Strike - UCU@BSU
Information for Students
Why is the strike taking place?
UCU are involved in two disputes: the first over Pay, Equality, Workload and Casualisation, and the other over changes to the USS Pension Scheme.
Academic staff pay has declined by 19% in real terms over the last decade, and the problem is compounded by gendered and racialised pay gaps and a rising workload which means many academic staff are doing significant amounts of unpaid work. There has also been an increase in teaching staff on hourly paid contracts or zero hours ones, which costs the universities (employers) less, but provides very little job security and no benefits (pensions, sick pay, etc.) for associate lecturers. UCU are asking for a 3% plus a cost of living pay rise, to put pay in line with inflation, as opposed to the below inflation 1.85% offered. By contrast, Vice Chancellors across the country got an average pay rise of 3.5% last year, and as has been well-documented in the national press, are already on vastly inflated salaries comparative to academic staff.
The USS (Pensions) dispute is a continuation of the issues that sparked the UCU strike in 2018. In recent years, USS members have seen the value of their retirement benefits fall, whilst the cost of their pension has risen and their pay has been held back.
Since 2011, the closure of the final salary scheme and the move to career average pensions has reduced the amount that many USS members will receive in retirement. The average lecturer will be around £200,000 worse off than they would have been under the final salary scheme, with most staff set to lose 50% or more of their pension. At the same time, member contributions have risen significantly from 6.5% in 2011 to 9.6% as of October 2019, while employers have refused to increase their contribution. The Pension Regulator has claimed that the fund is in deficit, but research commissioned by UCU shows the pension fund is in fact in surplus. The employers refuse point-blank to consider increasing their contributions!
What is a strike?
A strike involves workers withdrawing their labour to make a collective protest. Striking is one of the only ways to make our employers listen to us and take us seriously. When workers go on strike, they do not go into work, and they do not get paid, so not only are students’ tuition fees still taken by the university during a strike, but the university also does not pay the staff who go on strike, staff who also do not do their teaching during the strike. UCU members will lose significant amounts of their pay when they take 14 days of strike action which shows how strongly they feel about the above issues.
In the past year, striking has hit the headlines, particularly in the context of the School Strikes for Climate, where millions of school children around the world have walked out of school to protest about the climate emergency, which was supported by the Extinction Rebellion climate activist group as a form of non-violent direct action. This shows how students are often at the forefront of social movements for change and can go on strike too, which happened most notably in 1968, when university students protested against war, racism, and the power of corporations and called a general strike of the workers. More recently, university students have engaged in ‘rent strikes’ to protest extortionate university accommodation rent prices. This year, UK postal workers in the Communications Workers Union voted by 97.1% in favour of taking take strike action to defend their job security and working conditions. When taken together, alongside the UCU pension strike last year, striking is being increasingly recognised as a strategy for making a difference.
What is a picket?
A picket is a form of protest during a strike where a group of people congregate outside their place of work, with posters and placards, peacefully and sometimes playfully persuading people to join or support their cause, and encouraging people not to ‘cross their picket line’. Pickets help to spread the message about our cause and inform people about our demands using accessible slogans. Recent picket lines have been fun and filled with joy, humour, laughter, music, creativity, and even – dare we say it – dancing. Staff really appreciate it when people say hello, rather than ignoring them, and especially when people stay and have a chat and hang out for a while. Remember that striking staff are human beings too!
What is a rally?
A rally is a demonstration where a large number of people gather together to protest and make a collective point. Activists speak about the issues they are protesting and people carry placards and banners. There might be music and the chanting of slogans such as ‘We Are The University’ (and as a hashtag #WeAreTheUniversity on Twitter too) or ‘Buildings Don’t Teach, People Do’. A rally might then become a march where a lot of people walk through the town centre to make people aware of our cause. Last year, protestors made strike playlists, sing-along sessions, raps, silent mass meditation protests and much much more. Watch out for what happens this year and get involved!
What is a teach-out?
A ‘teach-out’ is a form of protest involving teaching, which happens outside of university buildings. Last year, staff and postgraduate students at other universities were especially active in organising ‘teach-outs’ at cafes, community centres and churches to teach members of the public about the wider issues raised during the strike, especially the marketisation of higher education, how it is affecting students and staff alike, and how this can be resisted. The ‘teach-outs’ were amazing examples of what our university managers like to call ‘impact and engagement’ with the local community. At other universities in the UK, university students organised ‘teach-ins’ in university lecture theatres, to educate students about the issues. ‘Teach-ins’ also happened during occupations. Almost 20 universities were occupied by students protesting. An occupation is a protest tactic of taking up space in a university building to make specific demands.
In summary, a strike is a ‘teachable moment’ which means that we can all learn new things in new ways. If students value the staff who make their education possible – your lecturers, postgraduate teaching assistants and demonstrators, professional services staff – and if students appreciate the academics and researchers who conduct the teaching, scholarship and research, you can show how much you value and appreciate them by supporting their strike action. This is also often one of the quickest ways to escalate the strike and demand change; our employers often listen to, and value, students more than university staff and so, if students support the striking staff, university managers are more likely to take our demands seriously.
This happened during last year’s strikes, when the students at those universities supported the strike, joined members on the picket lines, and offered their support to university staff who were on strike. For example, during last year’s pension strike, 6,785 Cardiff University students signed a student-organised petition stating “we stand by our lecturers and feel their demands are justified” and demanded financial compensation for teaching hours lost and for extenuating circumstances to be awarded to students. A YouGov poll showed that 66% of students supported the strike last year, 2% blamed staff for the disruption, and 50% blamed universities.
UCU members massively appreciated students’ support and many of people – staff and students alike – found the strike to be one of the best moments in their university careers. The strike is a brilliant way to show that you are not just a consumer of education, and we are not just service providers, but we are all much more than this. “We are the university!”
What is action short of strike (ASOS)?
Action short of strike (ASOS) is non-strike action including working to contract, not doing voluntary work, not covering for absent colleagues and not rescheduling classes or lectures cancelled due to the strikes. ASOS can highlight how much extra work we do for the University – on average two days unpaid overtime each week – and can help maximise the impact of strike action. ASOS may also include taking part in an assessment boycott.
Won’t striking hurt students?
It’s true that striking will affect students who will be missing out on teaching or will be affected by an assessment boycott. Going on strike wouldn’t make any sense if it didn’t disrupt the workings of the university. We all care about our students and do not make the decision to disrupt your education lightly. But the better working conditions we’re fighting for now will also benefit you. After all, our working conditions are students’ learning conditions! Exhausted, burnt-out staff aren't going to be able to offer you the time or quality you need. Our financial security and wellbeing in work will impact the quality of teaching we can deliver. Some students, of course, also go on to be academics or researchers or teachers or professional services staff working in universities. We’re directly fighting for their future, as well as for a system that does not depend on precarious, exploitative labour.
Our 2020 strike is particularly about fighting precarious and casualised labour. This is becoming a reality for increasing numbers of students in the so-called ‘gig economy’, who may find themselves needing to take on multiple, poorly paid, zero-hours jobs to support their studies, whilst being saddled with over £50,000 in debt when they graduate.
Getting a university degree is about more than passing exams to get a job. It’s also about learning citizenship and discovering the world. Striking does not mean we don’t teach students any more. Many students and staff have found that the last round of strikes has shown that “another University is possible!”.
For some students, industrial action is a unique learning experience and some of our brightest and most talented undergraduate and postgraduate students joined picket lines and took part in ‘teach-outs’.
A strike shows that The University is more than a business, education more than a commodity, staff are more than service providers or ‘traders’, and students are more than customers or clients. We are the university!
I am a student. How can I support striking staff?
If you are a student who supports the staff strike, there is a lot you can do to help, such as:
Join us on the picket line.
If you are a postgraduate student, and you are not yet a member of the UCU, we strongly suggest you join UCU, either as a student member, or for free if you are a postgraduate research student who teaches (that is, if you are also working for the university).
The National Union of Students (NUS) supported last year’s pension strike and supports this strike too, saying that students stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with staff and have called for students to organise solidarity action in support of UCU members (see the NUS Twitter @NUSUK)
Organise a meeting with your Student’s Union representatives
Tell university staff you support the strike and ask them how you can help
Talk to your peers, flatmates, friends, and family about the strike and tell them why you support it
Share relevant news about the strike, locally and nationally, on social media – especially on Twitter and Facebook
The best way to keep up to date about the strike is to join Twitter and follow the Bath Spa University UCU Twitter account @UCUatBSU – you can re-tweet posts and post positive comments
Say hello and support university staff on their picket lines, rallies, and marches
Consider carefully, in dialogue with lecturers and professional services staff and peers, showing solidarity with striking staff by boycotting your lectures and seminars and not crossing picket lines
Take out any books you need from the library before the strike, so you do not need to cross picket lines
Join or create your own ‘teach-out’ events that happen during the strike