UCU Strikes Back: Breaking records

UoN UCU on the march.

Today’s entry comes from Matt Green, Branch President.

Below I attempt a summary, in words and pictures, of the final days of strike action, which broke two records: first, the national record for the longest consecutive HE strike in our Union’s history, and second, for what I believe was our largest ever local UCU rally.

As we return to work, and to difficult conversations with colleagues who chose not to stand with us and who may not understand or appreciate the need for ASOS, it’s important for us to remember the lessons of the last eight days, to keep this knowledge in the very fabric of our bones. As we walk forward, each and every one of us will know that wherever we are, we know comrades who understand and will stand with us. For some of us, it’s people on our corridor; for others its colleagues on another floor; and in some cases, it’s someone in the building next door; but wherever we are, each of us has a door we can knock on.

Day eight dawned with an apocalyptic promise over the proudly dystopian vistas offered by UP North and East. Too frosty to longboard, I was ferried to the outskirts of campus by my comrade in arms and two rather groggy children. Though not overly excited about pre-school excersions (especially after traveling in pyjammas was ruled out), budding curiosities were awakened at the example of selfless resilience offered by Branch VP, Agnes Flues, and her compatriots, stalwart picketers who, like all our lead-pickets and early-shifters, arrived in the winter darkness to set up their picket line.

It wasn’t long before I journeyed south to staff the East picket joined in due course by other veterans of the eastern front, strikers habituated to concrete monotone and the smell of exhaust. And as the pickets grew, so do did the sense that this day would be something special.

Labour councillor, Adele Williams, and novelist Jon McGregor

Shortly before 10am, I made my way to UP South, recognisable at a distance for its vibrancy and flaming brazier, courtesy of Notts TUC. Whilst there, I was met by Nottingham City Councillor (and former UCU Branch Administrator), Adele Williams. We quickly found ourselves engaged in a topical discussion on the hazards of mixed-use cycle routes with award winning-novelist, and regular picketer, Jon McGregor.

After a little hand-warming by the brazier and some last-minute planning with UP South lead picket, Lila Matsumoto, it was off to UP West. En route through the lakeside walk (happily on City Council land), I touched base with the student occupiers by phone, who were being pressured by Campus Security to end the occupation.

The crowd at UP west was already sizeable and well-organized. Within no time, placards and banners were untied from the fencing and mobilised for the march. We finalised our repertoire of dialectical chanting — “Casualisation: Out! Out! Out!”, “IT Services: In! In! In!”, “Staff Pay: Up! Up! Up!”, “Workload: Down! Down! Down!” — en route to UP South where we doubled our numbers and set off along the tram-line border of campus.

Pickets from UP West, South and KMC approaching comrades at UP North @HemiMistry

Having worked out, more-or-less, the logistics of traffic control, we crossed the A52 and headed down toward Jubilee. At this point, the scale of our numbers began to register and it became clear we’d exceeded the number of marchers from 2018. The feeling of pride watching so many colleagues striding together for a common cause after eight days of rigorous strike action was truly inspiring and brought home the value of our collective late-nights and early mornings.

And by this point, we hadn’t even reached Jubilee campus.

Picketers await the commencement of activities outside the Jubilee Gatehouse. @WillPattBass

The gathering at Jubilee was similarly heartening, though I must confess to a little jealousy over the well-established food table and obvious signs of the party-atmosphere for which these pickets have become renowned. Happily I knew we’d not only have a large and welcoming crowd for our speakers, but also that we’d have no problems rounding things off with a good, old-fashioned sing along.

Arriving at Jubilee. @carolespary

The atmosphere for all of us at Jubilee was upbeat and there was a very strong feeling of solidarity produced by having members from across all our picket lines, as well as students, other supporters and members from other branches in the region. We also had a reporter from GEM 106FM who managed to find her way to the demonstration based almost solely on my repeated injunction to “just keep heading toward Subway”.

David Bowie and Queen speaking of the ill-effects of the free-market HE experiment @carolespary

It’s impossible to accurately explain what a strike means to someone who hasn’t been on a picket line. On one level, of course, it’s about withdrawing our labour and disrupting the business of the employer, but the shared experience of the picket line is about so much more than that. It’s about rediscovering the lived humanity of your colleagues and of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people who have your back. Past disagreements or disciplinary differences dissolve amidst the rediscovery of unity at the heart of collective struggle.

Decorating the railings at Jubilee. @carolespary

Our end-of-strike rally captured that spirit and magnified it through the collective mass of our stories, comradeship and the broad spectrum of positions articulated across eye-catching and percipient placards. Our roster of speakers was similarly inspiring and after offering thanks to our lead pickets, drivers, student supporters and everyone whose come out to the pickets — thanks which I echo here — I was delighted to hand the megaphone over to Jen Martin, who spoke with clarity and compassion of the plight facing not only herself, but her team.

Jen made clear the difficult choices imposed by the University’s reliance on fixed-term research contracts, describing an all too common scenario in which those whose research forms a cornerstone of the University are precariously employed throughout their careers on fixed-term contracts.

Next, we heard from hourly-paid tutor, Daniel Edmondson, whose words had to be read in absentia. Daniel’s statement underscored the exploitative conditions that University continues to impose on hourly-paid staff — in some cases in flagrant defiance of mutually drafted and agreed principles. He clearly outlined the problems resultant from the use of Unitemps, a practice which sets the University of Nottingham apart from the majority of other universities. All present, fully appreciated the irony that Daniel himself couldn’t be there as he was at that moment being compelled by his terms of engagement to teach despite the strike.

Exhaustion rebellion.

Then we heard from Liam Conway, Secretary of Notts TUC, who spoke of the plight facing all areas of education and emphasised the relevance our struggles have to the labour movement as a whole. With passion and humour he drew out the links between our disputes and the wider challenges facing our nation.

Finally we rounded the speeches off with addresses from Adam Thompson, Labour candidate for Amber Valley, and Lilian Greenwood, the Labour candidate for Nottingham South who has represented the constituency since 2010. As a former PhD student still employed by the University, Adam spoke knowingly of the exploitative conditions facing PhD students and of the challenges of finding work after successful completion of the PhD.

Strikers listening to speakers at Jubilee Derby Road entrance.

Lilian, whose home-made flapjacks are still fondly remembered by picketers from the 2018 UP South picket, is a familiar face and spoke compellingly about the need to rethink the way in which education is approached at all levels. With reference to HE specifically, she discussed the need to end the free-market model of universities, to rethink the assessment of research and teaching, end casualisation and abolish tuition fees.

Lilian Greenwood addresses the crowd while our trumpeter gets ready. @GibsonCerys

Finally it was time for the music. I had been eagerly anticipating a group rendition of classics like “Bella Ciao” and “Solidarity Forever” (UCU version). Led by Howard Stevenson and a chorus of singers (plus trumpet), the crowd erupted into song. Singing is far from my strong point (as my long-suffering family will attest) but there is something magical in the unity of singing together.

As we walk forward, these notes of struggle and of collective endeavour shall be kept alive. We have built and renewed connections over these past days that will stand. Knowledge Is Power; Unity Is Strength.

Strength in Unity. @onni_gust

Day 7 – Photo Journal

Organising Day 8 kept us pretty busy after pickets closed on day 7, so in place of a regular post, here is a photo-record of the day gleaned from Twitter and the back of the longboard — flying picket indeed…

UoN Pickets visit the OU Picket Line @john_holdford
Sutton Bonington @hstevenson10
KMC Standing Strong
UP East (lower) looking positively cheerful in the sun.
Standing strong at UP East (upper)
UP North bringing together comrades at all stages of their careers.
UP South (road entrance) in good spirits.
UP South (footpath) with camera-shy strike dog.
UP West part 1

UP West part 2

Have you got pics from Jubilee, Day 7? My usual Twitter sources were at the OU and SB; sadly, I couldn’t get there myself that day. Please email mattgreenucu@gmx.com.

UCU Strikes Back: Day 6

On the day when we learned UoN students had occupied the Trent building in support of UCU strikers, we’re devoting our diary entry to student action via three key moments as archived on Twitter.

First, we have the student occupation of the Trent Building and their collective statement of solidarity.

Occupying the Trent building overnight, students from the UoN Solidarity Support Network quickly issued a statement demanding better pensions and pay for staff, as well as an end to outsourcing and casualisation.

Watch the video here:
Students occupying Trent building
Student Demonstrators inside Trent

Second, we have the letter sent to the VC by PhD students in the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training

Inspired by students from Geography (see below), students in Computer Science sent a heartfelt letter to the VC supporting staff and outlining their concerns about the future of HE.

Letter of solidarity sent by Horizon PhD students in the School of Computer Science
Letter of solidarity from PGR students in Geography

And third, we have an image of what a student boycott looks like in practice.

Our third entry comes from one of our hourly paid tutors, compelled to cross the picket line by UoN’s casualisation practices.

Students boycott class in support of staff.

UCU Strikes Back: Day 5

Today’s strike diary comes from Sally Hanford, one of our APM members in Libraries.

Rally at UP North

It’s 6am on day 5 of the strike – the alarm goes off and I think about how cold it is outside the bed – look outside to see the car covered in frost and think how many layers I’ll need to survive the four hours of picketing ahead.

Showing off the new UCU beanies.

We start at 7.30am – its cold and dark as I approach West Entrance expecting to be the first there but as usual two students are already there. These two have been at every picket at West staying from 7.30 to 11.30 despite being bitter cold. Why? They realise that future generations will suffer the consequences of inaction now. Thanks to these two for the tips for how to survive without getting frozen to the core. The hot water bottle in the backpack worked wonders today and the hot drinks provided by Unison were very welcome.  Thank you ! 

A welcome pool of sunshine.

I work in the libraries (learning technologies) supporting staff in the Faculty of Arts. It’s great to see members of the Faculty on the picket line as the morning progresses. Folk from Physics join us along with representation from elsewhere in Science. Today we’re planning a rally at North Entrance and we all move on up Derby Road thankful for the chance to get moving and warm up a bit!

Solidarity beneath the trees.

After a sing along (Solidarity Forever) and rousing speech from Matt  a bunch of us head over to Jubilee Derby Road entrance for full on musical action (with trumpet and tambourine!) where Pete, Mary, Howard, Sharon and co are doing it in style with tables of food and a fire to keep us warm. We finish with a rendition of Bella Ciao and head off to warm up and recharge our batteries for next week.

Party at Jubilee.

If you haven’t joined us yet on the picket line please do come along to your nearest uni entrance. Remember (in the words of Joe Hill)  ‘it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand’.

The first week draws to a close.

UCU Strikes Back 2019: Day 4

28 November(ish), 2019

Solidarity at Jubilee

Today’s diary entry comes from Jubilee picketer, Branch Committee member and former Branch President, Howard Stevenson. Howard works in the School of Education.

I’m going to start my Thursday strike diary on Wednesday night because this is when Agnes Flues (branch Vice-President) and I attended the Nottingham College UCU ‘victory party’ at the ‘VAT and Fiddle’. The event was organised to recognise and celebrate the extraordinary achievement of Nottingham College UCU members in their campaign against the imposition of a ‘sign or resign’ contract that increased teaching hours and also cut the pay of a significant number of staff.

“Nottingham College UCU members took 15 days of strike action, as a result of which they ‘won everything’ to quote a UCU regional official speaking at the event.”

The meeting was addressed by UCU General Secretary Jo Grady who described the strike as ‘a dispute of national significance’. Jo went on to highlight the importance of solidarity, and what can be achieved when we act collectively. She argued that there was much to learn from the dispute and that the experience of Nottingham College UCU acted as an inspiration to those of us in higher education who are now involved in our campaign on pensions and the ‘four fights’.

UCU General Secretary, Jo Grady, addresses victorious Nottingham College strikers

I was able to address those attending on behalf of University of Nottingham UCU and offered my congratulations to those present. I also highlighted the need for us all to work more effectively across sectors and to link our campaigns across not only universities and further education, but also connecting with the school sector unions. All our institutions experience growing managerialism and an absence of democratic control that can only be addressed by radical, cross sector, system reform.

University of Nottingham UCU members provided great support to the Nottingham College branch during their dispute by supporting their strike fund and attending their pickets. I suggested that if Nottingham College branch members wanted to recreate the experience of their damp and wet picket lines then they were very welcome to join us on our damp and wet picket lines over the next few days.

The later-than-was-sensible night due to the party meant that today’s alarm bell was particularly unwelcome and for the first time since the strike started I found myself hitting the snooze button. This didn’t however stop me getting to Jubilee campus for 7.30am and helping set up our three picket lines.

UCU Strikes Back Selfie – Day 4

Since Monday UCU members on Jubilee campus have organised solid picket lines at all major entrances – on Wollaton, Derby and Triumph Roads. Following the USS strikes in 2018 we are now a well-oiled machine and several members have considerable experience of getting ourselves set up and ready to engage with students and members of the public.

“Throughout the strike spirits have been high and it has felt good to recapture the energy, collegiality and sense of collective strength that was such a powerful feature of our experience in 2018.”

Meeting new colleagues, sometimes new UCU members and very many students was always one of the highlights of 2018 and it is great to be able to re-create those experiences again.

Jubilee cat dispelling the widely propagated myth that only dogs have a social conscience

Our picketing ended just before lunch with a discussion about plans for the ‘picket party’ we will be holding at the Derby Road entrance on the last day of our full week strike (Friday 29th from 10am). There will be music, food to share and lots of discussion. All UCU members and students welcome!

It’s not so grim up North…

Remember our end of week 1 gatherings will take place at UP North/East and Derby Road on Jubilee.

UCU Strikes Back 2019: Day 3 — Why I’m not striking

Geography PGRs join strikers at UP North

Today’s strike diary comes from two UCU members who are not striking. Here are their stories:

Member 1:

I am not striking…because I’m legally not entitled to. As a postgraduate member of staff, I (as well as all other PG staff) have been outsourced to third-party temp agency, Unitemps. We are therefore not legally part of the current UCU disputes for which you are all striking. Despite the front-line work we carry out, we are not deemed worthy enough to be employees of the University of Nottingham. Indeed, we are not deemed worthy enough to be anyone’s employee.

“We are not deemed worthy enough to be employees of the University of Nottingham…. Whilst we are unable to (legally) withdraw our labour … we will continue to stand… in solidarity with UCU members in the battle for a more secure future for us all.”

Instead, we are defined as ‘temporary workers’, operating under a ‘contract for services’ arrangement where we are “supplied [by Unitemps] to render services to the Client [UoN]” for a defined period of time. We have been stripped of employment rights (such as access to grievance procedures), and are disposable and replaceable without notice despite the fundamental front-line roles we play in the day-to-day operation of this university (in one Faculty of Arts dept. this semester, PGR teaching staff account for almost 50% of its weekly seminar hours/30% of its total weekly teaching hours).

If you work with any PGRs, it is under these circumstances that they must carry out their work. So, whilst we are unable to (legally) withdraw our labour in the fight against the multipronged attack on our current and future working conditions, we will continue to stand – where and when we can – in solidarity with UCU members in the battle for a more secure future for us all.

More students and staff at UP North

Member 2:

I will be teaching four seminars and holding two office hours over the course of the two weeks of industrial action that have now begun at universities across the country. I want to stress that this is not because I do not support the principles for which my colleagues are striking. In fact, it is because I am forbidden to participate on days which I am expected to teach.

This is the current reality of being a postgraduate teacher at the University of Nottingham, someone whose labour senior management does not value enough to contract properly as an employee of the University. Instead, I am on a zero-hours, hourly-paid contract with an external temp work organisation. Because of this, in addition to being excluded from benefits like sick pay and compassionate leave, I am also not part of the University’s agreement with the UCU when it comes to participation in industrial action. If I attempted to strike, it would be in breach of my contract.

“Casualisation is just another symptom of … the wider marketisation of education that is underpinning … the current strikes. If you are striking, please know that many of your postgraduate teaching colleagues are behind you … please turn up to the picket on our behalf.”

While casualised contracts for postgraduate teachers are disappointingly common across Higher Education, the University of Nottingham is one of the worst offenders, in entirely outsourcing these contracts to Unitemps. Casualisation is just another symptom of institutional greed and the wider marketisation of education that is underpinning all of the reasons for the current strikes. If you are striking, please know that many of your postgraduate teaching colleagues are behind you even when we can’t be there on the ground, please turn up to the picket on our behalf as well, and know that many of us will be standing beside you when we are not being forced to teach.


Members of the East Midlands Retired Members Branch turned out today to support strikers

Please note that images are for illustrative purposes; they depict events that took place today but are not directly linked to the stories above.

Watch out tomorrow for strike diaries from across our campuses!