It’s just over a month since I reluctantly returned to work at the University of Birmingham after 14 days on strike in February and March. This action followed on from the eight days my fellow UCU members from across 74 institutions had already taken in November and December for the first round of the UCU Strike.
Sadly, despite the best efforts of brave UCU members throughout the UK, employers have refused to budge (although there are tentative signs a minor concessions may be on the cards). This means our entirely reasonable demands for fair pay and pensions; secure employment and manageable workloads; and credible action to close the gender and race pay gaps in higher education remain as yet unmet.
Worse still, the final days of our strike action coincided with the Government’s belated response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, this diverted attention from our dispute and, in my view, allowed our employers to cynically wait out UCU, knowing the looming public health crisis would make it virtually impossible to keep up our dispute.
In light of everything I’ve just said, plus the fact that my employer refused Birmingham UCU’s request to defer strike deductions until the COVID-19 emergency has passed, you might expect me to be feeling a bit down about the UCU strikes. And at one level, you’d be right. I’m not going to lie, it’s been pretty grim having to return to work without any immediate gains to show for your hard work and sacrifices. And this feeling is exacerbated by the fact that I was the only person in my team of approximately 20 people who didn’t cross the picket line. It’s hard not to feel bitterness and resentment in this situation.
And yet as the weeks pass and I’ve got the consolation of soon receiving some financial support from the UCU Fighting Fund, I am starting to gain some perspective on the strike. Here’s what I think we have gained thanks to the UCU Strike.
Increased branch membership
Between the time of our Get Out The Vote strike ballot campaign in early autumn 2019 and the end of our second round of strike days in March 2020, BUCU’s branch membership grew by over 200 to nearly 1,500 members.
The work we as a committee put into beating the 50% turnout threshold required under the Trade Union Act created new opportunities to make non-union colleagues aware of UCU and what we are trying to achieve. Our 22 days of well-attended, noisy but kind-hearted picket lines and strike rallies, introduced even more colleagues to UCU and unions. Just as importantly, they will have seen that at the University, it is union members alone who are prepared to put their money where their mouths are and stand up for fair pay, pensions and working conditions when it really matters.
I firmly believe our campaign, together with the increased visibility of our branch’s work I have developed in my role as Communications Officer, will help us to continue to grow our membership base as we increasingly come to focus on the upheaval caused to the higher education sector caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
An invigorated activist base
One of the best things about the strike was seeing new (and former) activists get involved and grow in confidence as the campaign progressed. Here are just a few examples that will stay with me:
- Organising picket lines. One of our newer members volunteered to coordinate our picket lines every day, despite them having a young child at home to look after. This took pressure off committee members. This member not only ensured we had enough members at every entrance point, they were a source of encouragement and cheer when we were facing atrocious weather.
- Stopping the post. A group of rank-and-file members took it upon themselves to organise additional picket lines on the afternoon of strike days so that we were able to disrupt the delivery and collection of post. CWU members are renowned for refusing to cross picket lines and they certainly didn’t let us down. It gave us all a great boost getting to know our regular postal workers (who were in the middle of their own dispute) and learning about each other’s struggles.
- Protecting the right to protest on campus. In the run-up to our first round of strike days, University management tried to halt our plans to protest on campus, labelling striking UCU members on campus as ‘trespassers’, and threatening us with harsh legal consequences. Rank-and-file members at the Birmingham Law School responded to management aggression by providing our committee with the expertise we needed to challenge management’s legal arguments. They also used their professional and personal networks to build a national campaign in support of protecting the right to protest on campus. While the legal arguments remain unsettled, the support we received from Legal academics meant that by the time of the second round of strike days, we were able to hold the majority of our strike rallies on the Green Heart, that large open space Vice-Chancellor Eastwood is so very proud of.
I’m pleased to say that many of our new activists have kept up their involvement with the branch beyond the strike days. We’ve already gained three new committee members. And despite all the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 crisis, I’m confident we’ll have more people wanting to stand for committee elections later this year.
Greatly enhanced staff-student solidarity
Between the first and second rounds of strike action, members of our committee made a concerted effort to secure official support from the Guild of Students.
Given the fact that our strike was going to impact students’ lectures and seminars, we knew it was important to obtain support from students at the University. Fortunately, we had laid the foundations for effective staff-student by the way we actively supported student workers who had experienced serious problems with getting paid following the introduction of the troubled ‘New Core’ payroll system.
Despite having pre-existing links with our students (made easier by several of our committee members being postgraduate students as well as members of staff), we initially struggled to secure support from the elected officers who head up the Guild of Students. Whereas the National Union of Students leadership had issued a joint statement with UCU in support of the strike, our local student union representatives adopted a position of neutrality. The reality however felt more like the Guild was siding with senior, however, with the Guild cancelling our room booking at short notice and officers being slow to share information from our branch.
By the time our second round of strikes came around, our relationship with the Guild of Students was much improved. Several members of our committee worked closely with student activists, including members of University of Birmingham Student Workers, to persuade a record number of students to vote in favour of the Guild adopting an official position in support of Birmingham UCU. This represented a major change for the Guild, which in recent years has been seen as increasingly de-politicised. Securing the Guild’s support meant we could have our base there and hold strike rallies indoors when the weather was particularly bad. It also raised the profile of our campaign and enabled us to more easily communicate with students, as Guild officers were obliged to be more pro-active in terms of providing students with information from our side, not just management’s well-rehearsed talking points.
Strong trade union and community support
An important part of the work I did for the UCU Strike was to ensure the wider trade union movement and local community knew about the strike and were supportive of our action. I feel I did a job on this front, building on what I learned through performing a similar role during last year’s UNISON University of Birmingham strike campaign.
Over our 22 days of strike action, we were joined on the picket line by local MPs and councillors, local councillors, trade unionists from across the region (via the TUC Midlands) and a little known folk singer by the name of Billy Bragg (who kindly treated us to an impromptu concert, no less). We even received a message of support from striking education workers in France. And had the COVID-19 crisis not hit when when it did, Birmingham’s Labour MPs, coordinated by Erdington MP Jack Dromey, would have been sending a letter to Vice-Chancellor Eastwood, calling on him to fairly address our demands.
We also received fantastic financial support. We received over £4,000 in donations through our GoFund Me page. We also received smaller but still significant donations from other sources, including local trade union and Labour Party branches.
Just as importantly, we were able to use our strike to provide a platform for other campaigns for social justice. I’m especially proud to have arranged a group photo with Jack Dromey to show our support for CWU members in their fight for fair pay and working conditions at Royal Mail. I’m also pleased we could highlight the important work GMB West Midlands is doing in our region, including their ultimately successful campaign to prevent Wilko management from slashing staff sick pay in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
I’m proud of the connections we made with other trade unionists beyond our campus.It was great to be invited to speak to NEU teachers in Shrewsbury who were striking for fair funding for Sixth Form Colleges. I was able to share with them some tips for getting their local community to back them over their College’s management. In return, I picked up some great practical advice on how to use Health and Safety law to tackle workplace bullying and excessive workloads. I also really enjoyed meeting up with and learning from fellow UCU activists from across Birmingham at the strike fundraiser organised by Birmingham City University activists.
These bonds have already helped our branch connect with trade unionists across Birmingham to demand all workers have the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to protect themselves and others during the COVID-19 lockdown. I am hopeful we can continue to strengthen these bonds. Indeed, given the strong likelihood of a global recession as a result of the pandemic, it will be more important than ever for people to stand together if we are to avoid another ‘lost decade’ of politically-motivated austerity.