Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

Further to the previous reports from around the country on the joint Higher Education strike action on Tuesday 3rd December, we publish here a report from the UCLU Marxists, who showed solidarity with their striking staff by passing a motion of support in the UCLU Council, helping on the picket line, and raising money at meetings for a strike fund. In addition, we publish two interviews with representatives from the striking university workers.

Further to the previous reports from around the country on the joint Higher Education strike action on Tuesday 3rd December, we publish here a report from the UCLU Marxists, who showed solidarity with their striking staff by passing a motion of support in the UCLU Council, helping on the picket line, and raising money at meetings for a strike fund. In addition, we publish two interviews with representatives from the striking university workers.

As with the 31st October strike, UCLU Marxists attempted to submit the Marxist Student Federation resolution on the strike to be voted on at the UCLU Council. Having learnt from the previous attempt, this time the resolution was submitted as early as possible and made it through to the meeting despite the Union’s efforts to get us to withdraw it. At the Council meeting on Tuesday 26th November, the motion was passed almost unanimously. Although there were some amendments by a UCLU Sabbatical Officer, the motion retained a Marxist character, calling for the “banks and big business to be taken into common ownership under democratic and workers’ control”!

Like the previous strike UCLU Marxists had agreed to arrive outside the main picket line on Gower Street at 7am and were among the first there. The picket lines overall were less populated this time, especially on Gower Street, but perhaps because they were more spread out to avoid people trying to cross unnoticed via smaller campus entrances. However, this made UCLU Marxists an even more dominant presence where we were stationed, with a host of new members turning out and forming the bulk of the picket line. Again, UCLU Marxists had produced an article on the strike in our weekly bulletin ‘The Spark’, which was well received by those striking and handed out to students crossing the picket line to raise awareness of their potential role in the struggle.

In general there was a very positive mood on the picket line, especially as there were noticeably fewer staff and students attempting to cross the picket line, and those who were crossing on the whole seemed more aware of the strike and why it was happening. Striking workers up and down the picket lines reported dozens who had been turned away, while our own comrades managed to turn away several students. UCL quad and Malet Place, which are usually teeming with students particularly in the mornings, were completely desolate.

The fruits of our own work during the previous strike were reaped as we built on the rapport we had made with shop stewards and union members; they recognised UCLU Marxists as a serious force on campus which stood in total solidarity with their cause. From this recognition we made more good contacts to further our involvement in the campaign and bring the workers of UCL closer to the Marxist Society.

Talking to UCU steward Tony Brown, who we interviewed at the previous strike, he echoed the sentiment of the Unison Branch Secretary, Yassin Benserghin, when he spoke at a recent UCLU Marxist meeting, about the need for greater unionisation on a campus divided by sub-contracted labour. This problem was epitomised when we stopped a ‘UCL Facilities’ van outside the main gates on Gower Street. The driver said that he sympathised with the strike but feared for his job too much to get involved, as he worked for a privately outsourced company which in reality separated him from UCL workers. Here the barrier which must be overcome by the Higher Education unions was spelled out, as was the necessity of a campaign for unionisation on campus to achieve it. Based on our intervention yesterday and how receptive union reps and workers were, the UCLU Marxist Society can play a big role in that campaign.

Apart from agitational work, the UCLU Marxist Society demonstrated its solidarity with striking Higher and Further Education staff by replicating the strike fund we collected for 31st October. We used it to buy food and hot drinks for strikers across the UCL picket lines, which were greatly appreciated all around and strengthened the links the society had made with the unions. In addition, we interviewed a Unison member for ‘The Spark’, and one of the Marxist society members publicised the strike on UCLU’s radio station Rare FM, whilst another comrade was interviewed on the strike by Reel News.

Interview with a worker from the UCL branch of UNISON:

MarxSoc: Thank you for talking to the UCLU Marxist Society about the strike action you’re involved in today.

So, this is the second national joint Higher Education strike in the last five weeks. What was the response to the last strike and why is the action ongoing?

We had a really good turnout on our first day of action on the 31st October, a lot of new members joined on the picket line itself and a lot of members became active and started organising our mentor meetings, so it was a really positive result. We have discussed that in order to achieve our aim, win this struggle and break this pay freeze, we’re going to need sustained action. We’re not going to achieve much if we take one or two days off; we’re in this for the long run.

MarxSoc: And, talking to you from UCLU Marxist Society, a student society of UCL standing in solidarity with you on the picket line, what is the students’ role in this struggle and how can we affect what’s going on?

I think it’s great to see a lot of students here, especially members of the Marxist Society, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on our picket line. It’s in the long-term interests of students that there is a university sector where staff receive fair pay and decent working conditions.

MarxSoc: That’s true - these cuts are affecting us all. But we still see some staff going into work today and students going into lectures. You mentioned people already signing up to your union and the great response to the last strike - what steps can be taken for for greater awareness and unionisation on campus?

I think that students play an important role in creating a fair working environment at university. Students see and deal with staff on a day-to-day basis - they see their lecturers, their librarians, their office and admin staff - and it’s really important that they spread the message about this strike and the benefits of joining a trade union. A lot of the benefits that we enjoy today, we take for granted, such as holiday pay, sick pay, annual leave - all of these have been achieved by trade unions, by taking collective action. So students have a role to play in spreading the word about these benefits and about this industrial dispute over fair pay.

MarxSoc: So what are the demands being put forward in this dispute? What do Unison and the other unions involved want to achieve?

What we’re trying to do is break a four-year pay freeze. Our pay has been frozen for the fourth year running now, while the cost of living is increasing. Everything is going up except our pay, so in real terms, members of staff are suffering a pay cut and there is a cost-of-living crisis with university staff, so we’re trying to break that. Also, out of this dispute we want an end to zero-hour contracts, to work towards an end to the gender pay gap, and we’re asking for a commitment to a living wage.

MarxSoc: And how do you see these demands in this struggle linked to the wider struggle nationally and worldwide? We saw an FBU delegate come and give solidarity to the picket line at the 31st October strike - how important do you think it is for trade unions across the board to unite in this wider struggle?

There are a lot of industrial disputes taking place at the moment. Like you mentioned, the Fire Brigade Union is on strike; we’ve had teachers on strike, postal workers on strike - it’s important that we all get together and take collective action to break this austerity agenda, and this freeze and attack on working people’s pay and working conditions. Working people all over the country are being asked to work more and get paid less and they’re facing a cost-of-living crisis. Everything is going up in the cost of living: transport, food bills, energy bills. Everything’s increasing, but their pay is frozen. We think that is unfair, and so joint action is important.

MarxSoc: Absolutely. Thanks a lot for the interview. Solidarity from the UCLU Marxist Society and forward to socialism!

Interview with Tom Cowley, Unite member at the City University of London

Socialist Appeal: What is your job here?

Tom Cowley: I’ve worked here for nine years, as a union member, originally for City Sport [the sports centre down the road for students, staff, and members of the public]. It has been shut down for two years now because it’s being re-built, and unfortunately we’re one of the departments to face up to a lot of job cuts, as obviously with the sports centre closing they made the majority of the staff redundant. At the moment I’m on the main campus providing classes and activities for students and staff until the new sports centre opens in 2014.

SA: Can you say a bit about the strike today, why are your members out?

TC: For the last five years we have had in effect a pay cut / pay freeze; it's a 1% pay rise that they have offered us, and over five years that equates to a cut in pay in real terms out of everyone’s pocket. It’s in no way acceptable, as it’s not linked to inflation or the cost of living. Costs are going up to survive and to pay the rent and so on; it’s unreasonable I think that they [the university management] are not willing to budge – what they’re offering us isn’t a fair amount of pay. We would like to continue negotiations and come to some sort of mutual agreement, rather than them being quite belligerent.

We’re also in the middle of a process of ‘professional services review’ – there’s part two coming up now. It’s led to a lot of early retirements and people taking voluntary redundancy, and so we’re facing a total destruction of what was the City University of London, and so the whole culture and ethos of it is turning into more of a McDonalds – the idea is that it’s ‘service with a smile’; it’s not genuine, it’s not what university should be about.

Obviously we’re on strike because of pay, but there are other issues involved. Due to the restructuring it means you get more and more sub-contracted staff being employed on below minimum wage. They’re overworked, underpaid, - they’re not only doing a 7-8 hour shift here, but then they go and do another shift somewhere else, or do shifts on the weekend, and that’s just part of a creeping process that is coming into the university, and we want to highlight and stop and address this – to ensure that people who work here are paid a fair wage and also that the students are getting a proper experience, so that it’s not just about a fake ‘have a nice day’, city bank / McDonalds style, - it should be a real environment for learning, and people need to be paid a living wage.

SA: What has the support been like from the student union?

TC: There’s been some support. On the first day of strike action they voted to support the strike. Some of them came along on the day on the first day round, so there’s been some support from them definitely.

SA: What’s the mood like generally among the staff?

TC: My personal experience, not just in my union role, but as someone who has worked here a long time – it’s at quite a low, there’s quite a lot of negativity and depression, and a feeling of that even if their job is safe from the professional services review, they don’t want to stay here, so yeah, it’s quite a downer really, which is unfortunate.

SA: What do you think are the next steps?

TC: To continue the strike action. Obviously it is a national strike, so whether it is as effective here as it is in other places, we’ve got to keep raising the issues, keep on talking to as many staff and students as possible, make them aware of what is going on, and obviously in some universities, in the last strike they were completely shut down.

In the last strike, security staff were out, almost all the visual technicians, and the library staff, so they managed to almost completely shut down the site. At one point nearly all the security staff were out, but then management decided to offer them double pay and a day off in lieu or something along those lines, so a couple of them decided to work. That’s their choice, but before that it was going to have to be a case of the university being completely closed down.

We want to continue with it as long as we can. It’s not easy – obviously every time you go out on strike you lose a day’s pay, and it’s close to Christmas and the new year with all the expenses coming up, it’s not ideal, but it’s got to be done. I feel like a lot of staff around here, and that I’ve had enough. I’m not going to just put up with it and go and find another job – I want to address the issues of pay, I want to address the issues of the Vice Chancellor, the way he’s bleeding this university. The upper management of the university are just disregarding what’s best for the students, what’s best for the staff – they’re trying to tear the place apart.

SA: Is there anything you’d like to see the TUC or the Labour Party doing in support?

TC: I’ve kind of given up on the Labour Party, I think they’re gone too much to the middle road to try and get votes, and that they’re trying to distance themselves now from the unions, although traditionally there is that connection. I haven’t got much faith in the Labour Party. I just want to continue at the kind of level I’m at, try and encourage more people to join the union, try and encourage people to be more committed to the university rather than just getting out of here and leaving. I want to fight for what is worthwhile about this place, and support each other as colleagues.

It’s being portrayed by management that we don’t care about the students, and that we’re trying to disrupt their learning. This isn’t at all the case – we are here for the students, that’s what all our jobs are about, and I think there is a disregard [by the management] for those of us who work here, particularly at the lowest levels in this university – the cleaners, the maintenance staff, the people in the cafes making coffee and so on. They [the management] have a very patronising view that we are just expendable, and that they can just bring other people in from sub-contractors, and that it’s not important what you pay people or how you treat them, so long as they’re smiling.