Birmingham strikes are back. Here’s our interview with the chair of Birmingham City University’s UCU branch

Here’s a guide to the strikes from Rhiannon Lockley

The Birmingham Tab has spoken Rhiannon Lockley, the Birmingham City University Chair of the UCU (University and College Union) Chair. 

I wanted to bridge that gap between students who might be disillusioned with these strikes, and university staff/teachers who need to partake in this action. Ultimately, this is an intersectional issue and as students we should all be on their side. Rhiannon explained why solidarity is important, and here is everything she had to say:

First of all, I have to ask, how are you feeling about the strikes thus far?

Rhiannon: “I think UCU members have been showing excellent resolve and solidarity in the current dispute. First February was the fourth day of action and we’re saying branches have not been involved in action for a long time building and growing and big turnout in our big branches. I think when you visit pickets one message it you get everywhere is how liberating it is to have a shared collective space outside of work where members can actually talk to each other: the nature of work is that it’s demanding and isolating, I’m so when people  get that chance to not just fight back together but share the time in space while they are doing it there is a real boost.”

How confident are you about this latest strike action?

Rhiannon: “I think that the current action is unprecedented. UCU has taken a huge amount of action over recent years, as a union we have been out for a long time, more than many others. In this dispute we have had an aggregated ballot which means branches that have not been involved in action in the past and our part of it, so this has grown the strikes considerably.

“But as well as within the union itself, action is also unprecedented in terms of a huge wave of industrial organising, mobilising and action across so many other unions. We are part of history.” 

How important is Intersectionality from different communities?

Rhiannon: “Well, in UCU we have done lots of work within the union to make the case that equality issues, so issues like the race pay gap, the gender pay gap, the disability pay gap and casualisation so insecure work which falls heavier on some groups of workers than others, are to be fought as industrial issues, not just campaigning issues which is often how they are approached. So when our members take action we’re not just fighting over pay itself but higher quality.

“Currently women workers, black workers disabled workers are systemically underpaid, effectively they work number of weeks for free each year and while vice chancellors say that this is a long issue to resolve, but they can’t take immediate action, what it effectively means is that these workers so black workers, women workers, disabled workers are funding the vanity projects the shiny new buildings and the big pay and benefits package is really not universities.

“In terms of intersectionality, then if you are a black woman worker or black woman disabled worker, then the amount of your labour that’s being unpaid is even higher so it’s definitely an issue of Intersectionality. When it comes to intersectionality and different communities, well, the assault on our education systems impacts on workers in an intersectional way as I’ve said above, but it also impacts on students and the communities universities are based in.

Post-92 universities more than pre-92 universities are universities where students commute to study, and there are a number of factors in play at the moment which the UCU is fighting back against which point towards a large-scale attempt to shut working-class students out of higher education.”

As a student, whether it’s teachers or university staff, you all have my full support. What would you say to students whose support you don’t have or are concerned about their education?

Rhiannon: “My son is in year 11 so close to his GCSEs, and as you probably know the National Education Union are part of the current round of strikes so I do know the worry disruption causes. Ultimately the conditions for education workers working are the conditions that students learn in. As a student I was part of the cohort that fought back against the introduction of tuition fees which at the time I didn’t have to pay because my family was below the income threshold. Since then we have seen tuition fees raised to exorbitant amounts. It isn’t right for students to have to pay for education, it’s a right not a privilege.

“It’s always very difficult to take action that impacts on students but without action the rot deepens year after year in successive generations of students who are up against worse and worse learning environments. The students of today, whether that’s my son or students at university level, are the workers of tomorrow. They deserve – you deserve – work which is fulfilling, well-paid, and not at a level which burns you out. The workers of the future need the workers of today to fight what will otherwise be continued with vandalism of working life.”

How important is solidarity among staff? Especially among those who feel they cannot afford to strike

Rhiannon: “I think it’s the responsibility of the whole labour movement to fund, raise and support those who feel unable to take action. We encourage all branches to build hardship funds to support the staff who need it, and we also have a national fighting fund which staff can claim from. A union is a collective so it is important to act collectively: it should not be the case that striking takes more of a toll on some members than others and so we all have to work to make sure support is there for those who need it most.

In my experience, it is actually often the most vulnerable staff, so hourly paid staff on low pay and exploitative contracts who lead the pickets. The challenge can be getting senior staff to understand how important it is that they are visible in action: for their junior colleagues, it makes a huge difference.” 

To add onto this further, how important is solidarity between others in working-class jobs?

Rhiannon: “It’s incredibly important. We are taking action alongside nurses, paramedics and other ambulance staff, railway workers from cleaners to train drivers, teachers, and it looks as though we will shortly be joined by firefighters and doctors. The pressures our members are under may, at points, present themselves in different ways, it’s ultimately they are the same pressures.

“Workload, real terms pay cuts, precarious work, and the deliberate down running of the services the public need. Whenever another union is out I try to get to a picket to bring a message of solidarity, snacks, and we always encourage members are at our branch to do this too. We are always going to be vilified when we take action but our strength as workers is our solidarity. Getting support from other workers is a powerful reinforcement of this and it keeps us going.” 

Many benefits have been won through strike action, what would be the next best aim?

Rhiannon: “So in a dispute we are fighting for the pay gaps to be closed, for workload to become manageable, for an end to exploitative work contracts, full pay to actually go up rather than down and for some members to take back what has been stolen from pensions. All of these are key aims.”

Are there any local issues you want to highlight?

Rhiannon: “Well, my branch Birmingham City University is locked out of national bargaining which basically means we are not part of national talks we have to fight everything locally. That means that successive vice chancellors have been able to push through lower pay & so forth: For example this year while nationally the offer was three per cent (which is still far below inflation so a huge pay cut) at BCU the offer was originally two per cent and has only gone up to two and a half per cent.

“Members at BCU often don’t get paid an increment because this is treated as optional rather than a staged increase in pay. This relates to being out of national bargaining. For our members it’s a real flash-point that we are cut off from national agreements.” 

What are your thoughts on the government’s anti-strike legislation?

Rhiannon: “I think the legislation over a number of years has been leading to this point in restricting the freedoms and democratic rights of workers to organise in their own interests. The latest attack is fundamentally one which goes against principles of democracy. If you take away somebody’s right to strike ultimately you deny them human rights in withdrawing labour. We are living in incredibly dangerous times with extreme right wing practices being introduced and normalised. I think we are on the edge of something quite dramatic and as workers we have to be ready to face what is coming together.”

What about a general strike?

Rhiannon: “Legislation over a long period of time has built and built barriers against a general strike so it could not legally happen at this point. However it is certainly possible for unions to take coordinated action and it is on our leaders to work together on this.”

Do you have any final thoughts you want to add?

Rhiannon: “Just thank you for all your support!”

Rhiannon outlined quite consistently how important solidarity is. We are given the illusion that we have autonomy but the reality is, unless workers collectively bargain, they are not treated with the respect that they are owed. It’s this effort that’s led us here, with even nurses striking (as Rhiannon herself is standing with them in the image above), an unprecedented feat.

I’m studying at university this semester and most of the term was put into question. On one hand, that’s scary for a student, many of us are forced to take loans to attend while our lecturers aren’t seeing their pay be in line with inflation. Where is our money going? As Rhiannon mentioned, she was against the introduction of tuition fees, it escalated a problem which is a factor in the very same standstill that I’m writing about. In this fight, we find allies, and learn from one another and it is important to focus on the local fights as well as national disputes. 

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