The UCU strike: a tale of student-staff solidarity
The UCU strike has been one of the biggest mobilisations the education sector has seen in years – the fourteen days of strike action that have been recently completed show a revival of combative trade unionism capable of putting the employers on the backfoot. The attempt to significantly cut pensions, one of the last remnants of security in an academic job, has unleashed a wave of anger and discontent that stretches far beyond the immediate terms of the dispute. This is not just about maintaining the status quo on pensions. This struggle has become rallying point for all those who have been disenfranchised and disempowered by the marketisation of our education system: from the casualised postdoc paid by the hour to the student in thousands of pounds of debt.
The huge wave of student solidarity with striking university staff is a testament to this. Over the course of the strike action, we’ve seen students join picket lines, do food and coffee runs for picketers, speak at rallies, and donate significant amounts of money to strike funds. Most inspiringly, we’ve seen over 20 campuses go into occupation in solidarity with the pensions dispute, whilst tying it to broader themes around marketisation. A joint statement released by 4 student occupations, as well as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, reads: “Our staff deserve fair pensions… We support free, democratic and accessible education for both international and home students.”
What this shows is that the maxim ‘teaching conditions are learning conditions’ has not been said as an empty phrase, but rather there’s a clear understanding that the interests of university staff and students are fundamentally aligned, and hence we must fight together. We’ve seen an impressive amount of concessions won already, with Vice Chancellors from Oxford to Manchester breaking ranks with the official stance of Universities UK. From pressing ahead with imposing pension cuts, Universities UK have been forced back to the negotiating table. For its part, the UCU leadership has been forcefully shown by its rank-and-file that they will not accept anything less than a good deal.
Moreover, these victories have reignited a sense of possibility and power in the student movement. Across campuses, there’s a growing sense that things don’t have to be the way they are and that taking direct and disruptive action can transform the way our education looks. We’ve seen students at Bath and beyond call for more representative and accountable senior management structures, whilst Southampton students called for their Vice Chancellor to take a paycut. Suddenly calling for the Living Wage to be paid to all employees and 5:1 pay ratios between the highest and lowest paid aren’t just nice ideas floating around: we have a real sense these things being within our grasp. Student-staff solidarity has indisputably pushed Universities UK into retreat on pension cuts. Now students are asking: why not organise against other harmful effects against marketisation too?
This is most brilliantly seen in the occupation of Senate House by student activists demanding all University of London workers are brought in house, with fair and secure contracts. By the fourth day of occupation, they successfully gained control of the entire building. Already we are seeing solidarity transcend the parameters of the pensions dispute and become the key to how students challenge the neoliberal university. Here is where the potential for changing our education into a public good really lies: it is with students taking direct action alongside the industrial action of staff.
The basic principle of solidarity between students and staff has already proven itself in this struggle. It’s shown it can invigorate activism on campuses all over the UK, it’s opened up new realms of possibility for action, and most importantly, it’s shown that victories are achievable. Whatever agreement is reached between UCU and Universities UK, one thing is clear. The cat’s out of the bag now: when we collectively organise, we can win. I hope this thought keeps some unaccountable Vice-Chancellors up at night.