobs of casualised members of staff; while Departmental Business Managers fear the centralisation of power away from departmental autonomy will spell the redundancy of their positions.
Goldsmiths UCU have issued four demands:

  • The pausing of the Evolving Goldsmiths plans so that SMT may consult collectively on how best to meet the financial challenges.
  • The immediate release of a whole slew of financial information and Council minutes.
  • The extension of the consultation period on the current restructure of School Administrators, DBMs and HoDs.
  • The synchronisation of the change of management of DBMs so that this would move from 1 April to 1 August 2020

If the senior management team has not responded to these demands by 4pm on Thursday 27th Feb, UCU HQ will send a letter to the Warden notifying her that a local dispute has been officially initiated. A protest to stop the gym closure is planned to coincide with the ‘no response’ deadline. Goldsmiths UCU will meet on 3rd March to decide its future course of action if the local dispute takes place.

Kings

An ode to students: from the picket at KCL
Nithya Natarajan

We’ve been told again and again to ‘think of the students’. To make materials available for them in lieu of lectures, to answer any and all emails they send us, and to work overtime on non-strike days to make sure they feel supported with extra office hours. This is a direct and indirect message I’ve received from multiple layers of management at KCL, as if our collective action in asking that our pensions not turn into a veritable gambling scheme is an anathema to our love of students. I’ll admit, this made me scared to tell the students at first, scared of who they would blame. But of course, the students proved the managers wrong. We’ve had so many messages of solidarity, rage directed upwards to overpaid managers rather than us, and today: pastries, cakes, cookies, and love on the KCL picket in Bush House. Students are canny, they understand that strike is necessary, that without it our pensions would fall further and our pay, workload, precarity, and pay gap would worsen. There are certainly those that disagree, but for the most part they bring a message of solidarity and bags filled with baked goods. All power to students.

Greenwich

With a sound system on loan from IWGB and the sun shining, the picket line kicked off at 8am in front of the grand west gate at the University of Greenwich.

It was the first UCU strike at Greenwich since I joined the university in 2018 and so it is hard to compare to previous years (Greenwich did not meet the threshold to strike in November 2019, and as a post-1992 university did not take part in the 2018 USS strikes). A lecturer, however, who has been around for longer said the general turnout, mood and motivation for the strike was much stronger than previous years. The strike is against the casualisation of work, inequality of pay, chronic overwork and low pay, summed up by the best placard-pun of the day: Greenwich means overtime (the West Gate picket line happens to run almost entirely alone the Greenwich meridian). Don’t cross the line!

I had an interesting chat with an outsourced disability support worker who described some of the difficulties that outsourced assistant staff have in the university. Despite these workers effectively doing a teaching role (such as helping to plan essays and manage time), they are never seen as teaching staff by the university. If anyone knows if they can join UCU, then let me know and I will pass it on. They want to respect the strike but also are on a zero hours contract!

The next strike day will be on Monday. For now, let me share with you our new chant of the day: (to the tune of Pink Floyd):

If you want your education
Give your teachers equal pay.
Hey! VC, give us what we want!

Inter-union solidarity

SM & ND

This strike has been marked so far by systematic expressions of inter-union solidarity, both on social media, at members meetings, and on picket lines. The Johnson government has been explicit about its intention to pass even more punitive anti-trade union laws. The defeat of the Labour party in the December 2019 elections has made it evident for those who believed in a parliamentary path to social justice, and has reconfirmed for those who did not, that workers have to take the struggle against neoliberalism into their own hands. This was the message that was repeated on 25 February at a meeting organised by UCU London, to which other unions were invited. Solidarity messages came from the CWU, Unite, PSC, BAFWU, NEU, and a visiting representative of the Chicago’s teachers’ union. Climate justice organisations were also present, stressing the importance UCU’s motion at the TUC to support school walkouts for climate. The UCU strike is the largest-scale industrial action since the elections, and speakers repeatedly made the point that a UCU victory could galvanise workers and set a precedent for other unions. The UCU strike could potentially pave the way in how to fight racialised and gendered systems of class oppression in a political environment more and more hostile to trade unions. This is for inter-union meetings, now on to inter-union solidarity on the picket. UCU members teamed up with RMT reps on Monday morning to go visit each other’s picket lines, first the RMT picket at Elephant and Castle, then the UCU pickets at KCL, and finally the UCU picket at SOAS. The point was made that these solidarity visits are important in trying to link our various struggles into one single fight against capitalism. RMT workers were on strike on the Bakerloo line for two 24-hour stints from February 21 to 24. The strike was around the imposition of a new timetable that cuts turnaround time from 10 minutes to 6 minutes. Turnaround time is the time a driver has when they get to the end of the line and have to go to the toilet, fill up their water bottle or make tea, and then walk to the other end of the train. Management have tried to tell the Bakerloo drivers that 6 minutes is enough time to do all of this. The drivers responded with an unequivocal ballot that no, it is not enough. University workers, although they are in what is obviously a very different industry, face a very similar ideological barrage from their management – an ideology that centres around squeezing every single minute of extra work from them. On the KCL and SOAS pickets, the RMT reps told UCU workers that we face the same attacks on our time, from the same enemy (our managers), and that we should fight back with the same tactic, the strike. Managers are organised across industries and attack workers with the same tactics everywhere. To fight their joined-up attack we need a joined-up response and coordinated strikes. The RMT reps concluded by saying that we supposedly have an organisation that does this, the TUC, but “if you have noticed the TUC having any influence on this kind of joined-up fightback let us know, because we certainly haven’t”.

Flying picket report

Today London UCU branches rallied in Tavistock Square outside UUK headquarters before marching to the City of London, where USS is based. Elisabeth Fauquert, from Université de Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne), joined us to bring solidarity from our French comrades and news of their ongoing struggle. Before the rally we toured the Bloomsbury picket lines at UCL, Birkbeck, and SOAS, where students and staff stood in solidarity outside university buildings. We had time to reflect on our shared experiences in French and UK higher education: the importance of strike funds (‘caisse de grève’ in case you are wondering) for precarious staff, the frustration we feel knowing that our students’ education has been negatively impacted by the decisions of our employers, and the disappointment we’ve felt when senior ‘radical’ colleagues have not joined us on the picket line. Indeed, as Elisabeth underscored in her speech to the crowd before the demo, French higher education has been acutely impacted by encroaching neoliberal reforms which threaten to take them in the direction of UK HE. We are not alone in our fight, and we need to find ways to build solidarity across borders.

Particular thanks are due to the comrade on the cargo bike, courageously cycling a loud speaker blasting radical tunes to keep us dancing and singing throughout the demo. Not all heroes wear capes, my friend.


author

The University and College Worker

Bulletin written for, and by, University and College Workers