Reflections on the Pensions Picket Lines

There is a physical archive of strike-related material at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. Search under ‘UCU’.

Some great photos from @RobertByford1 with thanks

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A slideshow from Goldsmiths UCU

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By Nicole Sansone

The first time I ever picketed was when I was an MA student in 2013. I wanted to be helpful and supportive, but I was clueless. At one point, I tried asking a student with blue eyebrows not to cross the picket. They crossed anyway. Almost immediately after, they came back out of the building and told me off for not doing a better job of convincing them not to cross. They then crossed the picket line a second time to go back inside.

I’d love to tell you that ‘ol blue brows is the villain in my story, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t still carry a grudge against them. But blue brows isn’t the enemy (even if they did scab – twice), and I’ll tell you why. 

Picket lines are simultaneously trenches and borders. Bonds are forged, and false enemies conjured. Picketing is peaks and pits, mania and depression, exhilaration and exhaustion. Picket lines are very good at being two things at once. This is a far trickier task for us humans. 

This year I wanted to scream into an anger pillow until it was soggy with respiration when I heard lecturers were holding a class on Marxism as we picketed. I also did not love being told “I don’t pay fees for you to strike,” as though I was a dog getting my nose pushed into a urine-soaked carpet. (Being called a “fucking c**t” was no banner moment, either.)

When these things happened, I wanted to hop on my very high horse and scream like Lemongrab about unacceptable conditions and about how awful these individuals must be. And I wanted to do this while feeling very good about myself, about how very acceptable my actions and politics are. But my anger would have been misdirected. Because – as good as pickets are at drawing lines in the sand, separating us from them; comrade from scab; too far from just far enough – the true enemy of a collective action dispute will rarely ever be on or near or crossing the picket line. It’s hardly even visible, in fact, and that’s by design. 

Our enemy has been, and remains, structural. It’s the structure of inequity that pins lecturers and students and faculty and staff against each other and watches on as we duke it out in a race to the bottom. It’s a managerial culture that requires individuals assert their right to be valued while fortifying a system of persistent devaluation. It’s those who bring chaos to our house and then ask us to clean up the mess (for free). Fuck ‘em. 

I’ll always think of blue brows as the jerk who embarrassed me when I was trying my best. But what they came out to say to me that day was that I needed to be more passionate about getting students not cross the picket, and that I needed to believe in myself more (I’m not even kidding). 

So blue brows the jerk is, I have to say though I’m loathe to admit it, kind of the hero of my story (ugh) because they showed me just how complicated picket work is. Getting people not to cross may be the purpose of a picket, but the real impact is in connecting to the people who don’t give a damn about your Zapatista coffee and Guardian subscription and showing them just how shitty things have gotten for all of us, them included. 

The strike may have been about pensions in the short-term, but no pension dispute alone could have garnered the groundswell of support that we saw this year. I think many of us are realizing we deserve better, and, thankfully, we’re starting to find ways to empower one another to ask for it. Sometimes that empowerment looks like the incredible alliances that were built in the relatively short time of the picket, and in the grassroots organizing that continues now. And sometimes that empowerment looks like a millennial revival of Flock of Seagulls telling you off as they scab to go update their muffin blog (or whatever it is they went to do). If I learned anything from 2013, and now again in 2018, it’s that either way is good—so long as it motivates you to show up.


by Aisling O’Beirn, Lecturer in Fine Art, University of Ulster, Belfast campus

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by Susan Kelly, Goldsmiths, University of London


By Ceiren Bell and Milly Williamson, Goldsmiths, University of London

First published 21 May 2018

The strike to defend our pensions was a transformative experience for us and thousands of university staff and students up and down the country. After years of being demoralised by marketization in higher education and the gradual corralling of what we do as educators into compliance with market-driven metrics, we found ourselves on picket lines in our hundreds discussing what we thought education shouldbe about and so picket lines for pensions quickly transformed into something much more expansive – imagining alternative visions of what the university can be.

Key to a growing experience of solidarity was meeting students and staff from across the university on picket lines where the blocks and barriers that are usually in place to keep people separated were suddenly torn down. The strike created a truly democratic space where we discussed everything from tactics to pedagogy to changing the world. We were moved by the creativity generated in teachouts, workshops, picket line art, singing, dancing and clowning around, as well informal discussions and debates. The potential seemed suddenly limitless in contrast to just weeks before – we were learning new ideas about how to bring creative, radical practice, not only to the strike, but into our curriculums and everyday lives – what we learned was everyday radicalism.

The strike was a rollercoaster of emotions – anger, elation, exhaustion, exuberance, and tears. At the risk of cementing our reputations as ‘cryers’, we thought we’d list a few things that brought us to tears:

♥ staff who were not on strike but who took leave to avoid crossing picket lines

♥ solidarity from the public (tooting horns, bringing biscuits, etc)

♥ The solidari-tea from our students

♥ Becky’s dog.

The first meeting of what became the Branch Solidarity Network on March 17 brought home to us that what we were experiencing was happening up and down the country. Strikers from dozens of branches got together to exchange tactics for the dispute and also to demand that the university is ours. We sensed we were part of something bigger than us and our own institution, and at that point colleagues became comrades. The strike created something very special; in fighting to defend what people we had never met had won for us in the past and in fighting ourselves to defend higher education for people we will never meet in the future, we experienced what Gary Younge, on our very first teachout, described as ‘revolutionary love’. We liked the idea, but little did we know what he meant on that first day. We learnt very quickly in practice. Revolutionary love is not like romantic love or familial love: it is the love you feel for people you don’t know but with whom you share a common project; it is a fierce protection of the possibility for a better world; it is righteous, indignant and angry; it is caring and compassionate, co-operative and democratic; it is about solidarity and embryonic of a collective vision of running things from below in the interests of all. That’s what the strike meant to us.