UCU strikes: a timeline of day 1

Strike action went on for more than 7 hours

Today was the first of three days of strike action in Cambridge this term, in conjunction with the national University and College Union (UCU) strikes. Read on for a timeline of how the day went.

8:30 – The first round of breakfast runs

Student volunteers assembled in the Student Union (SU) Lounge and received instructions for how to distribute tea, coffee and biscuits across the pickets. The first group of students leave at 8:27 am for the picket line on the Old Schools Site. Other groups visited the Sociology department, Sidgwick Site and Downing Site.

Image credits: Vedika Mandapati

9:00 – Students arrive at Downing Site

Student support builds at Downing Site, with an initial number of 10 students and 10 lecturers present. Over the course of the day, this number grows to more than 25 staff members. At Downing Site, picketers handed out leaflets about the strike to any students and lecturers that entered the premises or “crossed the picket line.”

9:30 – Chanting at sociology picket line

Chanting begins at the sociology picket line, as picketers sing “Solidarity Forever.” The Sociology picket included project researchers, library workers, and postdoctoral students.

Picketers outside the sociology department (Image Credits: Vedika Mandapati)

10:17 – The Tab visits Sidgwick Site

Sidgwick site had the largest number of picketers, spread out across 6 picket lines. Most entrances to the site had at least one striker, with some having as many as ten. Strikers said “they were very happy with the turnout” at this picket line.

10:30 – Second round of breakfast runs depart

The second round of breakfast runs departs from Student Union lounge, bringing strikers more warm tea and coffee as temperatures drop.

Volunteers restocked supplies at the SU Lounge (Image Credits: Vedika Mandapati)

11:41 – CDE Flying Picket reaches Downing Site

Cambridge Defend Education’s (CDE) “Flying Picket” arrives at Downing Site. A Flying Picket involves visiting multiple picket lines and delivering goods. CDE students hand-baked mince pies for strikers this week and delivered them to all picket lines whilst wearing Santa hats. At one point they ran out of homemade pies but quickly replenished stocks from Sainsbury’s.

Students delivering mince pies (Image Credits: Vedika Mandapati)

12:18 – Picketers assemble on King’s Parade

The Sidgwick contingent reaches King’s Parade to meet contingents from Downing Site and the Sociology pickets for the day’s main rally. Strikers begin chanting as they march through town.

Image credits: Vedika Mandapati

12:20 – Chanting begins as more picketers assemble

These include call and response style  chants such as “who’s university? Our university?”

Other chants feature quotes like “power to the people, not to crap wages” and “they say casualise, we say organise.”

12:36 – Rally speeches begin

Today’s rally was Justice4CollegeSupervisors (J4CS)-themed. A spokesperson for Justice4CollegeSupervisors is quoted saying that “66% of Cambridge supervisors work for below minimum wage.” They also suggest that supervisors were “at the mercy of colleges” to receive payment – which they found worrying, as “colleges are not accountable to anyone.”

A graduate supervisor for education also argues that the University has “failed to translate its pride about small-group teaching to compensation.” She claims that “if [she] only did what [she] was paid for,” her ability to help students would be greatly diminished – as supervisors are only compensated for direct contact hours with students.

12:42 – Student Union Women’s Officer speaks

Image credits: Vedika Mandapati

Milo Eyre-Morgan, the SU Women’s Officer, asserts that the university was “skimping on what it claims to be the cornerstone of its undergraduate education,” referring to the supervision system. They present anecdotes of their experience as an undergraduate within the Department of Physics, claiming that they were assigned supervisors midway through term (Week 5 in Michaelmas, Week 4 in Lent) and had supervisions with up to 10 students per supervisor.

Quoting Eyre-Morgan, “I don’t fancy being paid below minimum wage to teach general relativity.”

12:46 – Cambridge Defend Education representative speaks

Rowan, a spokesperson representing Cambridge Defend Education, establishes that CDE was “here to stand in solidarity with better pay, better working conditions and a better university.” They maintain that “the system is unfair and completely unreasonable,” because “Cambridge isn’t a poor university. It can well afford to pay its lecturers and supervisors properly.”

CDE also suggest that the senior administration of the University attempts to “drive a wedge between students and staff every time there’s a strike.”

Image Credits: Vedika Mandapati

12:51 – UCU Postgraduate researcher representative from Sheffield speaks

Alex Kirby-Reynolds, the Sheffield UCU Postgraduate Researcher representative and the national co-lead on Postgraduate researchers as staff campaign, emphasises that “postgraduate researchers and supervisors are the present and future of the college.” He lauded J4CS’ actions as “inspirational” and declares their importance to “all of the unis in the UK.”

Kirby-Reynolds goes on to characterise Cambridge as an “exploitative gig economy from before the gig economy began.”

12:57 – Local government representative speaks

Liz Brennan, a representative from the local government, speaks in favour of solidarity against casualisation. She discusses a local initiative for better worker rights in primary education, comparing it to the current strikes.

13:01 – Cambridge UCU Pensions Officer speaks

Image credits: Akrit Agarwal

Dan, a teaching officer from Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity and the pensions officer for Cambridge UCU, asks the audience what the pay rate is for an hour for supervisors. Responses range from between £30/hour and £35/hour. He then describes the existence of both a “base pay” rate and a “multiplier” that differs from college to college.

He also outlines a personal experience of having coworkers from different colleges being compensated twice as much for the same labour – due to the existence of the aforementioned multiplier.

13:06 – Rally officially ends

Participants slowly disperse, with student volunteers staying behind to clear up food and litter.

Image credits: Vedika Mandapati

14:30 – J4CS Online student- staff forum opens

20 participants log in to this online meeting, where Milo Eyre-Morgan (Cambridge SU Women’s Officer) and Simina Dragos (supervisor in Education and Sociology) present college supervisors’ rights as outlined in their contracts. Discussions of supervisor working conditions follow.

15:25 – Student-staff forum breakout rooms open

Students are divided into breakout rooms according to college group, where discussions about college-specific activism and supervision systems ensue.

16:02 – Strike action for the day closes

The student-staff forum closes with a summary of all discussions that have taken place over the course of the day. Links to sources for further action, such as the Cambridge UCU’s website, are shared.

This concludes strike action for the day, marking a total of 7 hours and 30 minutes of strike-related action in Cambridge on day 1.

In response to the claims above, a University spokesman stated that “a majority of supervisors are self-employed, choose which colleges they prefer to work with, the hours they work and often work with multiple colleges.”

They added that “the colleges are separate legal and financial employers, so cannot be covered by a single agreement. Supervisor training is provided for free and the average pay for supervision, including preparation, is well above the living wage.”

Feature image credits: Vedika Mandapati

Other articles recommended by these writers:

An introductory guide to the UCU Strikes 
31 per cent of Cambridge students “don’t know enough” about the strikes 
Petition launched in solidarity with Justice4CollegeSupervisors