Marxist students out on the picket lines again!December 4, 2013
Tuesday 3rd December saw the second day of joint strike action by university staff in the UCU, Unison, Unite and EIS unions, who were protesting over attacks on pay. Marxist society members and Socialist Appeal supporters were present on the picket lines and rallies across the country. We publish here a selection of reports from Marxist students.
The second day of striking for UCU, Unite and Unison members at Sheffield University began with talk about an attempted occupation in the second largest building in Sheffield, the Arts Tower, by around 20 activists. The Marxist society, meanwhile, went straight to the picket lines for 9am.
Everyone from the Sheffield Marxist society was very keen and we spoke to a large number of striking staff and students on our roaming picket, starting at the centre of campus and working our way around the departments.
This time round, instead of simply asking people if they were supporting the striking staff, or just handing them a leaflet, we tried instead to engage everyone that walked past us in a quick 30 second chat about why the strike was happening, why it was important to support the university staff, and what they could do to support them. Whilst this showed that many students were unaware or didn’t want to stop, it also led to an increase in the number of actual discussions that we had, as opposed to briefly shouting slogans, allowing us to raise a Marxist analysis of the strikes, linking this event with other strikes around the UK and Europe.
What was interesting, and unusual to Sheffield perhaps, was the supposedly factual rumour being passed around that if students had been disrupted by the strike today – i.e. if they had lectures cancelled or were prevented from gaining access to buildings – then they should email the Vice Chancellor, who would be issuing refunds to all students who did this for a day’s worth of fees.
This was supposedly a 100% guarantee which we were a little dubious about, but if this is true then the more people we could get to email him, the more money university management would have to pay out. This meant three things: firstly, it prevents the university from profiting from the day of strike action by not having to pay their staff for a days work; secondly, nobody wants anyone to miss out on any education – the industrial action being taken by the staff today has come about through a lack of any satisfying and conclusive discussion and negotiation in terms of wage increases and fair pay. Whilst this is definitely a fight to be supported by us and all students, it is not to say that loosing a day’s education in order to support the workers’ battle is by any means a satisfactory compromise, so at least students have some way of reclaiming some of the extortionate fees that they are paying back from management whose fault the strike is in the first place; and thirdly, if enough students email the Vice Chancellor, this is not only a huge number of emails complaining about his treatment (and higher management’s) of staff, but it would also put significant financial pressure on the university as an establishment, enhancing the action of the staff.
Overall it was a successful intervention; we spoke to many staff who were again encouraged by the support shown by the students of Sheffield. Members of the Marxist society had a good day, which boosted their confidence in speaking about Marxist ideas with the people walking by the pickets.
Today the Manchester Marxists intervened in the UCU, Unite, Unison strike regarding the pay dispute that has been affecting students and staff nationwide.
Pickets started from around 8.30am and it was very slow to start, although it did seem to pick up later. One thing to note was the high participation from students on the picket lines.
There seemed to be general support from those who weren’t part of the strike, and while there were many students who crossed the picket lines, most were turned away once they realised their lectures had been cancelled.
However, students seemed to make up the bulk of people on the picket lines, which shows that although many members of staff were out on strike, there hadn’t been enough organisation to get them down to the picket lines.
At 11.30am there was a march from the university to the town centre, which was well attended and joined people from Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan, which created a good atmosphere of solidarity. At the rally there seemed to be a recognition that this was only the beginning of the struggle and also people seemed open to discussing socialist ideas, particularly amongst students, but also workers.
This was the first real chance for the Manchester Marxists to make ourselves and our ideas known to other left societies within the university. We feel we had a good presence considering this was our first attempt, and our literature was well received. We look forward to participating in further activities in Manchester!
Today the Leeds Marxists were present at the joint strike action by UCU/Unison/Unite (with a solidarity presence from FBU). The day seemed to go quite well from the trade unions’ perspective, with sizable pickets turning away many cars, although on the whole failing to turn away most students. The march and rally later in the day was again sizable enough with perhaps 500 present and a determined mood from all involved.
Although the strike didn’t seem to have the impact the Halloween one did in terms of closing buildings, it felt strong on the ground. It was also notable that although most students crossed the picket lines, there was some student presence this time at the rally, including from Labour Students. This was partially a result of union efforts to build stronger links with the student union, but it also demonstrates genuine support for the strike among sections of the student body. In particular, the money raised at the Marxist society for the strike was well received by those present on the picket lines.
In general, the day was very encouraging.
Members of the Southampton Marxists went to the campus at around 9am. The pickets lines were fewer in number than last time but with more people. Overall there were perhaps fewer people on strike than last time.
The Student Union, SUSU, agreed last night that they are against the strike action and their excuse was that “it was too noisy”. However, the strikers were happy to see us, the Marxist students, supporting them and to see that we had a resolution on the strike. We talked to some people around on campus and gave out leaflets for the Marxist society.
One PhD student in the picket lines was telling us that Marx is not relevant anymore, that things have changed from Marx’s time and that he’s outdated. We had a bit of a discussion; we suggested to him that he should read the manifesto once more because he’ll find it more relevant now than it was when it was written. He bought a copy of the Socialist Appeal newspaper and he said he’ll come to the events of the society from now on to learn a bit more about it.
We also talked to some of the university staff that work as cleaners or serving food on campus. They apologised for not serving us food today and then they started explaining to us their everyday problems – problems caused by the price increase of utilities and products, whilst at the same time they get the same amount of money as they did before! The energy bills for one of them for the last month was £97 more this month because of the rise in energy prices; the bus fare to get to work has increased by 50p per ride; and apparently 40% of the university staff earning the lowest wage have to go to food banks to feed themselves and their families.
In the rally, they had prepared a song based on the “12 Days of Christmas”, but had replaced the lyrics with “my VC [Vice Chancellor] gave to me: zero hour contracts; 1% pay rise; lower wage for women”, etc. Then some of the trade union members made small speeches about how they need to talk to the employers and explain to them that getting a better wage is good for business. They also started booing the students that did not support the strike – the problem was that many students did not even know about the strike in the first place!
One speaker who came up talked about the seriousness of the situation and how this fight for a fair pay might go on for much longer. The crowd responded with cheers on this point which shows that they are ready for more of fight if needed. He also explained that the excuses that they give to the workers for not paying them fairly have no basis, since they only talk about the ‘good for the economy’, but everyone knows who is really benefiting in this economy – the bankes and the bosses. He also mentioned that the VCs are sitting on billions of pounds, but yet they pretend that “we’re all in this together” when carrying out cuts.
The revolutionary mood is there. People are realising that there needs to be a fight! They realise that the government is feeding them lies and they don’t want to sacrifice their lives any longer in saving the big businesses or banks! The university staff know that it is them that runs the educational system, which is vital for the future of the country! The only thing lacking is a leadership willing to offer a plan of action and a programme; the trade unions right now are not doing this. We need a leadership that knows what it should be fighting for – not just another small victory or compromise with the bosses, but for a socialist alternative!
With picket lines setting up at 7:30 am and dismantling by 3:00pm, the four scattered picket lines at Sussex University campus saw an estimated 100 – 120 people participating throughout the day. Overwhelmingly the presence of the picket lines were made up by students, and lecturing staff involved in UCU, but the presence of Unite and Unison was in no way insignificant. The banners, flags and placards of all three unions were consistently visible.
Despite the frustration of many strikers, who saw significant numbers of students and other staff crossing the picket lines, there was a marked improvement since the strike on the 31st October. Local unionised bus drivers outright refused to drive buses onto campus all day, whereas on the 31st they did so after 12pm. Cars were much more effectively blocked and prevented from entering campus due to large student barricades at the entrances of Sussex campus. More staff from UCU were present on the picket line than before – many of whom were familiar to the Marxist Society and greeted us. And despite the appearances of many determined students and staff to cross the picket line, according to reports, fewer students entered campus throughout the day than on the 31st October, and more staff and students passively supported the strike by staying at home.
Although these are only minor gains, this latest strike was clearly more successful than the last, and yet managed to achieve these modest gains of the basis of much less publicity, alongside a general mood of frustration and demoralisation on Sussex campus: in recent months the privatisation process at Sussex university has seen the outsourcing of campus services being finalised, and new plans for further outsourcing of residential housing have been made more clear and concrete in anticipation of sell-offs before January. After three unsuccessful student occupations throughout 2013 – each with less momentum and support than the last – student activity has not halted the plans to outsource services, which threatens the employment of staff on campus. It is clear that the movement at Sussex amongst many staff and most students is at a temporary ebb.
Regardless of these defeats, the struggle of the workers at Sussex continues to build steadily; many signed up to trade unions, and ones-and-twos were convinced not only to avoid crossing the picket line, but to join the strikers. Many staff were also interested in the Sussex Marxist society – several even asked to sign up to the email list when they were informed that our meetings are open to the public.
The mobilisation of workers at Sussex is one of slow and steady progress in the wake of so many regressive and undermining policies issued by the university management amidst the pretext of nation-wide austerity measures. No number of occupations or “pop-up” unions (like those seen at Sussex over summer) will suddenly rouse the workers to revolutionary politics en masse.
Only consistent demands and the experience of everyday struggle will see more workers pushing for change in their trade unions, their universities, or for change nationally. There can be no short cuts around the trade unions at Sussex or anywhere else. The strikes for better wages and the protests against privatisation at Sussex are part of the same struggle, one which the Marxist society recognise must be led by the workers if it is to have any chance of success. Pushing for the Student Union to genuinely build and mobilise a student strike in support of striking staff is the best place to begin.
Following the successful intervention in the last higher education strike, Cambridge Marxists again actively participated in this latest strike action. We submitted the a motion to the student union council meeting, which got passed although heavily revised, and put pressure on the student union officials to take concrete actions, whilst also advertising the Marxist society. Members of the Marxist society were present on the picket line, where we had very good discussions with the striking staff.
For the strike on 31st October we had submitted a motion to the student union. However, another milder motion was passed. Learning from this previous experience, we submitted a motion again, which this time addressed the more specific situation of the university staff, whilst also linking their situation to the broader fight against capitalism.
We also criticised the student union’s failure to contact students about strike last time, despite stating support for the strike in the motion. Finally, we called for the student union to organise a joint public meeting with all the unions involved, to advertise the strike in the student union bulletin, to create a Facebook event page, and to provide information on why students should not cross the picket lines.
The motion was heavily revised, but we successfully managed to get the student union to publicise the strike, although they did not do it well, for example, only publising the public meeting 45 minutes before it was due to start!
On the day, Marxist society members went down to the picket line at 9am, bringing our Marxist society banner with us, where we were actually the first to arrive. University staff, many of whom were on strike last time, came along afterwards. We had very good discussions with a few of them, including discussions about Marxism and why we are Marxists.
Many students crossed the picket line, but there seemed to be a slightly increase of the proportion of students who were aware of the strike, although not substantial.
At 11:45am we rallied together with the staffs and students from other picket lines. There were around 60-80 people, a bit less than last time, and about one-third were students.
Unfortunately, none of the speeches this time linked the cuts in education to the capitalist crisis, nor did they even link the university staff struggle to the wider struggles of other workers. The student speakers tried to make their speeches as apolitical as possible.
Based on the previous lessons and experience, we were able to participate in a more organised way. It was also a very precious opportunity for Marxist society members to talk to workers and to discuss our ideas with them. By steadily building up the basis through the Marxist society, we believe that we could have an even bigger impact in the future.
Marxist students were present at picket lines across London, including at Queen Mary’s, Kings College, SOAS, and the LSE.
At Queen Mary’s, one of the Marxist society members was interviewed for the satirical magazine “QMessenger”; the interview can be read below.
Members of the KCL Marxist society were at the picket line this morning, alongside students and members of staff. Recently, the society has been involved in supporting the Living Wage campaign at KCL, and it was good to once again link up with trade union comrades in this struggle.
At both SOAS and LSE, members of the Marxist societies were present at the “teach outs” organised by striking lecturers, which provide a space for political discussion and debate, without students having to cross the picket lines. Visiting speakers included Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the UCU, who spoke passionately about the determination to fight on behalf of the UCU and its members.
Interview with the Queen Mary’s “QMessenger” satirical magazine
Why are you here on the picket lines today?
Because I believe the university staff are basically being screwed over. There has been a 3% increase in inflation, but only a 1% increase in wages, and the staff have suffered a 13% pay cut in real terms. I believe the strike is linked to the wider issues in society; it highlights the issue that education has been transformed into a business these days.
Many students here believe the strike is insignificant, but they don’t realise it’s part of a wider struggle that also incorporates them. Students and lecturers are in the same boat. We now have to pay £9000 per year tuition fees, which is meant to make up for the cuts to education spending. We have to realise that cuts to teachers’ pay will affect us as students too.
How well has Queen Mary university supported today’s strike?
More needs to be done to raise awareness in the student body of the strike and the issue of university staff’s pay; the Student Union needs to do more in this respect.
Where do you think this strike will go?
In its current limited form, the strike will not go far. I really want to see a greater show of solidarity between students and staff, with more people attending the picket lines and disrupting the university. There are so many other factors that are connected to this strike too, like all the public sector pay cuts. At the end of the day it’s all about fighting to transform society and putting for socialist ideas, then we will see more success.