Cambridge UCU strikes: A timeline of day one

Tom Hobson, a strike organiser: ‘We’d prefer not to be here, but we simply have to, there’s no other choice.’

Today (24th) marked the first day of a run of national strikes, organised by the University and College Union (UCU). The strike day involved picket lines at each of the university’s main sites, and culminated in a rally on Kings Parade in the early afternoon, and the Tab followed all of the day’s events.

What is the UCU and why are they striking?

The UCU is the largest trade union for academic and non-academic staff working in Further and Higher Education in the UK, and over 70,000 of its members voted in favour of the strike action, which is expected to hold pickets at 150 universities.

The UCU’s demands centre around pay, pensions, and pay equality, and leaflets handed out today by strikers state that their pay has been cut by 25 per cent since 2009, and that their guaranteed USS pension income has been cut by 35 per cent. The strikers demand a pay increase of either 12 per cent, or the rate of inflation plus two per cent, depending on which is higher. The UCU also demands that employers revoke “the massive cuts which they imposed on members of the USS pension scheme.”

Read on to see how the day unfolded:

8:55 – The Faculty of Education picket line

The first UCU members gathered at the Hills Road entrance to the Education faculty, holding signs bearing slogans such as “Toss a coin for your lecturers”, “UCU and proud”, and “Honk for education.” The latter of these was met by quite a few honks from passing cars, and spirits among the strikers were jolly, as they handed out leaflets and played music from a speaker.

A striker on the Education Faculty picket line (Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

9:20 – The Tab visits the Downing Site picket line

Although still early in the morning, the attendance at this picket was quite large, as at least 20 UCU members gathered around the site’s entrance, surrounded by banners and flags. Some students were also present at this picket, talking to the strikers.

Speaking to The Tab, one of the members discussed the reasons behind the action: “We’re striking over several things. One is the erosion of our pensions, which has been going on now for several years, so we’ve seen aa 35 per cent decline in our pension, and the thing is that in the university sector pensions are differed pay. […] And the other thing is around pay, we’re all facing a cost of living crisis right now, this goes across the country, and so what the union is asking for […] actually comes down to a pay rise of two per cent, on top of inflation, so it’s a just demand.”

The Downing Site picket (Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

About why students should support the strikes, they said: “Our working conditions are students’ working conditions, and there are across the sector there are really big problems with casualisation, high workload, people are being absolutely exhausted, suffering from burnout. […] It’s a really difficult situation for people to work in and it will have an effect on students ultimately.”

9:40 – Picketers pose for a photo outside Senate House

Picketers outside Senate House (Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

There was a large presence of UCU members outside Senate House which included Tom Hobson, one of the organisers of the Cambridge strikes. He spoke to the Tab about the motivations behind the strike, and the conditions that staff are forced to work under. When asked why the UCU is striking, Tom replied: “Unfortunately we have to, I know it’s the caveat you always hear, but really we’d prefer not be out here, we lose a day’s wages […] this is something we’d prefer not to do. But we’re faced with, in the short term, a complete destruction of our pension scheme, which was really financially one of the only good reasons to remain in the sector.

“For me personally, I’m in my mid thirties, I’ll lose 42 per cent of my pension because of the changes brought in in April, so we’ve got to be here. And that’s not just me, that’s across this university and across the country.”

UCU Organiser Tom Hobson (Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

Speaking about pay, Tom continued: “Since 2008, we’ve lost between 25 and 28 per cent of our real take-home pay. That, it goes without saying, is absolutely abysmal. That, combined with the present cost of living crisis, means we’ve got to be out here. People literally cannot afford to live in the city, can’t afford to pay their rent, can’t afford to hear their homes. So, if there’s one big takeaway it would be that we’d prefer not to be here, but we simply have to, there’s no other choice.”

10:45 – Strikers on the Sidgwick Site picket line talk to students entering the campus

There was a picket line at each of the two front entrances to the Sidwick Site, who, bearing signs and flags, were engaging in conversations with students entering the site, attempting to deter them from attending their lectures. The picketers spoke of the success of their student interactions: “We’ve already encountered some very brave students who’ve come here and seen that this is going on and decided to support us by not attending their lectures, because they realise that this puts pressure on the electorate to think about these things.”

Picketers outside the Sidgwick Site (Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

One of the UCU members also stressed the importance of student support, saying: “If their lecturers are not well, they cannot receive the best education they can. And I think they pay enough in fees,  to have lecturers that are working in the best conditions they can get.” Another striker highlighted the importance of unions: “The students need to understand that they are either actual workers now or are going to be workers, and the only tool that workers have is to organise, and to support our unions. You don’t have any other means of achieving justice and fair deals at work, and I think that students understand that.”

Dr Phil Knox, a lecturer in Medieval English, was present at the picket, and spoke to the Tab about the importance of union action: “This is part of trying to reorient higher education, and trying to reprioritise people in higher education, starting with staff, because that’s what the union is able to do, but also including students. It’s very difficult I think for students to have their work, that they were looking forward to doing, taken away, but I also think its a really great opportunity for students and staff to think together about what other kind of university we might want to inhabit and how we might go about doing that.”

Dr Phil Knox (Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

Phil spoke of the way not only staff, but students have been “repackaged as consumers”. He highlighted the need for radical change within the world of work: “I think actually what needs to happen is a different way of imagining what work is, what’s prioritised, and what gets paid out, and I think that the only available way to do this is this system of trade union organisations.”

12:00 – All picketers congregate on Kings Parade for a rally

Following the morning of pickets, all members of the strike joined together in front of Great St Mary’s Church for a rally, which was attended, along with Cambridge UCU and Cambridge university staff, by members of Anglia Ruskin University, and representatives of unions such as Unite and the National Education Union. The rally was very popular, as pink signs, hats, and banners flooded Kings Parade.

UCU Rally on King’s Parade (Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

The rally began with chants such as “They say marketise, we say organise” and “They say cut back we say fight back”, which were followed by a series of speeches.

(Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

A representative of the national trade union Unite drew attention to industrial action happening across the country, saying: “Everywhere we can pick a fight we are picking a fight, because we have to.”

(Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

A speaker representing Anglia Ruskin University drew attention to the scale of today’s rally: “This is the biggest rally we’ve ever had in Cambridge, and I know that the decision to strike is not taken lightly. I know you’re here because you care. […] Member by member, institution by institution, UCU is rising.”

(Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

Another speaker, representing the National Education Union, emphasised the important of union action in the current moment: “We are in the middle of an education crisis, but that crisis can be averted. […] We aren’t just striking for pay, we are striking to save a publicly funded education system for all.”

13:00 – The rally marches down Senate Passage

Protestors marched down Senate Passage (Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

The rally ended with a march, as the attendees crowded down Senate Passage, and filled the section of Trinity Lane behind Clare and Kings’ Colleges, continuing their chants.

(Image credit: Felix Armstrong)

When contacted for comment, the University of Cambridge replied with the following: “The University has recently made an exceptional, four per cent cost of living payment for six months (Nov-April) to help employees during the coldest months. This is on top of the national pay award of 3 per cent proposed by the Universities and Colleges Association (UCEA), and implemented by the University. Most staff across the sector received a 3% pay rise, although lower earners received up to 10 per cent, due to the recent increase in the voluntary living wage.

“Pay is negotiated collectively. We completely understand the concern that many staff have about pay and inflation. We also know that many universities are not able to make higher pay rises.”

“Rising real interest rates have dramatically improved the funding position of the USS pension scheme, and the University is hopeful that benefits can be improved at the next valuation, which is due to take place in March 2023.

“In the short term, the University will make the case for benefits to be improved as quickly as possible as part of the 2023 valuation. Longer term, the University believes that alternative forms of scheme design, such as conditional indexation, are likely to provide a better and more stable pension offering for USS members. We are pleased to see that USS, UUK and UCU are exploring this.”

Featured image credit: Felix Armstrong