“We don’t want to be striking. Every time we strike, we lose pay. But actually, we are losing less pay in taking strike action than we would lose, if we didn’t”, Dr Zoe Groves said when asked about the three days strike that took place at the University of Leicester. As a Leicester lecturer and a member of committee of the UCU, the trade union organising this industrial action, she explained the revendications of university staff, that are struggling more and more to meet ends.
“Some staff [have] to resolve to using food banks”, she said, before describing the other issues the UCU wants the university sector to address: contract precarity, pay gaps, workload and pensions cut.
“One of the things about working in higher education in the UK: … in the past, there’s been a relative job security and another benefit like the very attractive pensions scheme”. These benefits are slowly disappearing as the pensions’ cut decided earlier this year illustrates. A pensions’ cut that could be reversed but will not be, because the University of Leicester has other priorities.
“The issue is about priorities.”, Dr Groves explained. The UCU wants these priorities to be reconsidered, that is why it organised these “three days of strike action initially as a warning”.
This is not the first time higher education staff has ended up on the picket lines to get its claims heard: “In fact”, Dr Groves said, “we’ve been on strike every year for the last five years”.
But this time, the scope of the protest is unprecedented. “150 universities are taking part: this is the biggest strike action that we’ve ever seen in higher education in the UK”.
Revendications about pay, work conditions and cost of living are not restricted to the higher education sector. “There is so many sectors where we’re seeing strike action across the country”, Dr Groves noted. Indeed, there is. The workers from the rail, post health sectors (first time of their union history the nurses went on strike!) are altogether protesting. The UCU invites its member to consider its action as part of the broader Enough is Enough! campaign. The flyers distributed at the picket lines bear this slogan.
Elena Philipps, a fourth-year student supporting the strikers at the main entrance, expressed this broader concern. “People [are] depending on food banks to eat” while “this is one of the richest countries in the world”, she said. She greeted the wide protests that are rising in more and more sectors: “It’s a really exciting time”.
“I’ll be on any picket line, I’ll support anyone on strike”, she added. “The government can’t ignore everyone in the country.”
Bob Bagnall, now retired teacher and revolutionary socialist, showed the same concern about a “system … now in huge crisis”. He explained the university staff’s protest against pensions’ cut is necessary for putting a stop to the government. “Someone who’s retired and got a pension, the government might try to reduce it”. He added: “if you don’t get the pension, what have you got? You get to a certain age where you can’t work, or you don’t want to work, so what happens then?”
There is therefore more at stake than pay rises and cost of living for the strikers. This action is also about recognition, consideration and voice. “We need to keep raising our voice, whatever the outcome might be”, Dr Katy Bunning, member of the UCU, said, “because if you don’t ask, you don’t get!”
Written by: Louise Jouveshomme is an exchange student, studying natural and political sciences in her home university, and media and communication in Leicester. She’s interested in politics, scientific misconceptions and discourses about violence.
Photography by: Photography by: Mathias Buytaert. You can find other examples of his work on his Instagram: @mathiasbtrt, and his website is https://www.mathiasbuytaert.com/.