Fourteen days, hold tight: reflections from Leeds on the 2018 USS strike

For many branches, we have two weeks in which to prepare for eight days of strike action; for other branches, it is a time to think of how best to show solidarity and to prepare for re-ballots. We thought that now would be a good time to learn some lessons from the 2018 USS strikes in terms of how best to involve members and students, organise teach-outs, and to think about what demands we need to place on management. We are therefore reproducing Lesley McGorrigan fantastic account of how Leeds UCU mobilised members across the fourteen days of strike action.

From now on, BSN will be publishing emails, letters, images, posters, and memes that can be tailored for individual branches ahead of the 2019/2020 action. Please send materials to branchsolidaritynetwork@gmail.com

Mobilising members

A defining element of the USS dispute was that, from the outset, UCU branches operated like we were the winning side.  The union nationally was organising well and sending out the right messages and this gave us confidence.

In the run up to the strike our branch committee organised extra meetings and sent frequent member emails. These showed that the branch was making serious plans. The emails anticipated and responded to questions that people were asking.  We held general meetings where we reassured members that a hardship fund was being created; this meant we could reach out to those who were financially vulnerable and may otherwise have felt excluded.  We gained agreement from the branch to spend our local funds – that rainy day had arrived (it snowed too!).  We bought a pink gazebo for our picket muster point, we hired a van for the fourteen days, we bought a new PA system.    It was evident that UCU was taking this dispute seriously and our members responded in kind.  This led to the most exhilarating fourteen days of union solidarity we have experienced.

As soon as the strike started, it was clear from the social media reports and images that we were part of something massive with the potential to win.

At Leeds, we’d had a dry run back in October when we went on strike over changes to University Statutes.  The press had already witnessed that we could organise well and, on the first USS strike day, Channel 4 News and BBC Look North sent their camera crews to the Leeds picket lines.  Our branch President, Vicky Blake, had a comment piece in the Guardian and featured on the Today programme as members were waking up and getting dressed to join day one on the picket lines.  The more exposure we received, the more our members wanted to be part of the action.  New faces joined the picket lines every day during the fourteen day period.

We have an incredible diversity of talent on our local committee; our branch president harnessed this to the full with her own skill, dedication and drive. Our endeavours became infectious, we re-wrote and dubbed the lyrics to the Spice Girls, creating the infamous ‘Strike up Your Life’ video which we sang on a massive rally at the front of the University.  The next day, members turned up with their own dubbed song lyrics and branches up and down the country began creating their own picket line anthems.

Taking action, day after day, was in itself a mobiliser.  The dominos began to fall: On day two Sheffield University reversed its punitive pay docking policy for lectures cancelled due to the strikes.  A twitter campaign amongst alumni had forced their management to cave in.  St Andrews was next, then Keele.  Loughborough management and several others agreed to spread pay deductions for the strikes over 3-4 months. Some VCs were clearly breaking rank and sympathising with staff, chatting with them on picket lines. Two Cambridge Colleges spoke up to say that the view from Cambridge submitted on their behalf to the USS consultation did not represent them ie the consultation process was being exposed as a sham. A Congregation meeting of over 400 staff outside Oxford University forced Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson, to urge Oxford Senate to reverse its position on the USS valuation.

After saying they were imposing the defined contribution scheme on us, UUK now agreed to talks with UCU.  We were winning.  We knew it was up to us to ensure that those inside the talks knew we were not backing off – we had everything to win.  

We stood, sang, danced and ‘taught out’ on picket lines for fourteen days in defence of our pensions. But it was apparent very early on that this strike had created an outlet for so much more.  It brought members together in ways that allowed them to express their feelings of anger, frustration and disdain towards the effects of marketisation on their jobs, lives, students and the sector as a whole. This was evident from the sardonic messages on home-made placards that members brought along, from the magnificent flourishing of song, poetry and verse that we witnessed and through the ubiquitous social media.  Not only had the balance of forces in the dispute shifted, members themselves were changing.  People talked of the confidence they had gained, how colleagues became real friends on the picket lines through fourteen days together; instead of isolated in the office.  Members had found new ways of expressing themselves; new ways to be heard and be listened to. 

Members mobilising themselves

The confidence that members’ had gained through their action was apparent when an ACAS brokered ‘deal’ was announced ten days into the strike on 12 March.  The deal was progress but nowhere near what we were prepared to accept.  

A meeting at UCU HQ witnessed every delegate call for the Higher Education Committee (HEC) to reject the offer. Branches had hastily convened mass meetings from their picket lines on unprecedented scale to debate and dictate how their delegates should respond and their decisions were transmitted into the meeting via social media.  It was clear the deal was dead in the water, that the membership had forced their will when the Chair said:  ‘In recognition of the emerging mandate…’.

The Higher Education Committee met immediately after that meeting and the deal was withdrawn without a vote.  Members had lobbied the HEC  outside of the meeting and via email; it was the most democratic decision making I have experienced in my six years on the HEC.  

The General Secretary subsequently angered many members when she repeatedly emailed them with a steer to vote yes to a second proposal from the employers, despite the union not agreeing a ‘yes’ recommendation.  In the absence of the heightened engagement through strikes and picket line democracy, members felt less confident to overturn the GS this time round and voted for the deal.  We will need to work hard to turn the massive progress into a full and concrete victory. 

The post-strike machinations of many on the HEC are a grave worry.  Apparently oblivious to the transformation in our union, they are carrying on with business as usual.  However, there are layers of newly engaged members with awakened confidence who are seeking to hold the GS and UCU leadership to democratic account.  Congress 2018 needs to be a forum to push for the democracy, transparency and accountability that we desperately need.

Worker/Student unity

Our students played an amazing role.  The dynamism of this strike struck a chord with many, themselves facing debt for exorbitant fees and little prospects of jobs with salaries to pay them off.

In many ways the management at Leeds helped build worker/student unity.  They had nothing original to say during the whole dispute. Their anodyne announcements to staff and students appeared bland and boring in the face of the creative space that became our picket lines.  Many students were drawn to the open, democratic and inclusive agenda thrown up by our strike, the picket lines, the teach outs and our social media.  They brought us snacks, made banners and placards, stood with us in solidarity, leafleted and led our marches into town.  

It felt like, not only our students, but the whole Leeds community was behind us.  Workers from Unison, Unite and the NEU invited us to speak at their meetings and collected donations for our hardship fund.  The Unison branch at our University provided a strikers breakfast to round off the final strike day.  

At each post-picket rally dozens of cars, vans and lorries drove past, beeping their horns in solidarity. They probably didn’t all know what we were fighting for but they knew we were workers because we had placards, banners and picket armbands and they knew we were fighting back against our employers.  We looked numerous, strong, energised and happy. Moreover, they were witnessing the vibe that we could win and they wanted to be on our side.

Lessons from the USS Teach-Outs

Our afternoon teach outs kept people connected after the unity of the morning picketing sessions. At Leeds we’d had experience of organising successful teach outs in our recent local strike over changes to university Statutes.  The sessions were both edifying and liberating; we got to know what our colleagues and students were genuinely interested in, their ideas and passions, unfettered by the strictures of the lecture theatre, standardised learning outcomes or the lens of lecture capture.  A student captured the dynamics: ‘Can’t we do this more often; I’ve never felt so close to my lecturers, normally you are up there and we are down here but today we’ve all been so much closer’.

The strike threw up anger at the inequalities of VC pay, the gender pay gap, that University buildings are mostly named after men. The energy and imagination from the picket lines and rallies spilled out into the teach-out spaces.  We wanted to talk about everything, we wanted to take on everything that was rotten about the neoliberal university and the world beyond.  The USS debacle had highlighted that, for management, staff and our pensions are their liabilities whilst iconic buildings are their assets. But this powerful strike had confirmed that ‘We are the University’.  

Alaric from Leeds UCU organised our Teach Outs.  He outlined reasons doing them:They show students that their teachers aren’t just putting their feet up. We care about students’ education and are willing to educate unpaid — just not to do the kind of educating we’re normally paid for. We only go on strike when bad things are happening, but promoting the teach-out allows us to focus conversations on a positive activity. Attending allows students (and anyone else!) to show support for the strike. The teach-outs also give members a communal, productive activity to do on strike days that builds ideas, capacity, and community — and reminds us what higher education is really all about. Not all members are willing or able to be involved in picketing, but are happy to participate in teach-outs, broadening the possibilities for activism on a strike day.And luckily, organising teach-outs is very easy! Almost everyone in UCU organises conferences, open days, meetings and talks professionally. Moreover, it’s in the nature of teach-outs that they’re ad hoc, a bit improvised, even carnivalesque. So basically, it’s about doing what we’re good at, yet no-one minds if it goes wrong!Alaric’s guide for organising a teach out is here:   http://www.leedsucu.org.uk/organising-a-teach-out/ . We shared this with other branches via the national UCU activist list and encouraged them to put on teach outs; they did and they flourished. 

Lesley McGorrigan, Leeds University UCU Campaigns Officer and NEC. Reproduced with her permission; originally featured in UCU Left’s Another Education is Possible magazine, 2018

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