Lecturers at 11 London colleges and four universities struck against job cuts on 5 May; well-attended picket lines across the city fed into a thousand-strong rally in central London.
Now, more and more colleges will be sucked into the dispute: another 13 have announced redundancies. The problem is that different colleges are at very different stages of struggle: none of those 13 have yet moved to a ballot, while at others momentum is already difficult to maintain. On 18 May only four colleges — College of North East London, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and Hackney — will strike. At some other colleges, compulsory redundancies have been withdrawn (but voluntary redundancies will still mean job losses and increased workload for those who remain); other others, members did not feel confident enough to strike again so soon. Coordination is becoming increasingly difficult — a major problem, since coordinated action helps build confidence.
This highlights what's wrong with the “strategy” being advanced by the SWP, who are strong in London UCU: at the 11 May regional activists' meeting, they were advocating the TUC call a one-day general strike, and that at the very least colleges should consider going all out! This despite the fact that only eight of 40 or so colleges in London were represented, and many of those present reported that their members were not feeling over-confident.
We need to build up the regional meetings so they are more effective and representative, and as far as possible fight to keep action coordinated between as many colleges as possible — though this doesn't mean those whose disputes are more advanced should be held back.
Some reports from the picket lines, from the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts
Jade Baker, Vice President Education-elect of University of Westminster Students' Union, says: about a dozen students joined 25 lecturers on the picket lines at the Regents Street campus; the number of workers picketing was a big increase from the last strike at Westminster. There was also a picket line at Titchfield Street. I think the support we've given lecturers in the anti-cuts struggles and during our recent SU election campaign has been a boost. A lot of students had exams so went in, but generally sympathetic; we also had a lot of discussions with members of the public and our effigy of our VC Geoff “Job Slasher” Petts got on ITV!
Rowan Rheingans of Newcastle Free Education Network writes: Students joined UCU members at Newcastle University today for a day of action against planned cuts, including stalls on campus. (We also work regularly with the university Unison branch.)
We got a lot of interest, particularly because management has just proposed cutting combined honours degrees and replacing with them with more joint honours. 100 students do combined honours every year; 600 apply! The university has not consulted anyone.
UCU activist Colin Waugh reports from College of North West London: All three sites (Willesden, Wembley and Kilburn) were successfully picketed and there seems to have been little sign of anyone other than the usual people crossing picket lines.
The branch banner was taken on the central London demonstration, and the branch secretary, Indro Sen, spoke at the rally, explaining the struggles in which the branch is involved, which include against compulsory redundancies and management's attempts to impose a worse contract, plus the scheduled mothballing of the (virtually new) Kilburn building from 1 August.
A Hackney activist reports: Hackney College had a lively picket of around 40-50 people this morning. Picketing was slow to get going, but really picked up. Lots of students decided not to go in and said they'd like to keep in touch with the NCAFC.
There is a certain amount of frustration about Unison, but also an understanding that the problem is not Unison members but Unison leaders.
A lot of people spoke about being on zero-hour contracts, where you're totally casualised and not guaranteed any hours. I thought if you'd been employed for a year you were entitled to the same rights as other staff, but apparently both management and the UCU lawyers say it's two years.
Ruth Cashman, Lambeth Unison assistant branch secretary, reports from Lambeth College's Clapham Centre: The college is cutting 26 posts, which will mean 47 people losing their jobs. Overall at Lambeth College, across all three sites, the strike was really strong, with only a small number crossing picket lines.
There were about 70 people on the Clapham picket line from 7am. Later they were joined by pickets from the other sites (Vauxhall and Brixton), and a hundred or so people marched through Clapham before leaving for the demo in central London.
UCU and UNISON have been holding joint meetings at the college and producing joint propaganda in the run up to the strike. Some UNISON members did not go into work despite the union's failure to ballot members to go out themselves. UNISON activists at the college are frustrated at the London Region dragging their feet on organising coordinated action with UCU and want their own strike ballot as soon as possible.
Both unions are, to some extent, pursuing a policy of avoiding compulsory redundancies without challenging cuts — moving people into vacant posts, forcing people to retire, voluntary redundancy, hours cuts etc. This pushes the unions to make the bosses’ arguments — “We need to make cuts...” — for them, and ignores the effect on staff of increased workload and on students as they lose teaching time, nursery facilities and other important services.
Sacha Ismail: About a dozen UCU members were picketing Lambeth College's Brixton Centre. Brixton is the college's smallest site.
Brixton Centre UCU convenor Dave Esterson told me:
“The college are planning 3.5 million in cuts, and 47 redundancies. Yet our principal is on £170,000 a year, our top managers all get private healthcare and they've just created a new senior management post on more than £100,000.
“More broadly, staff here do not see why workers should pay for this economic crisis. We know about the billions given to the banks, and the fact that the super-rich have increased their wealth by £77 billion this year. We need a united campaign by the public sector unions against cuts.”
“A fair few managers used to be in the union, but in recent years the college has replaced “course managers” who were also teachers with managers whose only job is to police the workforce. They weeded out any managers who didn't want to do this role, and gave those who remained financial incentives to separate them out.
“After today, we'll be pushing for another round of coordinated action by the eleven colleges and four universities that are on strike in London today — and the others that are currently balloting or preparing to ballot.”