10 days of university workers strikes begin

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A lively turnout for the picket line at Goldsmiths University yesterday

STRIKING UCU union university lecturers and students set up picket lines at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) yesterday morning at the start of their 10-day strike.

This is part of strike action by the UCU involving 68 universities across the length and breadth of the country.

They are out again today and tomorrow in an escalating dispute over pensions, workload, pay and sackings.

UCU member Denis Guler told News Line: ‘The pension strike does not affect me yet but I have to show solidarity with my colleagues.

‘If you step on the tails of managers then there are contractual effects – you get bullied and warnings, and part-time workers’ contracts are not renewed.

‘There are 75,000 casual contracts in UK universities. We will not be marking final exams. The SOAS director gets £500K and every time they restructure the executive board they increase their own salaries.

‘We have had no pay increase for 12 years. It is not an academic approach for staff to be “more productive”.

‘SOAS gets millions but they want to keep it in their pocket.’

His striking UCU colleague Christine Oughton said: ‘Our strike is about protecting pensions, especially for younger staff. We want to keep our Final Salary Pension scheme so people can have income in their retirement.

‘Real pay has fallen in real terms and the average pay gap between men and women is nine per cent nationally. We want gender and race equality too.’

At the main entrance of the London School of Economics (LSE) in central London pickets held up a banner saying: ‘London School of Exploitation!’

They were leafleting passersby about the strike and were in high spirits.

Suzanne Harris, a Teaching Fellow at LSE, told News Line: ‘As a young black woman I’m particularly concerned about inequality. Black women are pretty close to the bottom. When people are disabled it gets even worse.

‘The glass ceiling gets thicker and thicker.

‘I’m also concerned about people who are starting, or are planning to go into teaching later. They all have a ‘business model’ becoming a service provider rather than an educational institution.

‘They are being prescriptive in telling us what we can and cannot say.

‘You can’t have good democracy without criticism.’

Then down the road at nearby King’s College on the Strand students joined the striking university staff on their picket.

Umar Al Faruq, from King’s College, said: ‘I’m a new PhD student, but I have friends who teach, and much of the time they don’t get paid on time. PhD students should be treated as staff. I completely support the lecturers’ strike and its aims.’

Laura Aguilera, from the Professional Services Team was also there to support the strike, and told News Line: ‘We all care about our students, and we want proper conditions of employment for all staff, because, of course, that affects the students too.’

Ewan McGaughey, UCU Branch President at Kings College London said: ‘We’ve had a 20% pay cut since 2011.

‘There’s a gender and a race pay gap.

‘We don’t have a democratic workplace. Workers’ voices need to be heard.’

At Bush House, now part of King’s College, there was a rally yesterday morning addressed by Neha Shah from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign who stressed that King’s College have loads of investments in companies, including ‘Checkpoint Software Tech’ which, she alleged, supports the Israeli occupation and that the university must divest now.

Pickets were also out in force at Imperial College in Kensington.

University and College Union rep Roddy Slorach told News Line: ‘This is the first day of seven days of continuous strike action, it is a serious escalation but I think further strikes will be needed.’

UCU member and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Imperial, Fay Dowker, said: ‘There is £92bn in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension, it is fully funded and in surplus, so there is no reason to cut our pension, in fact, it could be increased.

‘The employer pretended that they would value it sensibly but they maintain it is in deficit.

‘If they don’t respond to our claim then the only thing we can do is escalate the action.’

Physics student Natalia Kubica said: ‘We are once again joining staff on the picket line.

‘It is vital we stand in solidarity in our shared fight against exploitative university management and the marketisation of higher education.’

And at Goldsmiths University in South London, there were at least 30 lecturers and staff on the picket yesterday morning, determined to win their struggle.

Nela Genova, a UCU short contract lecturer, who used to work at Goldsmiths, told News Line: ‘I am here in solidarity with the people whose jobs are threatened as they are being downgraded to lower skilled positions.

‘While I was at Goldsmiths we took the university to an employment tribunal because they were not issuing us with contracts so we were basically being treated like Uber drivers.

‘They were not issuing us the contracts; they were not paying us holiday pay or sick pay; they had full discretion over the running of our courses; they could cancel them at the last minute; they could deny us union representation.

‘We took them to court and we used the same law firm as the Uber drivers and we managed to gain full status as employees. So I am here in solidarity because you can see how universities are turning much more towards gig economy style contracts.’