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Strike advice for students

November 29, 2011

The UCU, your lecturers’ and academic-related staff union, will be on strike tomorrow, 30 November, alongside 27 other unions nationwide. Your own union, LUU, has expressed support for the UCU and is sending a contingent to the picket line tomorrow. We would ask you to respect the strike, and refuse to cross a picket line.

1. Why are UCU striking?

  • The strike on 30 November is in protest at changes to our pensions. Our employers blocked any opportunity to vote on these changes, and when we set up our own ballot for all USS members (whether UCU or not) 97% opposed the changes nationally. The changes themselves are extreme and unnecessary – our pension scheme is one of the most well-funded in the whole of Europe. Recent reports indicate that it still had more money going into its funds than are coming out. It is not a public-sector pension. Our VC has recently, by contrast, seen a 450% increase in his pension fund, paid by the University (and therefore in part by your fees).
  • Unlike public sector pensions, which have been hit by a change in calculations to CPI, our pension is linked to CPI AND capped when CPI goes over 5% (It is now 5.2%).
  • We are not asking for extra. We are asking to get what we have paid for.
  • Despite our best efforts to negotiate, management at a national level have not so far made any of the key compromises that might solve the dispute.
  • We are a union of professionals and we know that our members don’t like taking any action that affects students. It is the same for many public services. However, in this dispute, we are convinced that students will suffer infinitely more if we are not successful: an attack on the providers of education is an attack on the value of the education students receive.
  • Many, many students have already shown us their support. Please join them in helping us to defend education at the University of Leeds and nationally.

2. What if my tutor is not striking, and says my classes are going ahead, but I don’t want to cross a picket line?

The University has advised Heads of School that if you make an informed decision to support strike action by not attending lectures and seminars, then you shall be marked absent. In other words, you will be treated detrimentally for expressing an ideological position.

Some schools may nonetheless declare that they will not count absences from classes on strike days. English and History, for example, did so when a strike was threatened last year. Neither of those Schools – we know – marked absences at the strike earlier this year. You might wish to find out from your Head of School (search here if you don’t know who that is) if your School has the same policy of recognising your rights this year. If not, you might wish to ask why there is inconsistency from earlier this year, and across the campus.

Some students have expressed concern that if the University obliges them to cross a picket line when they do not wish to do so, this might represent discrimination against them for taking an ideological position, and they cite the University’s own policy on discrimination and the LUU policy on discrimination to support that position. They have also suggested that it might also represent a breach of their human rights (which include an entitlement to political opinion – article 2). We do acknowledge these concerns and our view is that any such opinion should be respected and you should not be penalised for it in any way by the University. The University, though, does not recognise your rights in this regard.

Please note that for all these reasons, non-UCU members may also be planning to reschedule their classes away from strike days. Please ensure that you check directly with your tutors or head of school. Be aware that tutors are not obliged in advance to declare that they will be striking, and in some areas they may feel they risk victimisation if they do so. On the whole, though, we anticipate that many of our members will inform students – if not their managers – of their intention to strike.

3. I have an assessment/exam on a strike day. My tutor says they are not a member of UCU and the assessment will be taking place.

We don’t believe this is likely on Wednesday. We will ask the University for a clarification of this scenario as we do not believe that students should have to cross a picket line if they are ideological opposed to doing so. Again, please discuss this directly with your head of school or tutor.

4. Can I join a picket line?

When workers involved in industrial action stage a protest at or near a workplace to increase support for their cause, this is called picketing. We’d be happy to see students who want to come and support us by visiting us on the picket lines. @UKUncut members, for example, will be out offering ‘solidaritea’ on Wednesday across the country. However, we cannot directly encourage you to join us! We warn you – they’ll be starting at 7am! But you’d be welcome to come and say hello  any time up to 11am. There will only be a handful of us at each entrance handing out leaflets and carrying banners. The picket is a peaceful form of protest used to spread further the reasons why we are taking strike action.

There will be a rally on Woodhouse Moor from 10:30 and a march past the University and into town starting at 11. You would be welcome to demonstrate your support for us, and for Leeds’s public sector workers, by joining that rally and/or march.

5. Isn’t striking attacking the wrong people – students?

A strike is straightforwardly a withdrawal of labour. The refuse workers stopped emptying the bins, when they took industrial action in Leeds two years ago, and the postal workers stopped delivering mail. Certainly, in all cases it is the end-user, consumer or beneficiary of that labour who temporarily suffers. We consider this a small inconvenience that we are asking students to bear in order to help us fight against the damaging manoeuvres of our employers, which will have a long-term impact on the people you interact with on a daily basis in tutorials and lecture halls. A strike is a last resort – we have spent more than a year trying to negotiate and talk to management, but to no avail. The pensions issue was heavily blogged about last summer. After all these months, we have finally reached a last resort because the employers have pushed us to this, the last tactic in our negotiating toolbox.

7. Can’t you strike by not undertaking research, rather than withdrawing from teaching?

Many members will be downing tools from research, but you may not notice this. Nor will the employers. A boycott only of research would a.) have absolutely no impact on the employers, and serve no negotiating purpose whatsoever, b.) is irrelevant to hundreds of UCU members who administer the University (not all UCU members are academic staff) and c.) damages the tutor’s opportunity’s for career progression – shooting ourselves in the foot is not a valuable strike tactic. Be wary of those that argue this is an alternative, especially if they do so to gain your favour – scratch the surface, and it makes no sense.

8. Are you planning to refuse to assess material as part of your industrial action?

There are no plans as yet to take this action. Please correct anyone who tells you this. Such action has been effective in the past and we only undertake this as an absolutely last resort. Remember, if we are ever in a position to have to do this, then the tutors who do it will face a potential 100% pay dock. That is to say, they will continue to teach you, advise you, support you, prepare materials for teaching, attend meetings about you, undertake research, but potentially not be paid for any of it because of a withdrawal of a small percentage of labour associated with marking. So, you see, such a move would be an absolute last resort, and only comes about as a result of obdurate management who would push us into a position of doing our job for you for free in order to increase our protest.

students support strikes

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