Students ramp up support for UCU strikes

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2020 - 10:05 Author: Maisie Sanders

In the last week of the strikes by the university workers’ union UCU (9-13 March), students are escalating solidarity actions.

By the end of Monday 9 March there were eleven universities in occupation: UCL, University of the Arts London (UAL), Cambridge, Royal College of Art (RCA), Edinburgh, University of Nottingham, Manchester, Brighton, Exeter, Imperial, and Liverpool.

The occupations at Imperial and Liverpool have been organised by Extinction Rebellion Universities to demand universities decarbonise, decolonise and democratise, as well as standing in solidarity with the UCU strike. There are very likely more to come.

The UCL occupation is demanding that university management meet UCU’s demands on pay, pensions, workload and casualisation, as well as implementing a thirty-five hour week, transparent funding allocation, an end to outsourcing, a senior administrative pay cap and an elected University Council.

Occupiers have covered the campus with posters advertising these demands and asking students to join them in the South Cloisters for a week of cultural workshops and political discussion as part of a module called “Strike 0001”.

UAL occupiers also demand a concrete plan to end the BME attainment gap, which for home undergraduate students is 21.5% in favour of white students, an increase in counselling provision, five new counsellors of colour, face-to-face training in mental health and anti-racism, and an end to the University’s social cleansing of Elephant and Castle through developments with Delancey. There is currently just one mental health adviser per 750 students.

Students at the RCA taking part in a spontaneous sit-in at their Vice Chancellor’s office were broadcast live from Strike Radio (@StrikeRadio1). Students in the RCA’s Battersea accommodation spoke about how they don’t even have access to functioning water and heating.

Another explained how RCA management knowingly oversubscribed the college by accepting too many students without adequate planning for resources, space, facilities and staff to meet their needs. This is a common story across UK universities since the cap on student numbers was lifted in 2016. When Vice-Chancellor Paul Thompson refused to meet the occupiers’ they called a mass protest for the next day.

Exeter students have also set up camp early in the morning with tents and placards in management parking spaces, refusing to move until they endorse the UCU’s demands. On Wednesday, they plan to disrupt the University’s open day.

At Liverpool University students have been disrupting lectures on strike days by entering with a banner, calling for staff and students to respect the picket lines and declaring the space occupied. After disrupting an environmental committee meeting Cardiff students secured a pledge from their Vice Chancellor that he would lobby USS to divest pensions from the fossil fuel industry.

These actions follow a call from Student Strike Solidarity for students to escalate their solidarity actions by organising occupations, blockades and other disruptive action during the last week of strikes. We want to ramp up the pressure on university Vice Chancellors nationwide to meet the demands of UCU in full.

On Tuesday 10 March, students in occupation are getting together for a zoom call where we will agree some shared core demands on our Vice Chancellors to boost the impact of our actions nationally.

Some occupations have faced authoritarian responses from management. Liverpool University called the police on student occupiers early Tuesday morning. Although they have now left the occupation, they have many more actions planned.

As UAL students went into occupation, management’s first reaction was to lock them in behind a metal security screen with no access to toilets or water. Last term, Stirling and Reading universities suspended students for taking part in occupations; thirteen Stirling students are still suspended. It is crucial we defend the right to protest and speak on campus.

Police should not be invited onto university campus without the permission of the student and trade unions.

University strikes in fourth week

By a UCU activist

In this fourth and last week (9-13 March) of the current round of strikes, increasing the size and effectiveness of picket lines is vital.

Although pickets are still smaller compared to the 2018 strikes, or the first round of the current action late last year, organising efforts led to many workplaces seeing larger pickets in week three.

Effective picketing means making an active effort to persuade workmates coming into work to turn round. As we said in our last bulletin: “In the 2018 strike, the union leadership wanted to call off action to ballot on an extremely shoddy offer. A big factor in what stopped them was that lively and well-attended picket lines acted as spaces for collective discussion, and a strong rank-and-file pushback to the leadership’s strategy developed, which eventually forced them to change course and prevented the demobilisation of the strike at that point”.

We must also push for transparency in negotiations. The decision by UCU negotiators to respect the “confidentiality” of negotiations has had a negative impact on democracy within the dispute. Without rank-and-file scrutiny over negotiations we’ve got no means of collectively assessing their progress and making decisions about the future direction of the dispute based on a clear understanding of how much we’ve pushed management back so far. Our aspiration should be for negotiations to be conducted in the open, but short of that we need regular, as close to “real time” as possible, and comprehensive reports from our negotiators.

It may be that there are concessions on offer that are worth taking; it may be that the bosses have hardly budged. Without transparency and scrutiny, we can’t judge.

The only significant public discussion has been around the 3% figure, which a “Statement from the Four Fights Negotiators” said had been put forward from the union side as part of a “potential path to resolving the dispute”.

With our ballot mandate due to expire, there’ll be a discussion about next steps. With strike fatigue beginning to set in, there’ll be pressure to press pause for now, with maybe re-ballot at the start of the new term in September 2020. We believe this would be a mistake.

Although hitting ballot thresholds again will be a challenge, putting off any further action for six months would mean a huge sacrifice of the momentum we’ve built up. Some of that will inevitably dissipate as a result of the Easter holidays, but a new ballot campaign – including balloting for strikes and Action Short Of Strike aimed at disrupting marking – and potential action in the third term could help us regain it.

Disrupting exam processes is now our main form of leverage, so we must begin building towards that. Other direct actions that don’t require a ballot, such as local demos and rallies, can also be organised to maintain momentum throughout exam periods.

A previous bulletin included a headline calling for strikes to disrupt exams, including via picketing exam halls.

Following discussion amongst UCU members in Workers’ Liberty, we’ve concluded it was a mistake. Although we maintain our view that disrupting exams remains a key form of leverage, targeting the marking process rather than exam attendance is the main and most effective means of achieving that.

Local strikes during the third term may make sense in some areas, but a generalised strategy of trying to use strikes and pickets to stop exams from taking place is likely to be counterproductive.

The UCU’s “four fights” are:
• pay
• workload
• equality
• casualisation

The main demands on pay are for an increase of Retail Price Index plus 3%, ÂŁ10 per hour minimum for in-house staff, and Foundation Living Wage (ÂŁ9 per hour outside London, ÂŁ10.55 in London) for outside contractors.

On workload, a 35 hour week.
On equality, action to close the gender and ethnic pay gaps.
On casualisation, demands include: end zero-hours contracts; transfer hourly-paid staff to fractional contracts; take outsourced staff back in house; give postgraduate teaching assistants give them guaranteed hours and proper employee contracts.

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