Wednesday saw Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) members of the University of Warwick join the national public sector strikes against government pension reforms, with a student delegation also present in a show of solidarity.
The strike action, which caused the cancellation of numerous lectures and seminars across campus, was clearly visible with a picket line created at the University gatehouse and a 2,500-strong march held in Coventry city centre.
Approximately 30 strikers manned the picket lines from 8am. They were later accompanied by an additional 40 students, the majority representing the ‘Warwick Against the Cuts’ (WATC) and ‘Occupy Warwick’ movements.
Vincent Hammersley, UCU President at Warwick University, explained why lecturers were out on strike: “Our pension is part of our remuneration package… They talk of the ‘gold-plated public sector pensions’; I used to work in the private sector for a long period and my private sector pension is much the same… It’s inequitable and unfair.”
Hammersley was also delighted with the student support. “I’m proud of them. They’re concerned about the same issues as we are.”
Students present spontaneously decided to form a human chain across University Road, causing traffic to come to a temporary halt. This was swiftly dealt with by security, who politely told protestors to move to the side “for their own safety”.
Explaining the action, Occupy Warwick co-ordinator and postgraduate sessional tutor Ruth Pearce said, “We decided as Occupy not to do [the human chain] and various members of Occupy individually decided to do it anyway.”
Pickets were ended at approximately 10am as 33 public sector unions marched together from Coventry Cathedral to the rally point opposite Coventry Guild Hall, including Warwick UCU and students.
Speaking at the rally were local representatives of all the main unions that had balloted for strike action: the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Fire Brigades Union, the UCU, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and the public service trade union Unison.
The appearance of former Labour MP, now Socialist Councillor for St. Michael’s Ward in Coventry, David Nellist received the biggest reaction. Addressing the crowd, Mr Nellist said, “It wasn’t the dinner ladies giving out too many dinners that caused this crisis; it’s not firefighters putting out too many fires. It’s not the teachers, the nurses, the council workers, the binmen; it’s not any of you here… The TUC should call an emergency meeting next month to set a date in January to escalate action and bring the government to heel.”
Labour council leader John Mutton was brutally heckled by sections of the crowd who didn’t believe his insistence that the party was behind the strikes. “Why isn’t the Labour Party supporting us?” was the cry from some quarters, causing Mr Mutton to retort, “Can the members from the Socialist Party shut up.”
Marches and pickets seemed to pass without serious trouble. West Midlands Police confirmed that evening there were no public order incidents or arrests in the West Midlands so far.
Dr Laura Schwartz, from Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study, said: “These strikes are about the attacks on our pensions. People have the right not to fear poverty in old age.”
Jasper Pearce, a third-year History student, added, “We are all fighting for the pensions they’ve been paying into for their entire life. It’s a basic economic right, not a privilege.”
However, Michael Timmins, a second-year undergraduate and Warwick Conservative member, said: “Our main, if not only, goal should be to ensure we get the best value for money and the best student experience, yet many of us will support having a day in which lectures are widely cancelled… How can one grumble at the lack of value we get for our tuition fees on the one hand, yet support our lecturers decreasing our contact hours on the other?”
President Leo Boe said, “I think there is a careful line to tread and certainly this motion [passed at the general meeting] expresses that… we have to show solidarity with the UCU.”
A spokesperson for the University reminded staff of the pay implications of participating in industrial action and that the University would not be “obliged to pay staff who undertake strike action” or accept partial performance that breaches staff contractual obligations. “The University is legally entitled to withhold pay in such circumstances.”
Societies Officer Matt Rogers gave students with concerns some practical advice. “They need to, for themselves, look into the reasons why their lecturers are going on strike… The best thing is to discuss and work out for yourself rather than just listen to media.”