The most militant action ever taken by the University and College Union (UCU) began this week. Academic staff at 62 universities have formed picket lines with the intention of taking a total of 14 days of strike action over cuts to their pensions.
This attack on staff is part of the wider marketisation of education, which has led to a grinding down of working and living conditions for staff in the education sector. In line with the general trend in society, it is workers who are being made to pay for the fact that the economy is stuck in a low-growth, low-investment crisis.
In that sense, this strike must be a political one. The question being raised is: who should be paying for the economic crisis? Is it the people who actually keep universities (or any other sector of the economy) functioning on a day-to-day basis? Or is it those who hoard massive amounts of society’s wealth and only invest it in order to make profits for themselves?
Marxists argue that the wealth and power of society’s parasites - which they use to exploit the rest of us - should be taken away from them. Workers, like academic staff, should be given control of society and the economy so that institutions like universities can be run for need instead of profit. A lecturer knows far better than some management bureaucrat what resources and priorities the education system requires.
What we need is the socialisation of the education system - and of the economy as a whole. This is what the fight for socialism is all about.
That’s why, along with staff, Marxist students have been - and will continue to be - out on the picket lines around the country. We’re fighting alongside them for our education system, and for socialism.
The mood on the picket lines has been inspiring. With determination and solidarity we can do what’s necessary to win this strike.
Kings College London
From Kings College London, Joe Attard - a member of the Marxist society and a UCU activist - explained his position on the dispute to Adam Boulton of Sky News.
Joe explained that the money exists in society to fund decent pensions and free education, but that it’s in the wrong hands. He said we need to go further than simply taxing the rich and start expropriating some of this wealth.
As Boulton himself pointed out, this would amount to a major social upheaval. This strike has to be just one part of a broader fight to change society.
The KCL Marxists also spoke to the local student press about the strike action. They report that:
[The Marxist society] also asserts that students can do more than striking in solidarity. They should, in his opinion, ‘send angry messages to Ed Byrne [the KCL Vice-Chancellor] and ask him why he is not supporting the UCU, why he isn’t supporting his colleagues and their pensions. They should demand he comes out in support of striking lecturers.’
‘Students have a vested interest in supporting strikes,’ [they] concluded, ‘After all, it is your education.’
Several members of the Liverpool Marxist Society supported the striking workers of the UCU at their picket line on the University of Liverpool campus.
We arrived at 7am with a total of eight comrades in attendance. We met with striking lecturers, students who wished to support the strike, and other political activists at the Foundation Building on Brownlow Hill. This is the main administration building at the university and is where vice- chancellor Janet Beer (who is also the head of Universities UK) works. She was not in today; conveniently she was in London.
It was here that we interviewed one of the UCU members on strike, who described the background and wider context to this dispute - as well as the future actions planned to take the struggle forward.
Students from other universities around the city and region were also in attendance offering their support. Benjamin Warren, a student at Edgehill University (who are not involved in the dispute), came to show his solidarity and told us:
“I came because the strikers deserve unconditional support from all good socialists. Any effort that anyone can make should be made. There’s nothing more important to our movement than workers organising to use their collective bargaining power.”
We were met with open arms by the university workers, who appreciated our efforts and the support we gave to them.
Solidarity was also shown by taxi drivers, bus drivers and motorists, who beeped their horns in support of those on the picket line. National press photographers and the BBC attended to interview people at the strike. This included three of our own Marxist Society members - Heather, Stephanie and Beatrice - who gave their views to North West Tonight.
After attending this picket line in the morning, we also did a tour of the picket lines at the various lecture theatres around the campus.
The mood on the picket lines was one of enthusiasm and camaraderie. There were offers of hot drinks and biscuits to help combat the cold weather. Most importantly, there was socialising between the various groups present. Students and other workers expressed their solidarity and friendship in the struggle - to fight for fairness and for a decent pension for all workers.
The level of support and militancy of the students joining the strike was remarkable everywhere. In Sussex, where the Marxist society participated actively in the picket lines, students blocked the roads into the university to prevent buses from bringing people across the picket line.
The Marxist society at UCL joined the picket lines in solidarity with staff. One UCL comrade, Dora Dimitrova, was interviewed by the BBC. She told them that “education should be free".
"This particular strike is about the pensions, but it’s important to contextualise it against wider struggles against the marketisation of education.”
You can read the full BBC article here.
Emilie Dufwa, NUS delegate from UCL and a member of the UCL Marxist society, spent the morning discussing with students and persuading them not to cross the picket lines. She has written up a Q&A of how to convince students not to cross the picket lines, which comrades can use for future days of strike action. The full Q&A can be read here.
In Cambridge, the Marxist society organised a delegation to the picket lines. One comrade reported that:
The strikes are drawing in lots of new people. The picket line on the West Cambridge site of the university was maybe 6-10 people strong, mostly IT workers from the University Information Services. One striker I was chatting to told me that in the 2013 strikes he crossed the picket line as he felt it was right that everyone tighten their belts a bit, but this was a red line.
Student solidarity is having a big effect. The same person told me about how encouraging the occupation of Senate House lawn yesterday afternoon in Cambridge was.
There is a feeling that this strike can be won in the next few days. One striker pointed to today’s Times headline, which is along the lines of ‘Vice Chancellors split’, and also to how the government seems to be trying to play a neutral(ish) position, calling for negotiations to reopen with all options on the table.
If the strike isn’t won in the next four weeks, there is a mandate for strikes at any time over the next six months, and the workers on the picket line want to use it. There is no definite plan, but ideas were raised such as strikes targeted during the exam period to have maximum effect.
I raised the idea that Unite and Unison should ballot their members for strike action, many of whom are being forced to cross the picket lines because the inaction of the trade union leaders means that they won’t receive strike pay and have no recourse if they are sacked as a result of respecting the strike. This went down very well.
A joint rally was organised at 2pm by the Cambridge University Student Union and UCU branch. This took place outside the Old Schools - the central administration building. During this rally, the mood of the students was electric.
One Socialist Appeal activist brought solidarity from the university’s Unite the Union branch. In a short speech, Arsalan Ghani described how the bosses, bankers and vice-chancellors are driving down our living, working and learning conditions.
Arsalan explained that the real solution to overcome the crisis is through socialist revolution. This suggestion was widely applauded, as you can see in the video below.
We also visited the Sidgwick site picket and had good conversations with the strikers and got several contacts. And another comrade went to the West Cambridge picket and had a good discussion with strike participants there.
We will be going along in coming days to further pickets to show our support.
In SOAS, University of London, the Marxist society joined the picket lines early in the morning to offer solidarity to staff. Fiona Lali, NUS delegate and President of the SOAS Marxist society reported from the picket line:
SOAS Marxist society attended the picket line from 8am on Thursday morning to show our support for striking lecturers. The atmosphere was energetic and it was clear that student solidarity significantly improved the mood of those striking.
We brought food and drink out of money we raised through society meetings and were able to speak directly to a teaching assistant who explained the strike and its wider consequences:
“I’m striking because of the pension raid – which is taking away 40% of people’s pensions. But also this strike is part of a bigger picture – that is the casualisation of labour. Staff contracts currently are insecure and on very low pay. There is huge inequality in higher education compared to the pay of vice chancellors and those further down in the system.
"Students can support the strike and show solidarity by not crossing the picket line. But, more importantly, this is only the first step. If we win this fight, students must be involved in the overall fight to end outsourcing and ensure we have fair contracts for all staff.”
In Manchester, Marxist students joined the picket lines and spoke with lecturers about why they’re striking and what the next steps are. Sarah from the Manchester Marxist society reported from the picket lines:
Two politics lecturers said that they know the university sees this as a key struggle: if the bosses win it will weaken the union, but if they lose it will unleash a wave of struggle amongst the lecturers and students.
Overall, the main take away from the picket line was that people were very optimistic and think the university will buckle soon. They’re willing to fight until it does.
In Warwick, the comrades have been on the picket lines, shoulder-to-shoulder with staff. Thomas from the Warwick Marxists reported that:
The strike at Warwick has seen about 50-120 people on the pickets so far each day. The moral is very high, with many very optimisitc that we will be victorious. There are approximately 4-5 pickets across campus, with the main one focused at central campus with music, banners, dogs, arts, etc. There were about 40 students present.
The Marxist society also put out two appeals for students to join them in showing solidarity with striking staff:
Warwick Marxists are at the pickets supporting the UCU strikes – please come along and show your support.
Lecturers are fighting against significant pension cuts that are not only unfair for workers themselves but will deter lecturers and tutors from working at universities, lowering education standards. Please show solidarity.
Everyone and their dogs were at the pickets today supporting the UCU strikes.
It’s vitally important that we as students support this movement, which is not only fighting to secure working people’s pensions, but also fighting against the broader issue of marketisation in higher education. This marketisation is undermining teaching standards through attacks on lecturers and tutors.
Only by uniting with the teaching staff - by attending pickets and not crossing the picket lines - can we ensure the strike achieves its goals. If this strike is unsuccessful, it will need to be extended into the exam period, which could be far more devastating for students. Lecturers need your support now.
Whilst on the picket lines, the comrades from the Marxist society have been interviewing staff members about why they’re taking strike action. One of the video interviews can be seen here, and the rest can be watched on the Warwick Marxists Facebook page.
In Leeds, the urgency to protect pensions overcame many workers’ reticence to disrupt students’ learning, with a huge turnout on the pickets on the first day of action.
Students and non-UCU staff were overwhelmingly positive in their response to the arguments presented about fair pensions and its connection to a general end of marketisation and casualisation in universities.
After picketing ended, a successful demonstration marched to the centre of the city and attracted support from about 400 people, including not only UCU members but students, NEU activists, and members of the public.
Despite the rarity of success in UCU’s recent strike actions, staff’s resolve to win this dispute has been hardened by the seriousness of the situation, the greater scale of the action being taken, and the strength of support among students, non-UCU staff, and the wider working class.
On the first day of strikes today the mood on the pickets was one of positivity, with lots of picket lines. A lot of the staff that had to go to work showed strong support for the strikes. Some even went to get hot water for teas and did coffee runs for those picketing.
There is a strong sense of unity among the lecturers and frustration towards the UUK (University UK) and upper management for not coming back to the table and forcing them to strike. Some lecturers feel like this is the last fight; if they lose they will leave. Management has showed their complete disregard for the rest of the staff as they attack department after department with cuts while increasing their own pay.
All the staff were very happy to see so many students coming out in support of the strikes and helping where they can. The campuses were quite empty compared to normal, showing that a majority of students are not going to lectures and are supporting the strikes.
A lot of those on campus showed support to the staff picketing and signed the petition to stop the cuts (both to the lecturers’ pensions and to the local support staff’s pension, which upper management is also trying to cut).
The "teach-out" in the afternoon was also great and very well worth attending. More are planned for coming strike days.
At Leicester University, there was a good attendance on pickets in the morning yesterday and strikers were positive and hopeful. Over one hundred attended a solidarity rally in support of lecturers from 11am until around 2pm.
Today, on Friday, pickets were again lively in the morning.
Those on strike who I talked to were very encouraged by student support and by support from DMU (De Montfort University), who are not on strike.
There were good chants from those in attendance, with some shouting "One solution: revolution".
We had a few conversations with passing students to encourage them to not go to class. Nevertheless, many were oblivious about the strike and the need not to cross the picket line.
Positively, in Leicester the student union supports the strike and has organised a “teach-in” throughout the coming weeks.
In Norwich, at the University of East Anglia (UEA), the university is still on reading week. Nevertheless, the Marxist society comrades have sent a delegation to the picket lines that have already been established in advance of a much greater show of force next week.
Josh from the UEA Socialist Society reports:
At UEA the UCU picket has begun strongly, with moods high and an appetite for the struggle ahead.
Approximately 40 members of staff and supporters have been on the pickets on each day - an impressive number considering that the first days of the strikes fall on a university-wide break.
A small contingent of comrades have been attending these early days, with plans to escalate our intervention when students return next week.
Positive conversations have been had with members of staff, who are all excited to see students turn out in solidarity and readily agree with our position on the damage being done by privatisation and the pursuit of profit in higher education.
The picket lines formed early Thursday morning, with UCU strikers and students gathering outside the main gate of Glasgow Uni at 8am. With unexpectedly mild weather and a large cohort of student supporters, spirits were high. Morale was buoyed by old union hymns and shows of solidarity from delivery drivers who refused to cross the picket line.
The defiant and confident atmosphere peaked as we took to the streets to march from the West End to the UCU rally in the centre of town. Following the Glasgow Uni UCU banner, a caravan of yellow placards snaked through Kelvingrove Park and along Sauchiehall street.
We paused briefly as the official picketers were warned by the police that they could face sanctions if they continued to walk on the road without permission. While the UCU banner continued its lawful business along the pavement, the marching students exploited the loopholes of the law to hold the street all the way to the Buchanan Street steps.
As the Glasgow Uni UCU and students crowded around the steps, cheers erupted as the procession from Strathclyde Uni and Scottish Association of Marine Science arrived.
At the rally, all speakers spoke about the strike being more than a pensions dispute, but a front line defence of higher education from marketisation and eventual privatisation. All spoke with gratitude towards the students for their support, clearly understanding the need for workers and students to be united in defence of free, universal education.
These are just some of the reports from around the country of the work that Marxist students have been doing to support their lecturers in their struggle for the future of our education. We’ll be on the picket lines, shoulder-to-shoulder with our staff for as long as it takes to achieve victory.
And we want to see other unions start to link up with UCU. Other unions whose members are employed by universities, such as Unite and Unison, must now ballot their members for action to support the UCU. These staff are also facing attacks to their working conditions which could be the basis for a ballot. All these attacks come from the same place – the desire to marketise education for the purposes of profit.
The UUK will try to ride these strikes out, banking on the movement running out of steam. We have to let them know that we’re not going to give up that easily.
We’ll support our staff through these 14 days of strike action. And we’ll support them in taking joint action with other unions to shut down universities entirely as the next step.
Ultimately we’ll support all those workers in every sector whose living and working conditions are being sacrificed in the interests of the wealth and profits of the few. The more we can link these struggles, the more powerful our movement will be. If we’re going to definitively win this strike, and keep what we win in the long term, this is the kind of perspective and strategy that we need.
- Students and workers unite and fight!
- Stop the marketisation of education!
- Run society in the interests of need, not profit!
- Kick out capitalism - fight for socialism!