UCU Industrial Action takes place on the 24th, 25th and 30th of November
Industrial action. This is a term many of us know quite well. A divisive term that often creates two camps of people; those who support strikes and those who do not. As we enter the latter half of our first semester we are faced with cancelled classes as academics throughout the university take action to demand better from our institutions regarding pay and pensions.
Much like the years previous, I find students who are hesitant on this issue. Cancelled classes can and most likely will bring forward challenges to our academic careers. We can often look at our professors with disdain as they leave us for a week to join the picket line. However, is the issue of industrial action as clear-cut as that? In short, no. It’s much more complicated.
Three years ago, when I started my degree, we often looked at the destruction of unions in the 1980s by the then Conservative government. We were taught that unions held very little power anymore in the political and public sphere. In the past twelve months, it is safe to say that the dynamic I was taught no longer exists. Unions such as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and the University and College Union (UCU) have grown in membership, strength, and power in the public sphere.
Working-class people have been given the opportunity to take back ownership of their wages and employment. Unions have gained the support of key politicians such as Labour MP Zarah Sultana and of Union leaders like Mick Lynch (RMT). All while gaining significant traction in our communities. For the first time in decades, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand more and demand better from our political establishment.
Why is any of this important in relation to the upcoming industrial action in our universities? Well, the CWU for many years has seen its members vote to take strike action against our universities and colleges due to a failure to pay their staff a real living wage which matches the growing rate of inflation. Put simply, the university we pay tuition towards is failing those who are tasked with the job to teach us. Our tutors are placed on insecure contracts with low pay which forces some of them to use foodbanks. Academics continue to see their pensions cut each year as universities raise the wages of their Vice-Chancellors.
As students, we are all well aware of the financial pressures that have arisen from the cost-of-living crisis. We have seen our own rents increase and food bills soar. With this pressure placed on us, it is necessary to take into account the lives of those who teach us. As our tutors host our tutorials and go through the teachings of the week, we often don’t see the reality of their situations. We don’t see their need for food banks or the messages they send to the family asking for financial support. We don’t see the tears shed as they mark papers while at the same time watching their paychecks disappear. As the time for industrial action approaches, it is important to note that some of our professors, tutors and teaching fellows will not be on the picket line as they can’t afford to miss a day. They can’t afford to take a day off to demand better.
Rail workers, posties, and academics all share something in common; they are considered disposable. Their employers see them as a group that can be bullied and replaced if they do not agree with the employer. Their wages cut. Their jobs lost. Their livelihoods destroyed. These are the realities that face our academics today.
Why do I bring this up? In our lives, we are met with a crossroads of what to do and whom to support. Throughout our lives, we will be asked to pick sides. This year is no different. Losing out on education will be difficult and infuriating. Our essays and exams will be met with newfound anxiety due to our loss of classes. However, I ask you to take this into account. In ten or twenty years when you have a job in whatever field you pursue, how will feel when your wages are cut, or your pensions are reduced? How will you feel when you are met with abuse as you stand up for yourself and demand better?
Our academics, our professors, and our tutors deserve our support. They deserve to know that we stand with them and understand their anguish. As future generations, if we fail to stand with those who seek to better their employment, who are we to demand the same when we face similar fates? I write this to ask you this; when our teaching staff goes on industrial action, consider the above. Consider their reality outside of the classroom. Today more than ever they deserve our support.