Why strike now?: Interview with striking lecturer Stacy Gillis

Molly Greeves interviews Stacy Gillis to explain the reasons behind the upcoming UCU strike and how students can support their lecturers

Molly Greeves
15th November 2019
Image: Nick Efford
Deputy Editor Molly Greeves sits down with Stacy Gillis, the University and College Union (UCU) Equality Officer in Newcastle, to explain the upcoming strikes to help students understand why lecturers are striking.
Image: Pngimg

Can you explain why the strikes are happening and your own personal reasons for striking?

I sit on the local UCU committee as the Equaliies Officer. There are two reasons we’re striking: that is, there are two ballots and this strike covers both ballots. One [of the reasons] is the changes to the University’s Superannuation Scheme and that’s a pension, and that’s what we were striking for [in 2018]. A pension is, for those who don’t know, deferred pay: I pay into my pension pot now so that when I retire I will get that back to support me. This is really important for academics because we have to do a BA, an MA and a PhD, a huge amount of training, and also, we often don’t get jobs for five or six years after you finish a PhD, so you often don’t start a job in which you can pay pension until your late thirties so the idea of having a secure pension is quite important. This is particularly [important] for women because women are paid less than men.  

The other strike that’s going on in universities across the UK is because universitieshave failed to make substantial inroads on the gender pay-gap, the BAME pay-gap and the disability pay-gap: so if you’re a white, able-bodied man, you’re gonna make a lot more than anyone else in the University. And it’s also about workload so for the majority of lectures (who are on permanent contracts) are contracted to work about 37 hours a week. The majority of lecturers work 60-70 hours a week out of love for the profession, out of love for teaching and out of love of research. Our workloads are out of control, however, and we need more investment in staff and in students.  

Striking is incredibly upsetting. I find it very difficult to not teach because I love teaching, I love my students, I love hearing what they’re thinking about, I love learning with them, as do the majority of my colleagues. It’s a really hard thing to do and we don’t do it lightly, we’re fully aware of the impact it has on students but this is a last resort, it’s not something we’re doing casually. We don’t get paid for striking so we will not be paid for all 8 days of striking– it is particularly important to note this because many job contracts now in academia are not permanent. New contracts areoften  zero-hour, precarious contracts: for example,  I know somebody who was on one or three-month rolling contracts for seven years... you can’t get a mortgage, it’s hard to have children, your life is so limited. In English Literature, for example, most people who taught your seminars in year one were all hourly-paid tutors.  

Yeah, I was really surprised to find that out in first year. 

Yeah, I mean some of them are my PhD students and as a part of their [PhD] they teach and get paid by the hour and it’s a kind of training mechanism. But the trouble is that the academy of higher education is becoming increasingly reliant on that; fewer and fewer permanent contracts are being given. So there’s a whole wider issue here of what is a university for? Imagine a university in twenty years time where no one has pensions, everybody is on a zero-hour contract so there’s no loyalty. [For example] if I was on a zero-hour contract teaching here and I was offered a better deal at Northumbria- in terms of being offered more per hour -  I’d be like “bye, fuck off” in the middle of the semester, and where would that leave the students. 

I think there’s a kind of fundamental, philosophical question here about: what do we understand universities to be for? And what kind of things do we want students to gain from them? A degree would have no meaning in a world where lecturers come in, teach for an hour and then leave. Within late capitalist models of big business, a university is just to make money. Is that what we want as a society? I think Newcastle has done really tremendous stuff around social justice agendas, working with local communities... great and inspiring stuff that people nationally are looking to the institution for. However, it needs to take seriously this issue with pensions because some people are looking at losing £800,000 off their pension and that sounds a lot, but when you think about the fact that that’s deferred pay that you’ve put in, it’s been taken out of your salary, and now people are living longer and longer, we’re looking at academics who are going to be living far below the poverty line once they finish retire.  

We are offering teach-out sessions throughout the strike so students can continue to learn. I’m coordinating them, for the entirety of the strike so you can come and learn. We want to teach, so we’ll be teaching off campus and you can come and learn about Extinction Rebellion, you can learn about ethics, about posthumanism, about computer coding, you can come and learn how to make a ceramic pot, somebody’s gonna do yoga, it’s not just our academic interests it’s all sorts of things. 

Are there things you feel like students might not know about the strikes?  

We don’t get paid for any of it. At Newcastle we picket between 8am and 12pm only, and we have to notify the University of the places that we will be picketing, and we’re not allowed to picket on University property. So if you want to support us, the big places would be near the Robinson Library, in front of King’s Gate and beside the INTO Building across from Haymarket, and over near the Business School. We’re not trying to intimidate students who are coming through, that’s not the purpose of what we’re doing. Students would not be harassed when crossing the picket line because the dispute is not with the students. 

It is so heartwarming and wonderful when students show up and give support. When you’re absolutely knackered, you’re standing in the snow and the rain... 

I forgot there was snow last time! 

Yeah, there were some days where I left and I was just shaking with cold... and for [students to show up] it honestly means the world. 

But the most important message is that striking is not something we do lightly and it is hard, it’s hard to stand up and say “I believe in this” and to see colleagues ignore you or shout at you when they pass by... it’s a really hard thing to do. 

If students want to talk about getting a refund they should email the Vice Chancellor Chris Day. 

I wanted to ask you about the picket line because I’ve had other students ask me if I am going to cross it... 

But you’re not crossing the picket line because you’re not in dispute with the institution. Students are not perceived to be scabs, for want of a better word, for crossing the picket line. The dispute is not with students so you can never cross figuratively, as we stand with students. I would say that during the eight days that we’re off [to] make full use of the other things that your tuition fees are paying for... the library, the gym, all these buildings on campus. But there’s no issue with students walking across the picket line. 

That sort of leads onto my next question which is: what are the best ways for students to support lecturers during the strikes? 

Send emails of support to your lecturers; write to Chris Day and ask him to work with other vice-chancellors to start working with the UCU on a solution.  

Is that okay to ask? I’ve never known. 

Well, you can’t ask if they will be going on strike... well you can ask but they don’t have to answer. But you can ask them if they support the UCU action, that’s the best way to phrase it. 

Show up at the picket line, just come and say hello. Stand for five minutes on the picket line handing out posters... you know what? Just make eye contact when you cross by. Sometimes with students I’m like, you were in my office with me giving advice about your PEC yesterday, and helping you with your work. and then they ignore you on the picket line. Email the Vice-Chancellor, write to your MP, ask your parents or carers to write to the V-C, talk to people, raise awareness. Make people aware of the dispute. So many people teaching you are part-time hourly paid people without even a pension and they’re doing it because they love the discipline, they love academia, they love teaching and research, make people aware of that, I would say.  

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