50,000 lecturers show their power (by Kevin Ovenden)
Lecturers and senior admin staff brought universities to a standstill this week as 50,000 members of the AUT union struck over pay. Students protesting over New Labour's top-up fees scheme joined them on Wednesday.
University bosses (vice-chancellors) are driving both the fees plan and a pay deal which would see staff losing thousands of pounds. Meanwhile they have awarded themselves salary rises well above inflation. Yet the government reserved its fire for lecturers, who it absurdly accuses of "opportunism" because they are fighting both for decent pay and against fees which will lock out working class students.
If management can drive through its proposals in the universities, New Labour and bosses across the public sector will be more confident to attack other workers. "Fees and low pay for staff are linked," third year Bristol University student James Plunkett told Socialist Worker from his lecturers' picket line.
"They are both a product of the marketisation of education. We are against both variable fees and variable pay. The National Union of Students is standing shoulder to shoulder with the AUT. And we are having a referendum at this university to rejoin the national union."
Activists report that the AUT strike was incredibly well supported. "That was no surprise here," says Malcolm Povey from Leeds University. "We had 400 people join the union in the run-up to the strike. There were 70 volunteers for the picket line."
"We are fighting top-up fees and variable rates of pay," Karen Evans from Liverpool University reported on Tuesday, "We have 70 people on picket lines around the campus. We've turned away office staff who are members of Unison and the canteen workers have not even come in to work. Even the Aquacool people who fill up the water coolers refused to cross the picket line. The whole place seems to be shut down. Very few students have turned up and we've had great discussions with people about fighting top-up fees and fighting variable rates of pay."
"The strike on Monday at Swansea University was very solid," says Mike Pany. Universities across the UK struck together on Wednesday with Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland striking on separate days as well throughout the week.
He adds, "No AUT members went in other than a few heads of department. "There were 50 people on the picket line and we turned away a BOC delivery, the post, most lorries and (alas) the beer wagon. Members of the Unison union joined us on the picket line.
"People's spirits were kept high by recordings of working class anthems such as 'Solidarity Forever', 'Which Side Are You On', 'Bella Ciao' and Lisa Simpson's (of The Simpsons) 'Union Strike Folk Song'-'They have the plant but we have the power'."
There were similar scenes at Warwick University and many others. Chris Talbot from Leicester University says, "There's been a really brilliant response to the strike among people who do not normally come to union meetings. Other unions said they won't cross the picket lines. "We have also linked up with the Natfhe union members who are on all-out strike at Leicester College."
Other activists report that some of those now taking a lead in organising the strike had come into union activity through involvement in the Stop the War Coalition.
Lecturers have seen their pay relative to other groups fall by 40 percent over the last 20 years. That's gone hand in hand with less money for each student, and market-driven targets which have wrecked the rest of the public sector. These pressures have forced the traditionally moderate AUT union to take a stand. The ability of the union to stand in the way of pay cuts, attacks on education and wholesale privatisation is at stake.
That's why support is growing for a call from the AUT branch at Stirling University for a lobby of the union's national conference at the end of March. From next week lecturers start an assessment boycott and other forms of action short of a strike. That can hit university management and also provide a springboard for further action.
"An assessment and administration boycott, properly enforced, can really hurt university management and the government," says Tom Behan from Kent University. We've got to build on the mood this week to organise it.
Assessment Boycott - Union Statement (posted by Rob Owen on 03/27/06)
UMSU has listened to our members and share their concerns about the impact that a protracted industrial dispute by the lecturers’ unions will have on their work.
The action has been caused by Universities, acting through their employers’ association UCEA, in forcing lecturers to take industrial action. We condemn the effect and the action of UCEA bullies, not AUT/NATFHE who are simply defending their own members’ rights to better pay. Whilst the unions are prepared to talk tomorrow, the employers are needlessly dragging the dispute out by refusing to negotiate until the end of the month. This means students’ degrees are being unnecessarily disrupted as a result of procrastination on the part of the employers.
Regardless of the beliefs or ideology of the action; or even whose statistics you believe; is for students’ unions to defend their members properly and encourage them to complain. If students are not getting what they have been promised they have an obligation to submit a complaint to their University. Universities have an obligation to provide what they promise except where there are events outside of their control. It is clear that their tactics so far- and ending this dispute- is in their control. NUS is seeking legal advice on supporting students through a legal challenge aimed at Universities’ failure to provide teaching, assessment & support
We continue to support the lecturers' call for better pay and believe the employers should stick to the promise they made to put the extra income from top-up fees towards staff pay increases and improved facilities and resources.
I know I should be a good little socialist and support the strike, but I can't. Not when they're using us as pawns. Moreover, their salary isn't brilliant, but the salary of the ancillary staff here is far far worse. Plus the lecturers earn extra income from books and so forth. As my bf - aka harry_t_skull - said, if they want to hit the unis where it hurts, they should give up their research. I love this quote from Tom Behan: "An assessment and administration boycott, properly enforced, can really hurt university management and the government." And the STUDENTS. You forgot to mention the STUDENTS. We're the ones who are paying for this. It's our future and our lives you are messing with, guys. We'd support you gladly normally, but not when it's at our own expense.