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 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.