In Manchester 400 students and lecturers marched together in support of the two-day strike on 25-26 February by the Association of University Teachers against their proposed pay deal, and against top-up fees for students in higher education. Across the country, the AUT strike had led to university departments shutting down and enthusiastic picketing by a normally non-militant group of workers.
The strike was against the refusal of the universities to negotiate on a deal which would mean a rise of 3% this year, a review of pay structures which would mean it took longer to reach the higher points on the scale, and the removal of academic-related staff such as librarians and computing staff from national pay bargaining.
Ongoing action includes a boycott of assessment activities and a refusal to supply cover for absent colleagues, measures supported by over 80% of those voting in the strike ballot.
There will be considerable pressure on AUT members to break the action which may lead to delays in students graduating. NUS and the AUT nationally put out a joint leaflet supporting last week's strike. But it is now urgent that AUT members go out to explain to students in their own colleges why they are taking this action and that it is not aimed against the students. Student activists can organise the students to show their support.
By Bruce Robinson
AUT pickets in Cambridge, supported by the local trades council and the University Labour Club, targeted Cambridge University's Downing College during last Wednesday's 24-hour national strike.
Management at the university - where, unfortunately and for historical reasons, the AUT represents just 14% of academic staff - had decided to take a hard line in response to the AUT strike.
Strikers were careful not to drop dead during the strike action! The university management had decreed that payments to the University Superannuation Scheme would not be made for any day that an employee was on strike. Consequently, the dependents of any striker unfortunate enough to breathe their last whilst on strike would receive nothing for that day.
In preparation for the forthcoming round of industrial action short of strike action, the university management had also stated that a day's pay would be docked for any day on which an employee took any such industrial action. (It was unclear, however, whether management was serious about carrying out this threat.)
The picketing of Downing College in the morning was followed by a lunchtime rally with Jane MacAdoo, the AUT's Vice-President.
MacAdoo pointed out that the AUT's campaign against variable pay and the NUS's campaign against variable fees were part of the same campaign - against the introduction of market forces into Higher Education.
Unfortunately, this point seemed not to have dawned on Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU) Council. The CUSU Council not only failed to turn up for the picket and rally. They had failed even to discuss the AUT strike at any of their meetings - despite the national NUS policy of support for the AUT.
MacAdoo also pointed to the contrast between the 6.1% pay-rise which university Vice-Chancellors had awarded themselves and the working conditions for teaching staff in universities - the most casualised workforce in the country after hotels and catering, an average 55-hour working week, and a 40% fall in real pay over the past 20 years.
'Good old-fashioned trade unionism' and 'solidarity' were needed to win the dispute, said MacAdoo. More than 350 applications to join AUT had been made on the Monday of the week of strike action. Recruitment was at its highest ever.
How serious the AUT leadership is about 'good old-fashioned trade unionism' will be seen as the AUT enters the next phase of its pay campaign, based on a members' boycott of various aspects of their job, including the covering, setting and marking of exams.
Cambridge AUT Secretary Nick Savage told Solidarity:
"Our action made an impact. I believe that almost all departments were effected to some extent. The turnout at the picket and the rally were encouraging. As of next Monday, we will be taking industrial action short of strike action, including, among other things, a boycott of student assessments. This will be the most hard-hitting part of the action. But it will be a challenge to sustain."
By Dale Street