Striking solo? As new strikes loom, the picketers plead their case for student support

By and

Last term saw three days of strikes in Durham, and with issues unresolved, lecturers look set to walk out again, perhaps for weeks, later this term.

Durham students who started in 2019 on a three-year course are already graduating with no term undisrupted by strikes or online learning. But those on the picket lines tell Palatinate that the cause is worth it, and that student support is central to it.

Most agree that there is a lack of understanding and awareness of staff concerns amongst students.

On his personal motivations for striking, Branch President Sol Gamsu explained: “I stand to lose about £9-10k from my pension due to the changes being proposed. I’m going to go from a guaranteed defined benefit pension of about £23k to something closer to £12k.”

Gamsu said that Durham University’s recent position has been to “toe the national line”, which is pushing for the changes to pension schemes. This is in contrast to the official stance in 2018, when the University publicly stated that it did not agree with the national proposals for pension cuts. He said it was “extremely disappointing” that the University has not made a similar statement this year.

Gamsu was keen to highlight the importance of the other major strike motivators, dubbed the ‘Four Fights’: “casualisation, excessive workloads, below inflation pay increases, and ethnic and gender pay gaps”.

He said that workloads have “massively increased” during the pandemic, claiming that there are UCU members in Colleges who “literally worked around the clock” to keep facilities open and running for students.

“The issue of workload is such a massive, unrecognised issue, because the University relies on so much exploitative labour- both free work done beyond people’s contracted hours, and casual work.”

PhD students in particular “frequently suffer a delay in getting their contracts”.

Gamsu also claimed that the University has been “cutting costs”, explaining that “reviews of college operations” have been conducted, with the aim of cutting staff numbers, referring to the cancellation of college dining formals and balls across the University this Michaelmas term.

“The drive to cut costs has effects on staff, and it has effects on students. It has effects on workloads and the student experience.” Gamsu praised the “fantastic support from the Student Union”, and remarked that there had also been support from some JCR Presidents.

But for Gamsu, students don’t always seem to understand the reasons behind the strikes. He teaches in the Sociology department, and says that, following a lecture on the marketisation of higher education and its effects on staff, one student remarked to him in a seminar that “I’ve never really thought about lecturers as people.”

Support from students at the picket lines and solidarity events was limited. The number of students attending picket lines remained relatively small, with around 30 Durham UCU members and students attending some pickets.

Last term, a Durham Polling poll indicated that a small majority of students do not support the decision to strike, but nearly two thirds thought the reasons for striking were valid.

One student remarked, “I’ve never really thought about lecturers as people”

Declan Merrington, Postgraduate Academic Officer at Durham SU, blamed the apparent lack of student attendance on the early mornings and poor weather on strike days, saying that he “found it hard to get out of bed as an undergraduate”.

But an SU solidarity event held by Durham SU saw very few attendees despite a much later start. The SU Assembly overwhelmingly voted to support striking staff. Merrington explained that strikes cannot be stopped by the SU, but a resolution may be reached quicker if students show support for striking staff.

When asked what message they would give to their peers to encourage active support for the next round of strike action, students on the picket line emphasised that staff working conditions were studwent learning conditions, and that the sooner a resolution is reached, the sooner strikes will end.

He stressed that the disruption caused by strikes is “not because staff are being unreasonable” but because “management are a highly paid, insulated, and intransigent elite group, who essentially run the University in ways that are not generous, and in certain aspects not humane.”

A spokesperson told Palatinate that Durham University has limited influence over changes to the pension scheme as it is national, but that it believes it is “a very good pension relative to other schemes” and said it is “currently paying more into the USS pension scheme than ever before”.

The University also said it has developed a comprehensive Health and Wellbeing Strategy, and that academic departments track and manage the workload of staff, welcoming collaboration with UCU members to review existing strategy. The University claims it has “limited the use of casual contracts” and that “all roles are aligned to the University pay scales at the appropriate grade.”

It continued: “There is transparency over the calculation of workload and payments, along with the expectations of roles. We continue to work alongside our recognised trade unions in this area.”

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