‘Unite and fight’: We spoke to students and staff at UCU’s ‘biggest ever strike rally’

Strikers and supporters marched through London to mark the last day of this round of strikes


As part of the University and College Union (UCU) ‘s ongoing industrial action over pay, pensions and poor working conditions, striking university staff from London and beyond held a massive rally and march in the capital city on Wednesday, 3oth November.

Starting with a rally at King’s Cross, attendees heard from speakers including the head of UCU Dr Jo Grady, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and representatives from other trade unions – like the UNISON for professional services workers.

This was followed by a march through the capital to chants like “Whose universities? Our universities!” and “Students and workers, unite and fight”.

The London Tab talked to some participants in the rally and march about why they were there and what they were feeling.

Dr Jeffery Vernon from the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London was “much more encouraged this time” than at previous strikes. He said: “I think there’s much more passive awareness even amongst non-union members. There’s an awareness the sector is flush with money, and it’s not sharing with the workforce who helped build it.”

This was the fourth strike he’d participated in, and he felt more people were taking part than before.

“Our branch has grown. Imperial had quite a small branch as not many people wanted to join the union, but we’ve seen over the course of the four strikes just how angry people have gotten about the erosion of their pay.

“Lots of people are saying, even if they’re not union members, how fed up they are,” he said.

Not everyone striking are lecturers or academics, as support staff and other academic staff who are also UCU members can participate.

A lab technician from the University of Greenwich told The London Tab at the rally that, with this being his first strike, he was initially unsure whether to participate. However, the success of industrial action at other universities and the cost-of-living crisis made him take part.

He said: “Inflation has gone through the roof. The university alliance only offered [a pay raise of] three per cent. Compared to inflation – it’s silly.

“When you have people protesting in the streets saying, ‘I can’t afford both food and heating,’ but you’ve got a politician on I’m a Celeb – something not quite right is going on there.”

In addition to staff, students were out at the demonstration supporting the union’s rights and industrial action.

An international student studying at a London uni said: “I’m feeling great. I wasn’t expecting so much union power and union strength, but there really is.”

She found the staff’s working conditions “quite disappointing,” especially when she expected the “huge fee difference” she pays as an international student to go towards fair compensation for staff “who spend so much time educating us.”

She also thought it was “extremely important for students to support this action.”

“I feel the relationship you share with your lecturers and other staff is personal at the end of the day. It’s important to come to stand up for your professors who do so much more for you,” she said.

This was the third and final day of planned strikes to hit universities nationwide, including more than 30 in London, this month.

The UCU’s demands have been mainly focused on pay and pensions, calling for institutions to address the real terms pay cut of 25 per cent since 2009 and a pension cut of 30-35 per cent in April 2022. However, the use of insecure contracts and heavy staff workloads have also been major issues for those striking.

While this was the final day for strikes, action short of strikes (ASOS), such as lecturers not covering for other staff or just working to their contract and not doing more, will be ongoing. In addition, escalating strike action and a marking boycott could occur from the new year if no agreement between staff and universities is reached.

But the head of the UCU, Dr Jo Grady, previously told The London Tab: “I hope we’re not here in the new year, I hope we get a resolution, but we need to prepare to be, and vice chancellors need to know that we’re prepared to be.”

In response to their staff’s comments, an Imperial College London spokesperson said: “We recognise and respect people’s right to take industrial action.

“We will continue discussions with our local union branches to identify a path forward. We also remain committed to maintaining our students’ learning and will take steps to ensure teaching and assessment continue, though there may be some variation in delivery.

“Imperial will continue to strongly advocate for reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme to secure a fairer, more sustainable and affordable scheme for all members.”

The University of Greenwich has been contacted for comments.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

‘We need education to change’: The head of UCU on how the strikes are affecting students

‘I refuse to treat my students as customers’: UCL lecturers and students on the strikes

‘I’m pretty hopeful’: We spoke to lecturers and students at Queen Mary’s picket line