What’s in a strike? On the picket lines at the University of Southampton

Academics across Britain went out on strike yesterday. We went to Southampton to air their grievances

Chris Mifsud
Wednesday 04 December 2013 16:53

Yesterday saw a second day of strikes over poor pay by university unions. Claiming they have suffered a 13 per cent cut in real-term wages since 2008, academics across the country took to picket lines in anger at a pay offer of one per cent.

This could mean as little as £130 extra per year for staff at the very lowest levels. In this period of general economic insecurity, with rises in fuel bills of particular concern, this offer was branded “miserly” by the Universities and Colleges Union.

At the University of Southampton, the dispute has been heralded as a landmark; it’s the first time that all three university unions – UCU, Unite and Unison – have taken action at the same time, representing teaching, administrative and domestic staff.

For Professor Catherine Pope, UCU’s treasurer, this display of solidarity indicates how urgent the need to address pay has become: “We have sucked up the extra workload, and then they go, 'you're only worth one per cent'. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. There were people that were on the picket in October that had never been on a picket line in their entire lives.”

The pay cuts have caused particular anger amongst staff at UoS, as the vice-chancellor's salary has increased from £211,000 to £277,000 in just the last three years. This includes a £40,000 “performance payment” - despite pledging to raise Southampton into the Top 50 of the World University Rankings, it has in fact dropped from 90th to 146th since 2009.

Research fellow and UCU president, Dr. Eric Silverman expressed concerns about these failures: “We see the same downward trend in a lot of things. At a university of this calibre, we would expect to be leading in at least five doctoral training programs – we're leading in one.”

The gender gap

While most of the concerns are shared nationwide, of particular relevance to some staff at UoS is the gender gap in pay. According to Prof. Pope, at some levels this gap can be up to 24 per cent.

It is claimed that women in the sector are increasingly pushed into unfavourable terms of employment as a result of other responsibilities. In many cases, says Prof. Pope, this is forcing them to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, especially further down the pay scale: “The cleaner in our building does a shift in the morning, goes over and works as a barista in the canteen for the rest of the day, and then is back in our building at night doing cleaning again.”

While the strike action is primarily about pay cuts, the unions are keen to assert their other concerns. George Disney, a postgraduate researcher and a rep at Southampton’s SU said that university employers “refer to them as 'equality issues', like they see them as peripheral. Universities are meant to be about the public good, but we've still got a situation where the university itself is perpetuating massive social injustice.”

UoS has also turned heads by refusing to donate docked wages to their student Opportunity Fund as many other universities have agreed to. As the dispute is between staff and their employers, the unions are emphatic that this is not an attack on students. Dr. Silverman asserts that the donation was intended as “a gesture, given that it's a dispute between staff and the university, that we apologise for the disruption caused by our argument”.

But will it work?

Whether yesterday's strike will trigger a return to negotiations is uncertain. The turnout in Southampton was higher yesterday than previously, with pickets outside a number of buildings both on the main and satellite campuses from 8am onwards. For Prof. Pope, the strike was a relative success: “There were people at a strike meeting we had last week who put their hands up and said, 'I wasn't in the union until last week, but I've joined because I'm so angry about this'. People are waking up to what it means.”

A spokesperson for UoS insisted that it “enjoys constructive and productive relations with all three unions and respects the rights of members to take industrial action”.

“We are also committed to minimising the effect of this action upon our students, staff not involved in the action, external visitors and customers of the University and other stakeholders.

“The vice-chancellor received emoluments of £277,000 in 2011/12. This is in line with the remuneration of Russell Group vice-chancellors.

"The decision to withdraw pay from staff taking industrial action is in accordance with University policy of which staff are notified in advance."

Despite one minor verbal altercation between strikers and management stemming from backed up traffic onto campus, which was resolved quickly by senior members of management, there were no disturbances.

With the strong support from unions and the high turnout, there was a clear assumption amongst speakers at the rally that action could extend into 2014. The unions say they do not want this, but see it as necessary if they are to reach an agreeable pay deal. From cleaners all the way up to professor level, staff at UoS are evidently angry about the UCEA's refusal to negotiate beyond one per cent. Much of this is concern from those higher up the pay scale about the lowest paid staff, who were referred to by Ian Woodland, Unite's Political Officer, as “the heartbeat of the university”.

In a UCU press release on Monday, Dr. Silverman said, “Staff love their jobs, but their goodwill cannot continue to be taken for granted. Nobody wants to take strike action and lose a day’s pay, but lecturers need to take a stand.”

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