University workers in UNISON, UCU, Unite and EIS are on strike on Thursday, February 6th.
Workers in higher education are lucky to have students who are willing to support us when we’re on strike, and it would be pretty foolish not to welcome them on our picket lines.
If you’re a student, please support the strike. The most important thing to do is to refuse to cross picket lines. If you cross a picket line, or go into any university building on the day, you are undermining the strike. If you say you ‘support the strike’ but cross a picket line, your support is meaningless. Your classes should be cancelled on strike days. If your class is going ahead then your lecturer is breaking the strike. Your education is not going to be ruined by one day strikes. As well as not going to classes, don’t go into the library, or go in to buy a coffee. Stay out of university buildings during the strike.
While not crossing picket lines is the most important thing to do, here are some other things you can do, and not do, to support striking higher education workers.
Join picket lines
If there is a strike, there should be picket lines at as many university buildings as possible. Find out where they are, what time they are starting, come along and show solidarity, ask what you can do to help.
Contact union branches
The current series of one day strikes are called nationally by several higher education unions: UCU, UNISON, Unite and EIS. There may also be strikes that are just in your university over local issues. The higher education unions should have branches at your university, with union reps who act as contacts. If you want to get in touch, there should be information about local branches online. If you do a search with the name of your university and the name of the union, you should be able to find contact details. Or, you could look around campus notice boards, unions often have notice boards with contact details on. Phone or email the branch, tell them you want to help support the strike, and ask what you can do.
Don’t JUST contact union branches
Some university branches are not very active. It’s possible that you won’t be able to find details, or won’t get a reply when you try to contact them. Some union reps and union branches are not very militant. Some union reps are quite conservative, they may have been in their post for years, they may be friendly with management, they may not be doing a lot to encourage activity, and they may not be very welcoming to student supporters. If this is the case in your branch, find out if there are groups of workers who are organising independently of the officially recognised union branches. Look out for posters or flyers, go along to meetings, try to talk to people who are involved in the strike. You could also contact a SolFed local in your area, there may be education workers who are members, who you could be put in touch with. http://www.solfed.org.uk/local
Don’t just turn up on the day
While turning up on the picket line is important, a lot of the work of organising the strike happens before this. Occasionally someone turns up for work, talks to people on the picket line and decides not to cross it, but it’s not that common. Most workers will have decided whether or not they are going on strike before the day of the strike. Publicising the strike in advance, and encouraging workers to go on strike is as important as being on a picket line, and it’s something else you may be able to help with.
Talk to education workers about the strike
As a student you come into contact with education workers all the time. When you use the library, when you have a lecture, when you buy something in a cafeteria, when you phone IT support or go to an information desk. Whenever you talk to a university worker tell them you know about the strike and support it, ask them if they will be on strike, encourage them to do so if they haven’t thought about it or made up their mind yet.
Don’t forget non-academic staff
Support staff often get overlooked by students. It’s not just lecturers who are on strike, support staff are also on strike, this includes admin workers, library workers, workers in estates, in IT, pretty much anyone who is employed by the university. Some support staff are in UCU, others are in UNISON, Unite or GMB. Support staff are as important to the running of the university as academics, so it’s equally important that they go out on strike, and they may also appreciate your support. University libraries often have good union density and more militant workers, so talking to library workers is a good place to start.
Tell students about the strike and encourage them not to cross picket lines
Encouraging education workers to strike is important, but workers are more likely to respond to encouragement from their co-workers, who will also be effected by the issues the strike is over, and will be losing pay by striking too. You may be better placed to encourage students, as they are in the same position as you. Talk to other students, make sure they know about the strike, make sure they know that if they support the strike they shouldn’t cross picket lines. Some students make their own flyers, directed at students, and hand them out in lectures, outside university buildings, or in the library. If you do this it’s a good idea to discuss it with the workers who are striking first, as they may have some ideas about what they want students to know about the strike.
Talk up the strike, if necessary. Some students may decide not to come in as they support the strike, others might not bother if you tell them the library or other services are probably going to be closed.
Don’t expect the miners’ strike or Harlan County
Unfortunately most university workers are not anarchosyndicalists, and are not necessarily used to taking militant action, or willing to do so. A lot of picket lines just consist of a few people handing out flyers. Obviously we want to change this, but it’s not going to happen overnight. It might not be very exciting, but turning up to support workers who are taking whatever form of industrial action they are willing to is helpful. You may be able to increase people’s confidence and encourage them to actually tell people not to cross picket lines, but you do this by building up a relationship with people over time rather than turning up and telling them what to do. Also, they have taken significant action just by being on strike. They may be outnumbered by co-workers who are crossing their picket lines. Supporting people who are taking their first steps is important. Equally, they may have been on strike loads of times, and may not think this particular strike day is worth taking greater risks for, especially if it’s a national, one day strike, rather than say, a local strike to fight redundancies. Also, bear in mind that while you may be used to going on demos, being kettled, facing lines of violent police, most people aren’t. What looks tame to you may not seem so tame to some people, including those on strike and the university management.
Remember it’s not YOUR strike
This isn’t a student protest, you’re here to support workers who are withdrawing their labour, so allow the striking workers to make decisions, and fit in with their plans. A strike is about workers taking control, it’s important that the striking workers feel like they are deciding what action they are going to take. Telling people what to do when it’s their strike is not the best way to support them, and they may actually know more than you about how to run their campaign. You might not agree with their decisions. If you’re around in the long term supporting them in various actions you will have the opportunity to talk about tactics and make suggestions, but it is important to respect the decisions of the striking workers.
Act with workers, don’t take action on their behalf
Maybe you and your friends think that the best thing to do is to block the entrance to the university. So, you could get to know university workers and find out if they want to do this, or want someone else to do this, maybe discuss it along with other tactics and make a decision collectively? But that sounds a bit boring, so you think you’d rather just go ahead and block the road, hopefully people will appreciate your support. Please don’t do this. While it would be great to see education workers organising militant industrial action, someone turning up and doing it on their behalf not the same thing. A militant, organised group of workers doesn’t appear suddenly out of nowhere. It takes time to build solidarity and confidence. You can be part of this process, but there isn’t a short cut.
Be careful who you shout ‘scab’ at
Of course everyone who crosses a picket line to go to work during a strike is breaking the strike and is a scab. However, it’s up to the other workers how they deal with scabs. A single strike day is not the beginning and end of a campaign. It may be that they want to convince people who scab on a strike not to do so the next time. Totally alienating their co-workers by shouting scab at them may not be the best way to do this. Take your cue from the workers who are picketing, or ask them what they do and don’t want you to do.
Workers are likely be in several different unions, and some unions may not be on strike. Union members in unions who are not striking will have been instructed by their unions to cross picket lines. A lot of people do not see this as scabbing. Again, this is something we want to change, but again, alienating them right away might not be the best way to do this. Also, their union branch may not support them if they are disciplined for refusing to cross a picket line. If someone turns up for work you are unlikely to convince them not to go in, but if you talk about it to them on the picket line they may think about not crossing next time.
Some university jobs are outsourced. This means they are employed by private companies, not by the university. They may be part of the same union as directly employed workers, but they will not be part of the same dispute, so they do not have the legal right to participate in the strike. Ideally, the workers would have the strength and solidarity to be able to get everyone out on strike together, and defend anyone who management tries to target for a disciplinary, but in the circumstances most of us are in, there is every chance that outsourced workers who refused to work on a strike day would be sacked. Students yelling ‘scab’ at low paid, migrant workers is not something many of us would want to see happening on our picket lines.
Don’t organise anything that takes people away from the picket lines
A strike is different from a demo. Striking workers are taking action in their workplace. Unions may have organised demos and rallies on the day, but picket lines should be a priority. Don’t organise events that take people away from picket lines. If you know students who are going to rallies, suggest they join the pickets instead.
Remember it’s the striking workers who are taking risks
Don’t underestimate how intimidated people are by bosses, or how much they are scared of getting into trouble at work. For some workers, this may be the first time they have been on strike, and just being on strike may be a big deal for them. Also, do not dismiss the fact that there may be justification for their fears. People do get sacked for being overenthusiastic on the picket line. Make sure you do not take any action that gets people into difficulty at work, without them asking you to. You may want to encourage militancy, but you’re not going to be there when people get called into a disciplinary meeting, and you’re not risking losing your job. University workers still have better terms and conditions than a lot of workers, in many places they are having to fight to hold onto them, losing a job in a university is a big deal for most people who work in one.
Remember you don’t have to go to work here the next day
Whatever happens on the picket line, the university workers are probably going to have to go to work the next day with co-workers who crossed the picket lines. This can be an difficult experience, and your support after the strike can be valuable. If there are debrief meetings go along, and keep in touch with people who you met on the picket lines. Ask if union branches or groups of workers have email lists for supporters that you can join. If university management victimise anyone for something to do with the strike, be ready to support them.
See you on the picket lines!