Fighting Community

Here we go again, we are preparing for another round of strikes. The issues we have been fighting over have not changed: our pensions are still threatened and our working conditions have still not improved. The three day strike before Christmas was just a warm up for this round. We were somewhat worried that the short strike would be ineffective because teaching had finished and university life had quietened down. The action turned out to be effective: our University of Edinburgh branch recruited 150 new members including 30 from the School of GeoSciences. More people than before joined the strike. Although the employers seem to have hardened their stance, the pension provider admitted that the UCU proposal was viable provided the employers support it. We clearly managed to exert some pressure.

One thing that has changed is that we have started to organise regular local meetings for union members of my school. The idea is to provide an opportunity to build a community away from the picket line. This allows us to gather ideas and suggestions that we can pass on. It also helps if a local member can pass on information coming from the centre.

On Friday, we met in the pub and sat outside (it was absolutely baltic). We came up with lots of ideas that we want to try out during the upcoming strike. During our discussion one of our more senior members joined us with an agenda: he was not sure about the strike and wanted to be convinced. We talked about the pensions, the fact that the pension provider seems to be preparing for the end of capitalism and that the younger people will lose most. The current proposal means that I would lose about a third of my pension. Notably, younger members worry less about their pensions. Retirement is so far away for them and who knows what our world is going to be like given climate change. I tend to agree.

We also talked about the four fights which we all agreed was the more important dispute. In my last strike post I talked about wage stagnation. Today's conversation was mostly about precarious working conditions. This aspect does not affect me directly so I hadn't really thought about it in much detail. A lot of teaching is done by people on short term contracts. This is obviously bad for the precariously employed: they have no security and struggle to make any longer term plans. Issues such as having to wait for months to get paid should not happen. However, this form of employment is also bad for the institution: courses need to be planned further ahead than a year; academics go on family leave or sabbatical; students like their teachers and do not understand why they might have to leave after a year.

We talked about the effectiveness of strikes. In many ways striking is relatively easy: you just don't go to work and maybe turn up on the picket line. Unlike the miners or steel workers we do not produce any widgets. When we stop work the nation's energy supply isn't threatened. The closest thing we have to widgets are the students. More drastic action would affect the students most. We all like teaching students, we enjoy our work and we have great colleagues. The university exploits this goodwill. Clearly we will need to develop strategies that go beyond striking. However, these ideas must come from us. There is nobody that will resolve our dispute with the employers other than us.

There are also wider aspects to this dispute. Due to Trade Union Act 2016 each university voted separately over whether they want to join the industrial action. A turnout of at least 50% is required for the result to count. A number of universities did not make this threshold and are therefore unable to take part in the industrial action. However, since both disputes are national the institutions that are on strike also fight for those who cannot take part in the action. There is also the issue that our pension scheme is the last big private defined benefit pension scheme. One cannot avoid the impression that the attack on our pensions is politically motivated. Once our pension scheme is gone the public sector pensions such as the teachers' or NHS pension can be more easily dismantled.

In the end what choice do we have? Either we are unhappy about the attack on our pensions and our working conditions in which case we need to fight or we don't go on strike and accept the proposed changes and our working conditions. Once our pension is gone we will not get it back. The universities have employed the salami tactics to slowly erode our working conditions. If we don't stand up the salami will be all gone.

Building a community and talking with colleagues and students is vitally important. We all have different perspectives that add up to a coherent picture. We can learn from and solidarise with each other. I came out of the meeting invigorated and am ready to stand on the picket line.