UCU Strikes: Classes cancelled as strikes start in London

Workers at universities across London are striking over pensions, pay, and working conditions

The University and College Union (UCU) launched strikes yesterday around two long-running disputes.

The first dispute centres upon the sustainability of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). A study by First Actuarial commissioned by UCU shows that changes to the USS pension scheme will leave UCU members up to £240,000 worse off, despite staff paying up to £40,000 more into their pensions over their careers.

The second dispute focuses on universities’ “failure to make significant improvements to pay, equality, casualisation, and workloads.” This comes after a Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) study concluded that university staff have seen an approximate 17% pay cut on average since 2009. The UCU estimates that the pay cut may in fact be more severe, at 20%.

Students and staff supporting the strike at SOAS gather for a group photo on strike day one.

These strikes are taking place at more than seventy universities across the country. In London, picket lines will surround several universities, including UCL, King’s College London, Goldsmiths, and SOAS.

Strikes are set to span four weeks, with a total fourteen strike days over the period.

A teach-out schedule at SOAS.

Student supporters

At some universities, students’ unions are supporting the strikes. SOAS Students’ Union has produced a booklet which explains, “the SOAS Students’ Union has passed policy to support staff members who are striking for their working conditions, which are our learning conditions.”

The booklet continues: “students have been forced to act as consumers for decades now, as the commodification of Higher Education has been a process led by the Government without the support of staff or students, especially since the late 1990s. This broken and unfair system has become less accessible for many of us, and the gaps keep increasing in the name of austerity and fincancial crisis… For that reason, we encourage all our students not to cross picket lines on the strike days.”

The Union also encourages students to find alternative study and multi-faith spaces at locations where strikes are not taking place.

Students gather to watch a teach-out at the Brunei Gallery, Bloomsbury.

Alongside students’ unions, UCU branches are offering students and observers a programme of ‘teach-outs’ which will explore themes in global politics and economics.

At Goldsmiths, the SU tweeted: “Today makes the first of 14 (non-consecutive) days of strike action. Ultimately, our lecturers and academic staff have no other choice – striking is their only option left. Make sure you apply for the compensation you deserve [from the university].”

Hannah Elsisi leads a SOAS teach-out on prison families, queer kinship, and racial domesticity.

UUK: Strikes are “disappointing”

Universities UK (UUK), an advocacy organisation for universities, and the UCEA issued a joint open letter yesterday in response to the strikes.

The letter says that the bodies “understand that as long as the perception is remains that their concerns are not met, individuals may well feel that their only course is to go on strike. However, it is disappointing that the real progress of discussions, the commitments made on both sides, and the positive trajectories offered in both disputes are not being acknowledged.”

Offering a nod to the UCU demands on pay and pensions, UUK and the UCEA said: “UCU continues to ask employers to pay an unaffordably high share of the additional costs. By law, pension costs had to rise to maintain current levels of benefits.”

A banner at Goldsmiths, University of London proclaims student solidarity with the strike.

But UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said that there has been “solid support” for the strikes, especially after the National Union of Students (NUS) backed the walkouts yesterday.

Grady affirmed that striking lecturers’ demands were clear and that the UCU is ready to engage with employers: “We have been receiving news of solid support for the strikes across the UK. That support sends a clear message to universities that, instead of focusing on silly games and spinning in the run up the walkouts, they should have been working with us to try and sort things out.”

Grady continued: “Students are understandably unimpressed at the intransigence of their university leaders and have made clear demands today that vice-chancellors and principals work harder to try and resolve the disputes.”

The Union also slammed the UCEA’s hostility to talks which could settle the pay element of the dispute.

Strikes are set to end on Friday 13 March, 2020.

Photo credit: Author.

Will is London Student's Features Editor. He has recently completed a BA History at SOAS, and you might find him hiding in a library around Bloomsbury.

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