Picket lines are drawn in the UCU strikes

Steven Ross reports on the staff and students that took to the picket lines in support of the UCU industrial action

Steven Ross
28th February 2018
Students showing their support | Image: Saffron Kershaw-Mee

The first day of Newcastle lecturers’ strike over pension reform began on 22nd February with a rally at Grey’s Monument.

It was organised by the president of the University and College Union (UCU), Bruce Baker, who is also a History lecturer at Newcastle.

Baker began by reading an announcement from Newcastle University Vice-chancellor Chris Day, which stated that he understood why lecturers were striking and that he would be meeting with vice-chancellors from other universities, urging for a return to negotiations.

The first speaker, Unite Regional Officer, Dave Telford spoke about how none of the staff wanted to be in a position where they had to strike but that the administration had left them with no other option.

He stated that the administration’s approach to negotiation was ‘their way or no way’.

Next, Trade Union Congress Regional Secretary, Beth Farhat talked about the Trade Union bill, saying that it was ideologically driven and constructed in a way that would make it harder for employees to withdraw their labour to protect their rights.

She also addressed students, suggesting that as soon as they start working, they should join a trade union.

Matt Perry, Vice Chair of the UCU Newcastle branch spoke next, and talked about the first recorded workers strike, by the pyramid builders, who demanded garlic to protect themselves from mosquitos.

That the pyramids exist was proof that they were successful. Perry also said that while 14 days of strikes would be costly for lecturers, it would be worth it to ensure that they could afford to use their central heating when they retire.

Dave Telford stated that the administration's approach to negotiation was "their way or no way"

Sarah Elton, from Durham University said that students are being turned into consumers, and lecturers into service providers. She argued that if lecturers did not act now, higher education as we know it will not exist in five years.

Finally, UCU Head of Higher Education, Paul Bridge, told the crowd that the degree of anger among union members was palpable. However, he said that he was prepared to negotiate with the Vice-chancellor, and it was now up to the administration to come to them.

The Campaign Officer of Newcastle University Labour Society attended the rally.

He said that the administration was using false figures to justify cuts and that lecturers are already under strain with constant assessments like the Raising the Bar initiative.

He also said that lecturers helped him at university, so he wanted to support them.

Stephen Burrell, a PhD student from Durham University, said that this was the first time that politics has affected him directly as, going into academia, his future pension plan would suffer because of the proposed cuts.

In an interview with the Chronicle, UCU regional official Iain Owens said of the dispute: “Nobody wants to take strike action, but staff at Newcastle and Durham feel they have no choice.It is staggering that the universities have refused to engage with the union and a real insult to staff and to students.We hope students will continue to put pressure on the vice-chancellors to get their reps back round the negotiating table.”

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