We are publishing here an account by one of our comrades, who posts on our forums as Demogorgon, of his experience of the recent national strike in the Higher Education sector.
I work in Higher Education in a low-grade administrative function. My workforce is ‘represented’ by three unions: Unite, Unison and UCU. On the 31st October, and for the first time ever, all three unions called a sector-wider strike over the issue of pay.
The majority of workers in my office are not in any of the unions. One colleague, a member of the UCU, did support the ballot and voted to strike. As the strike neared it became clear that there was no effort whatsoever on behalf of the unions to publicise it to non-members. A Unison notice-board remained absolutely devoid of any information. My main source of information as to what was going on was my UCU colleague who forwards me anything she receives.
The response of the University was interesting, however. A couple of weeks before the strike date, they announced they were introducing the “Living Wage” for lower paid staff and that the senior management team were generously rescinding their “contractually and legally agreed” bonuses so that the Christmas bonus for staff could be reintroduced this year.
Nonetheless, it was only a week before the strike that any real awareness of it began to circulate in my office and that was mainly because I talked about it. The general response was negative. Most colleagues couldn’t see the point of action. Even the colleague who had voted for the action was beginning to have doubts. She still agreed with the action, but her issue was the workload that she had to deal with.
It’s difficult to convey the pressure our office is under this time of year. My UCU colleague is starting at 8 in the morning and leaving gone 6 at night, every day for months, then doing work at home evenings and weekends. Because of the nature of our functions, if we don’t do the work that’s assigned to us, it just doesn’t get done. And it doesn’t stop coming in if we’re not there. Going on leave is now a nightmare because you come back to the two weeks of work which isn’t even touched in your absence. She simply felt terrified at the thought of having to work another weekend to catch up if she missed a day in the office.
Two days before the strike, the unions issued a joint statement to all workers, relying on their members to distribute it around the offices. This is despite the fact that they are fully aware that many offices have no members.
The letter set out the reasons for the action but contained a shocking (if you don’t understand the true nature of the unions, that is) claim that non-members could not participate. It is, of course, something of a joke among left-communists that it is actually the unions that enforce all the anti-strike legislation.
In a previous UCU strike over pensions, I went to a mass UCU meeting to show solidarity and said I would not cross the picket line. The response of the presiding official was to tell everyone that people not involved in strike must go into work! I ignored the advice and joined the picket where I was welcomed - even the branch secretary was impressed enough and whenever I saw him always asked to make sure I had not suffered any reprisals. The regional official actually refused to speak to me on the picket!
In any case, while it is customary for the unions to enforce anti-strike legislation they are also in the business of enforcing anti-strike legislation that doesn’t even exist! In fact, non-union members can join strikes and, as long as the strike itself is a “protected action”, they enjoy the same right not to be dismissed as union members.
In response, I decided to issue my own leaflet. I kept it to one side of A4 and did not give 12 paragraph treatises on the role of the unions in decadence! I simply tried to answer the concerns of my colleagues and persuade them to strike. I challenged the assertion about non-member participation from the unions, but did not go further than that.
I distributed the leaflet, leaving copies on everyone’s desks first thing in the morning and waited somewhat nervously for my colleagues to come in. Several picked it up and read it and said nothing. As more arrived some discussion began. I was, naturally, teased a fair bit! My favourite comment was from our team manager who said while the University had asked people to report their strike status by 10am on the day, I had shown my dedication to the institution by doing it well in advance! It was meant in jest and I took it in that spirit.
Most colleagues were confused but there was some talk about the issues of the strike and although most agreed the cause was just either felt it didn’t affect them (we have a high proportion of young, temporary staff) or that striking would make no difference. My overworked UCU colleague was unable to overcome her ambivalence.
Then another colleague came to speak to me and she was clearly disturbed by my leaflet. Originally she hadn’t planned to join the action, but was no longer sure. She basically went through all the points in my leaflet and we discussed each of them. She was deeply disturbed that the unions would say something that was apparently not true (the point about protection for non-union members). She even thought I was a union rep and was a little confused when I said I wasn’t and I certainly wasn’t trying to sell the union! She asked me why I thought they had said what they said - she was clearly doubtful of my point but at the same time wasn’t able to rebut it as I’d sourced my claim. I replied - prefacing it by making it clear I was wearing a cynical hat! - that they didn’t really seem to be interested in pushing the strike and were more interested in making themselves the vehicle for discontent and hoovering up potential members than actually defending us. She was clearly disturbed by this (at one point I actually thought she was close to tears!) and said in her previous work-place she’d watched the unions do nothing while pay freezes were imposed and people continually laid off and that was why she hadn’t joined here. I agreed with her points and said this was why I wasn’t a member of the union, but that we still had to take a stand and this was an opportunity to do so.
The day of strike came and I went to one of the pickets, getting there early. While others picketed in shifts, I stayed for the full duration. Contrary to the union statement, I was not turned away. One member remembered me from the previous strike and welcomed me.
There was an initial tendency for people to picket in their own unions. I joined a UCU one and suggested moving to join a Unite picket further down the road but this was met with a bit of confusion and concern about the picket being “too big”. Over the course of the day though, we were joined by Unison and Unite members so the picket took on a far more mixed quality.
There was not a great deal of discussion. Throughout the morning I managed to put a few points about effective struggles into conversation organically and people listened although I’m not sure they understood. The most in-depth discussion was with an NUT functionary who turned up to show solidarity and I chatted to her about unions. She was saying it must be tough when we’re all in different unions, to which I pointed out I wasn’t in a union at all unless you count the biggest group ... workers! She was a bit taken aback but accepted all the points about being divvied up as she had raised them herself.
When the picket ended, I went to the rally. There were between 100 and 150 people there and it was the usual format of 45 minutes of branch secretaries and local and national functionaries giving more-or-less predictable speeches: workers are being dumped on, greedy bosses, greedy government, the unions have done a lot for everyone, get everyone to join the union!
The last 15 minutes was opened to the floor and more contributions from other officials and someone from the Socialist Party continued in the same vein. I finally plucked up courage to speak and asked a very simple question: are the unions going to carry on striking together or were they going to revert to the usual strategy of split strikes and instructing members to cross each others’ picket lines?
Embarrassed silence and ironic smiles from the panel followed. After what seemed like a very long awkward moment and after banging on for over half-an-hour about how the unions were standing together, the UCU national official finally said he had no information about that at the moment but the line at present is to stand together. The meeting was then wound up.
Back at work the next day, I learned that I had been the only one to join the strike. I wasn’t at all surprised, of course. My friend told me she had sat in her car overcome with guilt for 45 minutes before finally going in. Although everyone came in, the atmosphere was subdued. I told her I understood and I do - and the important thing wasn’t to cry over what was done but to understand what’s being done to us.
What did my small action achieve? On the face of it, very little. None of my colleagues were persuaded to join the strike. But I was able to prevent them from sleepwalking into their decision - they were forced to make a conscious choice about their decision. A tiny seed of consciousness that may, one day, flower into something more significant.
I also showed that being a marxist is more than “reading clever books at lunchtime” which is often how people see me. It means standing up for something, even if only in a very small way. I also showed that it’s possible to do so without brow-beating or being accusatory. At root, my colleagues were frightened and I understand because I was frightened too. I cannot judge others for crossing picket lines when I cannot honestly say if I will always have the courage not to.
Would my action have been any more effective had I been in the union? I can’t see how. I would still have spoken against them both in my leaflet and at the meeting. And, more importantly, why would I give money to organisations that tell workers to cross picket lines?
Official Strike Action 31/10/2013
As I’m sure you’ve heard, all three unions have called official strike action on Thursday this week. After considering the matter, I have decided to support our colleagues in their decision to strike.
As the unions have already argued, pay in Higher Education has been eroded by 13% in the last four years. In fact, the wider situation is much worse and has been going on for far longer: “Median wages in the UK were stagnant from 2003 to 2008 despite GDP growth of 11 per cent in the period. Similar trends are evident in other advanced economies from the US to Germany. For some time, the pay of those in the bottom half of the earnings distribution has failed to track the path of headline economic growth”.
Employers have been able to get away with eroding our working conditions for years because we have passively accepted it. As long as we continue to accept it, our pay will decline, our pensions will continue to be eroded and our workloads will increase. Taking strike action can send a powerful message that we won’t accept these things any longer. But it will only be effective if we all stand together.
I understand that many of you will feel uneasy about taking strike action.
Going on strike means losing a day’s pay and after years of declining pay, this is not a small problem! But we’ve already lost much more than that. How much more will we lose if we don’t fight back?
Others are concerned about their workload and having to catch up after a day out of the office. As we all know, things are frantic this time of year! But how did we get to this state? As real wages have gone down, work-loads have increased. And every time we accept extra work we encourage the University to push more onto us further down the line.
If low-pay and high workloads are such a problem then there is even more reason to take a stand!
I know some will be afraid that that going on strike may result in losing their job. Because this is an official action, you cannot be dismissed for joining it. This protection also extends to non-union members who participate. Although the unions claim in their recent letter that “non-members are not allowed to participate in the strike”, this is not true. In fact, according to the www.gov.uk website, non-union members are allowed to join a strike in their workplace and receive the same legal protections: “Non-union members who take part in legal, official industrial action have the same rights as union members not to be dismissed as a result of taking action”.
It should go without saying that all workers, regardless of their union-membership, have the same problems and should fight together to solve them.
I hope that you will support my decision and, if you feel able, join our colleagues so we can resist the erosion of our pay and conditions together.
. Missing Out: Why Ordinary Workers Are Experiencing Growth Without Gain, The Resolution Foundation, July 2011