Beaver

The UCU strikes kick off on campus

Following the University and College Union (UCU) vote backing strike action over pension cuts and working conditions, staff at LSE went on strike between 1 and 3 December. The four primary demands of the UCU industrial action are as follows: 

  • Address the gender, ethnic, and disability pay gap
  • End contract casualisation and rising job insecurity
  • Tackle academics’ rising workloads
  • Raise the wages of staff by £2500 across all pay points

As a result of the industrial action, a significant proportion of classes and lectures across departments were cancelled on the three days of strikes. This included the Departments of Anthropology, Government, Geography, International History, and Sociology, amongst others. However, some staff members, such as non-members of the UCU and certain graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), chose to not strike and ran classes as normal. Some in-person classes were administered online during the strike, including office hours from the Department of Economics and classes from the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method. 

Staff members on strike at the pickets ranged across all ranks, from professors to graduate teaching assistants. A professor from the Sociology Department commented: “The disputes are relevant to all faculty. There may be things disproportionately affecting junior staff with casualised contracts but that’s more reason for senior staff to show solidarity.”

A member of the LSE UCU Committee added, “None of us enjoy striking. This is an occupation you go into because you enjoy teaching and love working with young people – that’s a privilege of the job. Hence, when you don’t want to do it, it has to be a really serious step.”

Photo by Metta Ni

Striking staff will face salary deductions for their labour withdrawal. At the request of the LSE branch of the UCU, LSE has agreed that the salary cuts from the industrial action will go towards the student hardship fund.  

In addition to withdrawing their labour, LSE staff members led various teach-outs and pickets across campus on all three days of the strikes. Staff members, with the support of some  students, formed pickets of around 30 people each outside campus buildings such as the Library and Centre Building and handed out pamphlets, explained the causes of the strike action, and dissuaded students from crossing the picket lines.

When asked about the objective of the pickets, an LSE faculty member said: “We aim to raise consciousness among staff and students about the future of education and hope that these actions will continue until the university returns to the negotiating table.”

Although many students agreed with the staff and students’ right to strike, some raised questions about the practice of dissuading people from entering campus buildings. One such student said, “I saw a couple of students being booed for entering the library during the first day of the strikes. I agree with the UCU decision to strike, but is shaming students really the way to go about it?”

However, a postgraduate student at one of the pickets explained that the purpose of preventing students from entering campus buildings is to further pressurise the administration by demonstrating student solidarity with staff strikers and that they disagree with the way the university has been treating staff members.

The LSESU held an indicative vote in late November to decide whether it would support the UCU industrial action in which members voted “overwhelmingly” in favour of the strikes. The LSESU General Secretary Josie Stephens also appeared on talkRADIO on 2 December to discuss the School’s strike action and the LSESU’s support. The SU encouraged students to support staff strikers by joining pickets, attending teach-outs events, emailing the heads of departments, and signing the NUS petition.

A student leading a picket in front of the New Academic Building explained that he supported the strikes because university education had become an “exploitative, overcharged affair”, where students are forced to go into exorbitant debt and overworked staff face substandard working conditions. He said, “I would rather stand with professors that I have relations with…and try to build that as grounds for better education for everyone.”

Another student at the picket explained that she showed up in solidarity with the staff as a “duty” to reciprocate the support demonstrated by the faculty during the student protests against the LSESU Debate Society’s event in early November. 

Postgraduate students made up the apparent majority of the students at the pickets. A master’s student suggested that the relatively small number of undergraduate students was due to them not spending enough time with teachers outside the classroom and thus having insufficient information about conditions faced by staff. He said, “The strikes have come up a lot both inside and outside my classrooms. A lot of people that teach me are on very precarious contracts and the working conditions make it very tough for them to provide the best possible experience for me. This is a worthy cause to support to make [education] better.”

In concurrence, the member of the LSE UCU Committee said, “A rising proportion of education is fulfilled by people who do not have permanent jobs and hence don’t have a vested interest in the future of the institution and its development. A far too high proportion of your degree is being taught by people on casual contracts.”

According to the picket organisers, the student response to the strikes has been largely supportive. The LSE UCU member said that across his tenure at LSE, these picket lines witnessed the highest level of support and turnout. The professor from the Department of Sociology said: “All the students across our 6-7 MSc programmes came together to write a letter in support [of the strikes]… [for] my programme which is Inequalities and Social Sciences, almost half of them were here this morning.”

However, another student pointed out that some students were apathetic to the picket lines and cited their workload as a reason to cross them. She also observed that many students “simply did not know enough” about the strikes. 

For students who believe they are unable to take a firm stance on the issue, another postgraduate student encourages them to engage with the pickets and ask questions: “We’re not here just to shame students. We’re here to provide information and explain what’s going on.”

An LSE Spokesperson has also issued a statement regarding the staff strikes: “We are committed to providing an excellent education and experience for our students, supporting all LSE staff and ensuring LSE is an inclusive place to study and work. This was our focus during the pandemic, and continues to be the priority this academic year, in partnership with our School community.”

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