View From The Picket: UCU Dispute

UCU member and Edinburgh University lecturer Stuart Moir spoke to the Red Robin about the view from the picket in the ongoing UCU Pensions Dispute.

What’s the mood been like on the picket?

The three Ds - a real mood of defiance, a feeling that we’re not going to stand for this. And determined - that we’re going to stay the course until the end. And the third D is diverse. I’ve been at the University since 2012 and I’ve taken part actively in every industrial dispute since then, and quite often there’d be about 10 people. Normally these were the same old faces, mostly ex-local authority workers active who’d been active in other unions and came to the academy. Mostly hardcore lefties, of course. This time round people there lots of people who’d never been on a picket before, lots of younger people, and strikingly lots of senior staff. We had three heads of institute and head of the school who came every day. In the past they’d never have come in for the picket.

But it’s also been diverse in terms of what we’re doing on the picket. We’ve had teach outs - 15 minute talks for students and pickets on topics linked to the dispute. And a range of community singing; we end the picket with a sing song every day. In the past it was Joe Hill, The Internationale, etc. But this time one of our colleagues rewrote the verses of Solidarity Forever to make it about the dispute - ‘end fatcat pay’, and so on. It’s fun, people are really up for it.

Has there been a shift in feeling among lecturers?

It’s difficult to establish that, I suppose. It goes back to the first question - the fact that we’ve got three times as many on the picket as in the past. That has to show a shift in consciousness. The disputes we’ve had in the past - people didn’t really want to keep fighting that dispute. But this time, people are treating it as the final straw. This isn’t just about pensions, this is about the whole marketisation of education. People are starting to think - we need to stand up and not ignore it anymore.

Of course there were people walking across picket lines, people who’ve always been antagonistic towards trade unions. Yesterday we had a situation where a member of staff was crossing the picket. We did the usual, asked him why he was crossing, etc. What he told is that he ‘had to’, because he was conducting interviews for a research grant. It transpired that the research was all about social responsibility. We pointed out the irony of that, not just to him but to the interviewees.

But overall, from my experience in terms of university wide branch meetings - we’ve had plenty of stories of people joining in who’ve never been involved, so it’s very different from before.

How much do you think this dispute is linked to the marketisation of education?

People are beginning to connect the dots. They can see glaring contradiction between ballooning VC and senior management pay and their own. Colleagues are retiring and not being replaced, or are only being replaced by part time and zero hours staff. The way university is trying to shift the pensions burden themselves to individuals, the commodification of knowledge, and of course the student satisfaction survey - where we’re asked to think of students as customers. People are aware of how it’s all been connected.

What’s been the reaction of students?

Mixed, but mostly positive. There have been some students who don’t understand the concept of crossing a picket line. I think that reflects wider lack of labour and trade union literacy, they just don’t get it. But that’s just one extreme.

At the other end, we’ve got students from the student association who are strongly supporting the union. There’s a group of volunteers from the association who’ve been distributing food, coffee, and tea. For example there was a US postgraduate student - someone who is really losing money from this - and she brought along some disposable cups, and a flask of coffee, and told us how much she supported us. These acts of human kindness and solidarity really mean a lot.

Of course most students have passively supported us and just stayed away from Uni. Which is also good.

What lessons can other unions learn from how this strike has been carried out?

I suppose - it’s the same lessons as ever. This is not something new. Human beings have been organising collectively and challenging capital for a long time. It seems so self evident you shouldn’t need to say it: but you need to organise. Yes, that means materials and resources, but also speaking to people well in advance in industrial action - that’s why we’ve gotten people out this time. Do what we always do - organise, or the whole thing will fall flat on your face. An email isn’t enough, a leaflet isn’t enough, you need to spend time in advance talking to people.

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