Students join lecturers’ picket lines across the UK

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Picket at the School of Oriental and African Studies (above right) in central London show their determination to defend their pensions
Picket at the School of Oriental and African Studies (above right) in central London show their determination to defend their pensions

LECTURERS at 64 universities across the UK began 14 days of strike action on Thursday against imposed changes to their pensions. They were out again on Friday and take another three days of strike action next week Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. On Wednesday there is a national march on parliament.

Up to 500 students, lecturers and supporters attended an outdoor rally at Goldsmith’s University on Thursday which was addressed by Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary, and John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor. First to speak was Eva Crossan Jory, President of the Students Union at Goldsmith’s College. She said: ‘Goldsmith’s University have a reputation of being political and militant.

‘We support the lecturers who choose to come out on strike. ‘This disruption is nothing compared to the disruption the Tories are causing through their cuts.’ Another speaker Natalie Last addressed the rally. ‘There is a gaggle of university Vice Chancellors, who are putting staff into poverty retirement. ‘These vice chancellors view education as a business.’

Dez Freeman, Vice President of UCU at Goldsmith’s next spoke. ‘This is a protest against “daylight robbery”. ‘The excuse we have been given for the pension cut is “We can’t afford it!” ‘We are grateful to students for supporting us.’ He finished by saying: ‘Join us next Wednesday on our march to Parliament.’

The next speaker was Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary. She said: ‘We shouldn’t make apologies for striking to defend our pensions. We’ve tried for months to come back to the negotiating table.

‘This is an employer-driven agenda. ‘We will not accept the cuts in our pensions. Unison is consulting members to come out with us. ‘We want to get back to negotiations. ‘We will be out until we get our pensions back!’

The final speaker was John McDonnell, Labour Shadow Chancellor, who said: ‘We congratulate the UCU union nationwide who have stood strong on this issue. ‘The employers want to impoverish you both in work and old age. This is about austerity to pay the banker’s huge debt. ‘Those who caused the crisis in 2007 are being rewarded. ‘Enough of austerity and tax cuts for the rich,’ he concluded.

Meanwhile striking School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) lecturers had a lively picket on Thursdy morning.

SOAS UCU branch chair at the central London college, Tom Armstrong, told News Line: ‘We had a very good rally yesterday, along with students. ‘We’re taking this action, the biggest action we’ve taken, because it’s a fight to defend pensions and we have to win it. ‘If we don’t win it the guaranteed pension will go. ‘We’ve put up with declining pay. ‘One of the reasons people do this job is because we believe in education. ‘The salaries are not high and people expect a pension. ‘We have an incredible mandate for action. ‘As a result of the ridiculous trade union law last year, you have to get a 50% vote for a strike in a ballot and we got that in 60 institutions.’

Senior teaching fellow and UCU member Keya Anjaria said: ‘I’m striking against the changes to our pension that are being imposed. ‘To me it signifies the overall lack of support for universities now.

‘We face casualisation, overwork and a gender pay gap. ‘These issues are not being taken seriously or addressed.’

On the Birkbeck College picket line, library worker Steve said: ‘I’m supporting the strike because people deserve a decent retirement and the changes to the pension will destroy that.

‘The changes don’t just affect lecturers. Those who work in the library, IT, student supplies and administration workers will be affected. ‘Theresa May is not going to do anything about student finance but she is worried because the Labour Party have a policy of abolishing tuition fees.’

Picketing University College London, UCL professor of English and UCU member Matthew Beaumont told News Line: ‘I’m on strike not only because of the vicious attack on our pensions which is going to mean on average academics are £10,000 a year less well off in their retirement but because there is a wider attack on higher education. ‘This is in effect an attempt to privatise.’ Pickets were out in force in west London.

‘There has been a surge in union membership and we’ve never seen such involvement in strike action before,’ said UCU pickets Janette Shiel and Michelle Foot at Imperial College. Shiel continued: ‘The strike is involving professors, administrative and support staff. ‘Some of us have worked here for 25 years and are depending on a good pension on retirement. ‘Imperial have stood back and have said they could afford to pay more but have chosen not to. ‘There can be a lot of stress involved in our work. For example, I left home at 6.15am Wednesday morning to be at Charing Cross for 7.30am to set up exams involving 400 students. ‘I didn’t have a lunch break and was there until 6.45pm.’

UCU rep at Imperial, Rod Slorach, said: ‘The support for the strike has been beyond expectations. We had 53 names down for picket duty but many more have turned out to cover our six picket lines.’

In Sheffield, lecturers and students were out in force on Thursday for the first day of the lecturers’ strike action.

There were pickets of lecturers and students at every entrance all over Sheffield University while large demonstrations of well-organised students with banners marched from picket to picket chanting ‘What do we want? Fair pensions! How do we get it? Strike! Strike! Strike!’ and ‘Students and workers unite and fight!’

Sam Marsh, Lecturer in Mathematics and Communications Officer for Sheffield UCU, told News Line: ‘We are not actively trying to disrupt students’ careers, we are just asserting our right to strike. That some universities are threatening legal action against lecturers is intolerable. ‘Any disruption to students’ studies is entirely the responsibility of the universities. They are refusing to negotiate a fair deal for our pensions. ‘But it is so heartening to see the students realising this is part of a much bigger battle and giving us such overwhelming support. ‘It’s become increasingly clear that the priorities of students and staff in higher education are very much aligned. We all want to protect education as a public good and prevent markets from corrupting our public institutions.’

Kieron Maxwell spokesperson for Sheffield Students Union said: ‘Students at the University of Sheffield completely support the UCU in their strike. ‘We see this as taking place within the wider context of the marketisation of education. We have called on the Vice-Chancellor to take action.’

Strong picket lines were also formed at the campuses of the University of Exeter. At the university’s main Streatham campus, there were 150 picketing staff and students at the Stocker Road entrance, and a further 50 at the Queen’s Drive entrance. There were also pickets at the St Luke’s campus and the Thornlea drama department in Exeter, and at the university’s Penryn campus in Cornwall.

The Streatham campus pickets were dominated by the support given by Exeter students, who had voted to support the strike in a referendum of the Guild of Students (the student union in Exeter). There was lively music and singing, and a group of students arrived with food and hot drinks for the lecturers. A delegation from the local FBU also came to display support. At 11:30am the lecturers and students marched with much display of support from the public, from the gates of the university to a community centre in the city, where two rallies were held, inside and outside, on account of the number in attendance.

At the rally, the branch secretary Barrie Cooper paid homage to the students who came in support, promising ‘We will stand with you in the fight to eliminate tuition fees and student debt. ‘Since I graduated in 2002, I have struggled to pay off my student debt, from the fees which came in 1997. I worry that this generation of students is being sold into similar debt and slavery. ‘Having finally cleared my student debt last year, it was a difficult decision to strike for 14 days. But the sacrifice of the lost pay is nothing compared to the potential losses to our pensions, six figure sums.’