Today my 6-month bump and I stood in the picket line outside the Principal’s Office at the University of St Andrews to protest about huge reduction in pensions for university staff. Sleet fell continuously throughout the protest; wellie boots, waterproof clothing, hats, scarves and gloves were de rigeur across the line. After being confined to the house by an ankle sprain and heavy snow last week (which is still hampering travel round these parts), I was nervously excited about joining my colleagues and friends on the picket. I’m not new to protest (the banner picture for this article is from a silent vigil against the Iraq War when I was a teenager), but this was the first time that my husband and I had been out protesting for something that will directly affect our personal circumstances. Here are my reasons for taking to the streets, and how I found it:
- Why was I there?
To put it bluntly, I was there to protect our whole family’s future. My husband’s university pension stands to devalue from £25,000 per annum to £15,000 if the proposed changes go ahead. To put that in perspective, a teacher or lecturer at a school or post-1992 university on the same wage would have a pension of £46,000 per annum (you can work out the depreciation of yours here: http://uss-pension-model.com/). As I am a freelance writer who receives no regular wage (my post at the University of St Andrews is an honorary, non-stipendary one), my work pension will be almost zero. I too will be in part dependent on my husband’s pension. By the time we’re at the state retirement, our proto-child will be the age that we are now. They are unlikely to be in a financial position to support us – and nor should they. As a family without wealth to inherit, a decent pension is an essential part of our planning for retirement. We have had to forgo half of our income for this month to go on strike, but we’ll loose a lot more if we don’t.
But I was also there to protest against the heavy-handed treatment of staff by the University of St Andrews. Not only did they not consult their staff before taking a hardline position on refusing to negotiate on pensions, but recent emails from the Principal’s Office, the university’s senior management body, have contained threatening language: from withholding pay to staff who are on strike but refusing to do extra work to cover for their striking colleagues (ASOS – action short of a strike), to the implicit threat to remove so-called ‘privileges’ like maternity pay, nursery provision and (unpaid) mentoring services for women in academia. As a honorary member of staff I want to be proud of the work done at the University of St Andrews, but feel that the university’s stance on this issue has been unnecessarily uncompromising and confrontational.
- How was it?
Nobody likes standing outside in temperatures hovering around freezing, with sleet steadily falling and the remains of last week’s snow still laying heavy on the ground. However, it was brilliant to be there. The sense of empowerment that comes with standing up for what you believe in was electric and contagious; one colleague played the bagpipes (pictured left) to raise our spirits, friends and colleagues brought us flapjack, cake and biscuits to keep us fuelled, and our union reps were towers of information and strength as the sleet reduced our placards and armbands to soggy pulp. One hour and forty-three minutes into the protest we received an email of retraction and apology from the Principal over the university’s stance on ASOS pay – a small and important success, though by no means the biggest battle.
Several passing cars honked in support of the protest, an important, audible gesture not least because we were protesting directly outside the Principal’s Office. Of particular note was the encouragement from bin men, construction workers and other tradesmen, who enthusiastically sounded their support from company-branded lorries and trucks. Like the Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners alliance of the mid-1980s as portrayed in the film Pride (which I urge you to watch if you haven’t already), this type of cross-professions, cross-cause solidarity is extremely important in any ‘them-and-us’ battle for employment rights.
A huge thank you too to the student members of the St Andrews Socialist Society, who brought us tea, coffee and the promise of lobbying their MPs and MSPs later today. Sincere thanks are also due to more senior staff who joined the picket: like all of us who strike, they too will loose a day’s pay, but their pensions are relatively secure, as everything that has already been paid in is protected. Yet is their voices, imbued with seniority, experience and relative prestige, that are likely to carry more weight with university officials. Thank you for standing with us not for your pensions, but for ours – and for those of everyone else who ever wants to work in the university sector.
Want to help but can’t take to the picket line yourself?
If you live or work near a university, please consider popping along with a flask of tea or a packet of biscuits to help warm us and cheer our spirits! If you drive past a picket line please give us a honk – even that small gesture of solidarity means a lot to those of us striking to secure our financial future.
Don’t live near a uni? Here are a few online ways you can help us, particular as a university graduate or as someone who donates to or works with universities:
- Sign this online petition supporting the strike and calling for a return to meaningful negotiations: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/we-support-the-ucu-strike-for-pensions?bucket=&source=twitter-share-button
- Boycott universities who are introducing heavy financial penalties on staff taking ‘action short of a strike’, seeking to undermine the strike action by offering financial incentives to reschedule work, and punishing staff on precarious contracts even more severely: https://platform.organise.org.uk/campaigns/open-letter-university-strikes?utm_campaign=7dBGgTDC2S
- Get active on social media, using the hashtag #USSstrike. Feel free to share this opinion piece, get in touch with your university using their official handle, or share the photos from the line to increase awareness of the strike and thereby continue to put pressure on Universities UK.