Marxist students on the picket lines

ucu_picket_line_nottingham_university_22_march_2011_sm

Thursday 31st October 2013 saw joint strike action between UCU, Unite and Unison members working in higher education. The strike was nominally over the issue of pay, but reflected the anger that has been building up over a longer period of time at the conditions of staff and the creeping privatisation of higher education. Marxist Students wholeheartedly supported the strike. Below we publish a number of reports from our comrades on the picket lines, giving their impressions of the day and where we go from here.

Glasgow

We joined in at 8am with other students taking part outside one of the student unions, then went to the Main Gate, where the main picket line was situated. There were around 150-200 unionised staff members in total, forming picket lines at various entrances across the university. 25-30 students also attended the picket lines in support, including several from the Glasgow Marxists. The workers seemed to greatly appreciate the student support, which contributed to the generally good mood across the picket lines.

A great victory that day was the closing of the university library, a very popular student facility, due to the industrial action, which ensured that even those who weren’t previously aware of the strike knew about it, as word spread quickly. Also there was a great show of solidarity from delivery workers who approached the entrance to the main gate and agreed to not cross the picket line in support, returning without entering the university.

The crowds dispersed at around midday, with some heading to a rally in the city centre. Overall it was a successful day, which certainly raised student awareness of the workers’ treatment at the university. As one union member put it “Our working conditions, are your learning conditions”.

Sheffield

We had a great turn out from the Sheffield Marxists, with around ten Marxist students arriving at 9am in order to join the picket lines with the university staff. Earlier in the week, Marxist society members had been giving lecture shout-outs and e-mailing lecturers to offer solidarity and support. We spent the first hour outside of the union handing out leaflets and talking to as many students as possible, encouraging them not to cross the picket lines and explaining why.

There were multiple picket lines outside each school and department, as well as outside the libraries and the student union so we moved from picket line to picket line talking to staff, buying them tea and coffee from the strike fund that we raised at a joint meeting with the Labour Students last week.

Picketing ended at 11.15am (to the annoyance of some striking staff, who wanted to picket until at least after lunch time when the largest mass of students and staff would be moving around campus). However, all striking staff, and those supporting them, congregated together outside of the union and we marched in and around town, linking up with the striking staff from Sheffield Hallam University and eventually ending at the rally venue. To everyone’s pleasure there were too many out on the rally to fit into the booked venue, so an impromptu gathering was assembled in Barkers Pool, where there were four speakers addressing everyone, including two union representatives and the Education Officer from Sheffield University.

Socialist Appeal supporters made the logical link between this strike and the strikes of the teachers, postal workers, firefighters, etc., pointing out that these are all part of a wider attack on the working class as a whole. It is clear that these fights cannot be separated from the fight for socialism: to place colleges and universities under the control of staff and student, with decent education funded through the nationalisation of the banks, energy companies, and major monopolies. This is the only solution that can guarantee staff on strike a decent wage.

Queen Mary’s University of London

We arrived at 7am as the picket line was just forming. We handed out our leaflets – in which we linked the strike to the wider attacks in society – along with the main flyers that the trade union representatives gave us. The biggest support came from actual staff at Queen Mary, or from contracted workers driving lorries and vans for example. Several lorry drivers, including Post Office and Tower Hamlets workers, actually decided to turn back around after seeing the picket line and talking to some of us. We also had a lot of support from staff at the Mile End Hospital round the corner, who understood and agreed entirely that the cuts to education are part of a wider attack on society, which includes healthcare.

The Queen Mary student union leadership is largely to blame for the lack of student support for the strike. The most it could muster was a meekly worded email sent round to all Queen Mary students. There were no posters, flyers, lecture shout-outs etc. The QMUL Marxist society plans to write an article on the strike for the student paper, and we will demand a stronger stance from our student union for future action.

City University in London

I arrived at 7.20am as members from the three unions that were on strike were setting up. I approached people for interviews for the Socialist Appeal, and offered to help out in anyway on the picket lines. I ended up in a very good conversation with one of the staff for about half an hour, and it is this that I thought worth reporting on, as I think it is a good indication of the mood in general.

We began talking about the problems and restructurings at the university – how cleaners were refused a living wage, even though the uni was spending millions on unnecessary refurbishments, and paying the enormous salary and free mansion of the Vice Chancellor.

I linked this to the crisis in general, and how the capitalists are trying to make the working class pay for it. Everything then started coming out, beginning with the energy price rises. I said we should nationalise the lot, and then another member of staff walking past to go to another entrance shouted “we should nationalise EVERYTHING!”.

The worker I was talking to then agreed entirely with the need to nationalise the banks, insurance companies, land, big business, under democratic workers control, as part of a plan of production. He also agreed with the need for a general strike, and for the unions to reclaim the Labour Party. Another member of staff on strike said she had overheard this conversation and that she completely agreed.

Overall the conversations I had highlighted the revolutionary mood that exists among a certain layer of workers.

Sussex University

The Marxist society’s involvement in supporting the strike yesterday was a successful one. A large number of students were involved, talking to other students crossing the pickets and engaging them in what was going on and in some instances, convincing them not to cross the lines. A few vehicles were also persuaded not to enter campus, including external companies. The Brighton buses which run a service on to campus were refusing to enter the university which was a great sign of solidarity. The numbers of students on campus was much smaller than normal. The mood on the pickets was positive with free tea and coffee being distributed by the Student Union, and the staff often expressed their gratitude at such a show of student support.

Two days prior to the strike, the Student Union held an Emergency Members’ Meeting in order to consolidate the SU position on industrial action. Unfortunately, not enough students attended the meeting to make any decisions made binding, but it still raised the forum for debate. A vote was taken on whether the SU should unconditionally support the strike, and any strikes in the future, and whether the SU should organise a student strike in solidarity. Both of these were supported almost unanimously by the students present. Marxist society members contributed at this meeting, expressing the need for the Student Union to lead the students in supporting the workers on strike. In a demonstration on Wednesday, some students occupied a lecture theatre in solidarity with the strikers.

The Marxist society had discussions with many people about the importance of strike action, as well as the context in which they are taking place. We advertised the strike quite widely beforehand and encouraged students to not break the strike. We also engaged with students and staff members, both on the picket lines and those who were crossing it. We were even photographed with our banner and interviewed for both the university paper and the local paper! Overall it was an enjoyable and successful day!

Newcastle

Around 250 students, lecturers, university staff and members of the public attended a rally at Grey’s Monument last Thursday in support of the strike action called by Unite, Unison and UCU on university campuses nationwide. Members of the Newcastle Marxist society joined staff on the picket lines which were spread across campus.

Speakers from the three unions made it clear that the strike wasn’t one merely about pay, but about the wider state of government policy towards education, the growing disparity between university workers and management as well as the increasing number of zero hour contracts and staff working well beyond their contracted hours.

The speakers made it clear they love their job, but this fact has been taken advantage of by management who have increased their workload and tightened their budgets. The 13% pay cut since 2008 is even more of a kick in the teeth when the vice chancellors at both Newcastle and Northumbria universities have received pay rises of over £20,000. Vice chancellors are indulging in the luxury of buying a Picasso for their office whilst simultaneously telling staff they can’t afford to keep their pay at the rate of inflation.

With students having to pay £9,000 a year for our education we expect it to be spent in the right places and at the moment it is not. The increased pressure on staff and resources is lowering the standard of our education system and this is a trend being seen throughout austerity hit Britain. Across the board we are seeing disputes and strike action – the crisis of capitalism and the austerity measures imposed by this government are hurting us all.

We need not only solidarity between students and lecturers, but between all the struggles to show that these aren’t isolated disputes; they are symptomatic of the capitalist system overall and united it can be overcome.

Edinburgh

During the staff strike on Thursday, members of the Edinburgh University Marxist Society mobilised in full support of the strike. After joining the picket lines in the early morning we set up a stall where we leafleted passing students in order to try and convince them to support their staff and avoid classes. We managed to convince a number of students and raise awareness of the strike; two students even joined our stall and helped distribute leaflets. We received messages of appreciation as staff members approached us, pleased to see students supporting their struggle.

Initially there were worries about the success of the strike as little awareness had been built up. Despite being an historical first, where all three major university unions (UCU, UNITE and UNISON) combined, no substantial attempt was made to explain the strike to students and mobilise their support. However, on the day, the campus appeared much quieter as a result of the strike, with many students clearly staying away in support of the staff. At midday we all gathered in Bristo Square for a short but lively rally where it was made clear that the struggle is only just beginning for staff and students.

Although mainly on the issue of pay, there was a generally strong feeling of anger at the way our education system is being treated. The issue of pay is just one of many other grievances affecting staff and students alike. Worse still the general destruction of education by a thousand cuts is taking its toll and the principle of good quality and freely accessible education drifts further away with each new measure.

Marxists believe that education is fundamental to human progress and wellbeing and if the current capitalist system cannot guarantee the expansion and improvement of education, then capitalism is no longer fit for purpose in civilised society. We hope you will join us for a wider discussion at 6pm, Wednesday 6th November, Room 8.16, David Hume Tower, on the role and fate of education under capitalism, and importantly what can be done to reverse this worrying trend.

Aberystwyth

There were two pickets, one at Penglais campus, and the other at Llandabarn campus. At Penglais there were around 40 lecturers, staff and students who had gathered in support of the strike action called by Unite, Unison and UCU. This was a relatively good turn out for Aberystwyth, and we had good discussions with a number of people.

At the rally afterwards, there was a great deal of anger, especially at the management of the university with regards their obscene pay, and the visible effects the cuts were having upon teaching. There were various speakers, but all of these put the attack on education down solely to the ideology of the coalition. As Socialist Appeal and the Marxist societies have pointed out, however, the attack on education is part of a wider attack on the working class in Britain and internationally, due to the global crisis of capitalism.

Cambridge

Prior to the strike we tried passing a motion through the student union supporting the strike as a step in the struggle for socialism. Although our motion was voted down, another supporting the strike was passed and we were asked to be the student union delegates to the picket lines and to speak at the rally on the day. We also made full use of the student press in the run up to the strike to encourage students to support our staff.

Cambridge. as a poorly unionised university, had a reasonable turnout for the strike, with over 200 rallying in the centre of town to listen to speeches by trade unionists and students, two of whom were members of the MSF who linked the strike to the crisis of capitalism and the need for a socialist transformation of society.

Our ideas were, on the whole, well received and the support from the students was appreciated by the staff. Around 15 students from the Cambridge Marxist Discussion Group acted as delegates for the student union to the picket lines and our ability to link this struggle to the wider labour and student movement made for some great conversations with striking staff.