I was just a child when I first heard the words ‘picket’ and ‘flying picket’. Hushed by my parents whilst they tuned in to watch the 6 o’clock news, I remember being fairly shocked by the stark images of police clashing with miners. The same pictures played out on our TV screens in 1984, but by that time, I had a clearer understanding of industrial action and the power of trade unions. In 1983, there was even a song in the charts by a band called ‘The Flying Pickets’. These were tumultuous times in Britain and the vocabulary of striking and protest had even permeated pop culture.
Fast forward to 2018 where I’ve spent the last 19 years working in Higher Education and the last few years as a proud member of the University and College Union (UCU). Unions made a lot of sense to our grandparents and I think they are making a bit of a comeback. In unsettling times, the first advantage of union membership is to make sure that changes in employment are negotiated, rather than imposed.
I now find myself standing on a picket line for the first time in my life, defending my right to a fair pension because the Employers, Universities UK (UUK), want to end guaranteed pension benefits for all those who belong to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). They say that our final pension should depend on how ‘investments’ perform and not on our contributions. UCU says that this is wrong and that it’s risking their members’ future. Universities UK also say that there’s a massive deficit of more than £6bn in the scheme – but there is no deficit. They based their valuations on a situation where every university goes bust. In reality, university income more than pays for its outgoings.
As such, UCU called for action and its members voted in overwhelming numbers for both strike action and action short of a strike. UCU called for action because of the Employers’ failure to reach an agreement with them to protect our pensions. UCU would prefer to have negotiated a solution by now rather than having to take industrial action but the Employers current proposal to end the guaranteed USS pension would mean an average loss of around £10,000 a year in retirement for all its members, potentially leaving many facing serious poverty in their old age.
As such, UCU believes that only sustained, disruptive action will bring the Employers back to the table and in fact, at the time of writing, they’ve met with UCU, supported by arbitration service ACAS, for the last two days in a bid to seek resolution.
Action commenced on Thursday 22nd February and will conclude on Friday 16th March. Strike action means not doing any work at for the whole of the days including teaching, administration, meetings, emails relating to work, marking, research or conferences.
Each morning on the picket line, in the fight to demand a fair pension upon retirement, I stand alongside colleagues who are academics, IT specialists, librarians, mental health support workers, hourly paid lecturers, graduate teaching assistants and students. We work hard to provide a quality higher education for our students – developing knowledge, solving problems and supporting them through their studies and through hard times. We are also parents, care givers, neighbours, and community members and of course, the university is a significant economic motor for the region. However, the future of universities is under sustained attack. Students are struggling with tuition fees and debt and now we, the university employees, are being attacked with cuts we don’t deserve. We witness cuts in funding, cuts in real terms in wages and increased workloads whilst the pay and benefits of top university management have skyrocketed.
And so we picket, we strike, we march and we protest, and we use the most powerful tool at our disposal – collective labour. Without us, everything stops. At my workplace, we’ve had an an excellent turnout of strikers, we are admirably supported by our students, many of whom have brought homemade banners to the picket lines, rallies and marches each day. The mood is celebratory, upbeat and musical including drums, whistles, bagpipes saucepans and spoons, but it is also determined. On picket lines, we’ve had people stopping to talk to us and the camaraderie is uplifting. Strikers on the picket line are also united that this action is about much more than a pension scheme – it’s about the commercialisation of Higher Education . We know that we are not alone. Thousands of university staff nationally are united and gaining a deeper understanding of our real power and political choices at the next general election.
As Billy Bragg sang
‘There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a union.’