Though I’ve been a trade unionist all my working life, I’ve never been on strike before. On the picket line yesterday, something happened that made us feel a part of something much bigger, a movement across professions and trades with a proud history that spans decades. Something that warmed the heart in more ways than one. It reminded us that we are striking for something much larger than the current dispute and the way our pensions will be decimated; nothing less than the future of Further and Higher Education in the UK.
The Universities and College Union (UCU) began strike action on February 22nd in defence of their pensions. Universities UK (UUK), the blanket organisation representing university management, supports a strict valuation of the current pension scheme and supports a plan through which the current Defined Benefit scheme would become a Defined Contribution scheme, passing all the risk onto the employee and decimating their future pension payments. For me personally, I would have to pay an additional £900 a month into my pension in order to keep it at its current value – which aside from being completely unaffordable, equates to a 25% pay cut. UUK has refused to negotiate the terms of their proposed ‘solution’, despite being forced back to the table after only two days of strike action.
Picketing isn’t much fun - standing in the freezing cold for hours on end trying to inform people about the dispute and encourage them to join it. Freezing fingers, slippy leaflets, placard splinters and aching feet. At times we though that perhaps the Americans have the right idea, marching in circles – at least that keeps the blood moving. One of our sites had a brazier yesterday – but we joked about that, discussed whether it was legal and the effect on climate change! There is a lot of banter on the line, which keeps spirits up.
We have had fantastic support from students, and this has perhaps prevented the universities and the government from trying to turn public opinion against us. On the line, we’ve had a lot of support from the public passing by, and plenty of staff thanking us for our efforts and offering to buy us coffee and tea, which is always welcome (though we would prefer if you actually came out and drank it with us!). Someone came out yesterday with cakes and flapjacks they’d bought for us, taking us completely by surprise.
The one incident that topped everything though was a woman who came over with cardboard boxes – filled with hot chicken and vegetable soup and fresh bread rolls. She was from a local shop selling fresh produce, and said that she would bring us soup everyday we were on the line, and we could come in her shop any time top warm up and take a break. She used to be an official for UNISON, and came over wearing her UNISON jacket. The soup and bread was delicious and really hit the spot. But more than the physical and welcome gesture, what we felt was something more precious - Solidarity.
Quite often people will pass and call ‘Solidarity!’ which is appreciated, but this was more, this was about recognition that as trade unionists we are part of a much wider movement. Unions are about workers standing together to support each other, and derive any power they have from collective action. When any union member is threatened, the entire union stands behind them. And the next level up is the solidarity between unions.
We would do well to remember the great debt of gratitude that we all owe to the trade unionists of the past, and the rights and freedoms that we take for granted for which they fought and suffered. I wouldn’t even begin to compare our efforts today with theirs, but we are part of the same movement.
Yes, we are fighting to retain our pensions. But this dispute is just one facet of a sustained, ideological attack on the provision of free education at all levels in the UK, not just Further and Higher Education. It is about the marketization of education, where everything has a monetary rather than intrinsic value; where educational achievement is measured by ever-increasing disruptive and draconian assessments and on the future earnings and commercial worth of the individual the system produces. We saw in the latest government initiative that STEM subjects would have a greater perceived value than Arts and Humanities, and so eventually education would be nothing more than a pastime for those who could afford it, as it was in the past.
As we prepare for the next day of action celebrating the victories we’ve already won, remembering the proud legacy of the movement we belong to, we’d ask you to recognise the wider issues at stake, join the union and action if you can, and if you can’t - keep those hot coffees coming.
See you on the picket line.