University faculty and students strike in Britain

Nov. 2019 Britain strike
Strikers at City University of London. (From UCU Facebook page)

By ERWIN FREED and GINO LUXE

Following a national strike of educators and university professionals last year, faculty at 60 universities organized with the University and College Union (UCU) in Britain went on the picket line Nov. 25. The strike follows national balloting across the country and the demands are over pay, labor conditions, and pension. The current contract has meant an effective pay cut of 20% since 2009.

The new pension terms being imposed by the universities and the state since 2011 have UCU-affiliated workers paying £40,000 more over their working life for over £200,000 less to use in their retirement. Issues also include equal pay for women and people of color and increasing protection against harassment on the job.

Along with global trends in the casualization of labor and privatizing the means of education, university work has become increasingly precarious in Britain. At the University of Glasgow, fully one-third of faculty report being on temporary contracts where they do not receive benefits such as guaranteed pay raises and maternity leave. The university gets around guaranteeing benefits by doing things like having Graduate Teaching Associates (GTAs) on nine-month rather than full-year contracts. Hyper-exploitation of graduate workers knows no borders, and the same general principles are true in the United States.

Despite the resurgence of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, there has not been a drive to organize workers toward a real general strike against years of Tory-led austerity. Instead, workers have been without a party to organize themselves in their millions as they go into the streets.

While the number of universities participating in the strike is slightly lower than last year, the schools that have come out are committed. University management spread rumors that the picket attendance was set to drop in this second week, but all 60 unis have remained strong. Workers in other unions have shown they stand with the UCU in support of their striking brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings. Unite donated £1000 to the University of Glasgow picket line and is attempting to change its election structure to make striking individual shops more possible. Cafeteria and janitorial workers have come out on the picket line during their breaks.

Paul, a militant graduate student at the University of Glasgow, told Socialist Resurgence that inter-union solidarity efforts are made more difficult due to Tory labor laws outlawing tactics such as sympathy strikes.

Student solidarity has been key to maintaining morale and giving extra political weight for the strikers. University administration has been taking the line that strikes disrupt education, but the lie has been exposed by students standing with their instructors on the picket line. At Sheffield Hallam University, administrators attempted to turn students into snitches. The plan backfired when students used the reporting website to launch a campaign against the administration.

Student strike solidarity committees have popped up at many campuses, including Strathclyde, Liverpool, and Glasgow. Some are bodies that have existed continuously since the national strikes last year. Students have used the opportunity to organize daily teach-ins, speak-outs, and other events to further politicize the campuses. The strikers have also organized with students to join with the worldwide Friday’s for Future movement and special actions for ending the gendered pay gap, as well as making statements for trans and immigrant rights.

Unable to drive a wedge through students and union instructors with simple words, university administrators have moved to put down student solidarity with coercion. Students who have occupied management buildings at the University of Stirling, in Scotland, are being threatened with charges of a “Level 2 Offence,” usually reserved for crimes like sexual assault and bribery.

Building occupations are a common tactic of student movements and are above anything else an exercise of democratic rights. Students have recently occupied buildings to fight against police violence, racism, and austerity in Greece, across France, and at Syracuse University in the United States. The University of Connecticut Storrs section of Friday’s for Future held weekly occupations of Oak Hall, the main administrative building, along with public rallies through September and October.

In a truly shameful display of repression, university officials have used international students’ visas to threaten against participation in strike solidarity. Liverpool University sent a message to their Tier 4 visa students saying, “Any international student choosing to not cross picket lines … risk jeopardising their visa.”

These intimidation tactics are in continuity with the general precarity of university life in Britain in general and for international students in particular. The Home Office, the UK equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security, has begun a regime of uncertainty for international workers and students. Graduate students and foreign faculty have faced deportation, fines, and constant policing by administrations and the state. International students already pay much more in tuition and fees than UK students and are therefore extremely vulnerable to being left with high debt and no degree.

The UCU strikes are part of the global fight back against precarity and privatization in education. Years of neoliberal policy are now facing mass movements of students and workers all around the world. The explosion of militancy is not limited to the UK but is being seen in the massive student movement for political rights in Pakistan, a Dec. 3 strike of Harvard graduate workers, and the wave of teacher strikes in the U.S., to name just a small sample of the upsurge. These are also likely just the beginning of an even larger movement, not just for better working conditions, but towards controlling academic labor and ending the stranglehold that corporations have on knowledge production.

 

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