UCU Strikes: Cambridge Strike action begins with Right to Strike Rally

‘Striking is not the first choice. It is the last resort’

The UCU was joined by other local unions across Cambridge in a large rally to mark the first day of strike action this month (1/2). The Right to Strike Rally comes as a response to the government’s recent anti-strike legislation, which passed in the House of Commons on Monday evening (30/1), as well as acting as a campaign for better pay and funding for their services.

What is the UCU and why are they striking?

The UCU is the largest trade union in the UK that represents both academic and non-academic staff in Further and Higher education. Over 70,000 staff members will walk out during the series of strikes this month, at 150 universities. The UCU states that this will be the biggest series of strikes ever to hit UK university campuses.

Demands from the UCU have been made clear, revolving around pay, working conditions and the USS pension dispute. In regards to pay, the strikers demand a pay increase of either 12 per cent, or the rate of inflation plus two per cent. There has also been discussion of “casualisation” within the academic sector, with many workers on zero-hour contracts. This forms part of the demands for “an agreed framework to eliminate precarious employment practices by universities” by the UCU. Demands have also been made for action “to close the gender, ethnic and disability pay gaps”. There have also been demands “to revoke the massive cuts which they imposed on members of the USS pension scheme”.

Timeline of the Rally 

Whilst the rally started officially at 11 am at Parker’s Piece,  members of the UCU had also been gathered in front of Senate House as early as 10:15 am and the Tab spoke to them to get their views on the two major disputes.

Speaking to The Tab, Eleanor Blair, a member of the IT staff in the Engineering department, expressed the need for a “commitment” from the university and the government to the two major issues of both pay and the USS dispute. On the matter of student support, Eleanor said: “Student support is always hugely welcomed. It makes a really big difference on the picket line when students come and tell us that they support us.”

Eleanor in front of Senate House (image credits: Julia Szaniszlo)

At 11am, members of local unions such as the National Education Union, UCU, Unite the Union and many more gathered to protect their right to strike in the aptly named Right to Rally march. Speakers from multiple unions gave rousing speeches as chants were called out and banners waved.

Placards on Parker’s Piece (image credits: Felix Armstrong)

Anna Smith, acting mayor for Cambridge City Council expressed her support for the strikes and the right to strike in a speech on Parker’s Piece: “I support the right to strike. It is appalling that the right to strike is being put under threat by this government. It is a fundamental right and I fully support that right.”

Further on the subject of striking: “I want to say that not one single person here today wants to be on strike. Striking is not the first choice, it is the last resort […] I know that people have been pushed to breaking point by the austerity measures of this government.”

Education Unions in Arms

The Right to Strike Rally’s domain stretched further than just the UCU. Teaching unions and other trade unions came to protest pay and working conditions and there were also non-labour activists present, such as climate campaigning groups.

The National Education Union in particular had a strong presence at the rally, with teachers gathering to demand above-inflation pay after real-term pay cuts of 23 per cent since 2010. The education sector is not only experiencing a retention crisis but also a recruitment crisis, both influenced by underpayment and further emphasised by the current cost of living crisis.

Shelagh Kavanagh, a supply teacher and the President of the NEU Cambridgeshire, stated “we are striking to save education from a major crisis. We are striking for the teachers, students, and parents whose experience of education suffers because of a decade of underfunding. We’re in a cost-of-living crisis and our teachers are using food banks. This must end now.”

Strikers march in front of the Fitzwilliam Museum (image credits: Felix Armstrong)

After the speeches, the march began with chants such as “No ifs no buts, no education cuts” as the long lines of people made their way energetically towards the Guild Hall. Shouts of “Power to the worker” could be heard on King’s Parade as the hundreds of union members, students and members of the general public alike marched in solidarity, demanding their needs be recognised and heard.

The University of Cambridge has been contacted for comment.

Featured Image Credits: Felix Armstrong