As the UCU strike enters its second week, disrupting a usual schedule of lectures and seminars across campus, academic staff continue to demand change for their pensions, which campaign material states will be ‘axed’ if action is not taken.
According to UCU, the proposals imposed by Universities UK (UUK) will mean cuts of up to £10,000 a year for the average member of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
In walk-outs, pickets and marches across London, College staff have been pictured standing up for their rights in bold, striking, and even innovative forms. Days One and Two of King’s related action saw large numbers gather on the picket lines, and, as the snow fell heavily on the streets of London on Day Three of the strikes, some continued to brave the cold, albeit in arguably reduced numbers, to make their voices heard. Of course, the strikes also saw the University of London come together in collective action, in a protest which began at SOAS on Malet Street, with food, music and even an open fire to warm hands (or indeed marshmallows as Roar experienced from some generous protestors.)
Roar photographer, Jared Phanco, and I, alongside other members of the Roar editorial team donned coats, hats, gloves and snow-appropriate shoes to report across the week…
The University of London protest on Day Three of King’s strike action drew universities from across the capital, and even the solidarity of the University of Cambridge who an announcer stated were present. Roar reporters braved the mile-long walk across the snow-covered Russell Square and Malet Street Gardens to arrive at a protest that merely five minutes after the scheduled starting time was in full swing: music playing, drums banging, a collective of voices shouting familiar and memorable chants: “We’re out here, in the snow, UUK has got to go!” and “Students and workers – unite and fight!”
In the eye of the storm on Malet Street, as the protestors began to form, there was a noticeable officer presence, presumably to organise strike action and make sure all protestors were safe.
In the adverse weather conditions of London, where the so-called ‘Beast of the East’ was at its peak, the turn-out was admirable and spoke to the determination of academics to ensure their voices were heard. Despite the levels of resentment evidently felt by those on strike, and indeed those who showed their support, the general tone of the day was one of empathy. Each person in the crowd had a different story to tell: how the policies would affect their future, how their determination could not be shaken, how much they admired other members of teaching staff. Every story unravelled itself that afternoon, and as we stood in the heart of the protest, the crowd of strikers wrapping around us like a warm winter coat, a new anecdote was never far away.
A member of academic staff in the crowd stated, “I don’t want to strike, I love working and learning, I love teaching my students, but this is unfair.”
Noticeable within the protest was a spirit of confidence and union. The Socialist Worker tent handed out placards with the striking message “Strike for education – fight for pay and pensions”, a stall offered hearty helpings of vegetarian food, protesters gathered around a warm fire; which we were invited to crowd around. It was clear this was a protest about group resistance, where the fight belongs to staff and students alike as they united in a bold show of opposition to the UUK and, indeed, the institutions to which they subscribe.
And there was a level of amusement to be found across the week too, a demonstration that despite the seriousness of the issue, and the dedication of academic staff to ensure their rights, a bit of fun can be had to temper the cold weather. A placard with the words ‘Pensions not Pornstars’ featured outside UUK central offices, referencing a vice-chancellor’s expenses request for a pornstar martini, ‘FUUK OFF’ and ‘B*tch better have my money’ banners featured on the picket lines as ABBA’s S.O.S – seemingly an anthem for the protest – blasted across speakers, and one banner featured College Principal Ed Byrne as Mr Burns from popular TV show, The Simpsons.
Amongst the crowds on the front line of university dispute, you will rarely find a student who does not wish to vociferously denounce the policy which has placed them shoulder to shoulder with those who they previously observed at the front of the lecture hall.
“I’m here in solidarity,” said one student, “Most of us stand with academic staff against what unis are doing. 10k a year average in cuts is insane and we all have a duty to talk about it.”
Noticeable are students choosing to stand up and speak out whilst also being affected. Many have entirely refused the idea of what appears to be the general consensus, requesting reimbursement for student loans, with one student at the protest stating it would “undermine” the efforts currently being made.
Members of academic staff urged students not to cross the picket line and instead stand alongside them in protest towards universities.
Many did so, taking an active role in the strike.
As the snow begins to melt away from the streets of London, the strike action will continue in earnest. With UCU unwilling to call off strikes until the UUK begins to consider their demands, the length of action is somewhat indeterminable, leaving many with little to no solid answers. According to one e-mail from a member of academic staff, ‘talks between the UUK and UCU are taking place this week.’
When observing the strikes at this point, there does appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel, visible for staff and students alike. Nonetheless, support for the campaign does not appear to wane, and it is inevitable the new-found spirit of solidarity witnessed across the campus will continue, even when the banners are rolled away.
All photography courtesy of Jared Phanco for Roar News.