By LEEN ALKHLAIFAT
Over the last six months, the UK has seen a series of strikes in the railway sector. Whilst the strikes are set to continue as no concessions have been granted, they have officially extended to even the most prestigious education institutions. Over 70,000 staff at 150 universities across the UK have begun three days of strike action over attacks on pay, working conditions and pensions. The strike is recorded to be the biggest in the history of higher education. The University and College Union (UCU) is predicting historic turnout on its picket lines.
The strikes come after UCU members overwhelmingly voted 'yes' to industrial action last month in two historic national ballots. The results are the first ever successful nationally aggregated ballots in the education sector since the Tories introduced anti-trade union laws in 2016. The National Union of Students has also backed the UCU strikes, which could affect 2.5 million students.
The strikes come as a response to poor pay and working conditions. Teachers and university staff complete, on average, 2 days of unpaid work every week. However, employers have only increased salaries by 3%, following a decade of below-inflation pay and now an ongoing cost of living crisis. Moreover, pension cuts mean workers will lose at least 35% from their guaranteed future retirement income. For those who have just started in education, hundreds of thousands of pounds will be lost.
The union strikes have been met with both praise and criticism from both students and the wider public across the UK. Whilst students have stood in solidarity with their teachers, many have criticised the strikes labelling them as “ineffective” and “an inconvenience”.
The cost of living crisis is hitting members of the Union pretty hard, but bosses have dismissed the exhausting effects of the crisis on workers. But many workers have families whom they’re struggling to provide for. So ignoring their plea for help during a national cost of living crisis is just simply inhumane.
So, whilst students or those affected by the rail strikes complain about a mere convenience, workers continue to fight for a wage to sustain themselves and their families. We cannot condemn strikes, especially in the present moment.
Striking is a strategic and an effective form of protesting that requires collective action. They are powerful for a simple reason. The thing that businesses need the most from workers is labour. Withhold that, and the business grinds to a halt.
It’s a powerful leverage; so powerful, in fact, that a credible threat of a strike is often just as potent as a strike itself.
Throughout history, striking has been the most effective form of bargaining with policymakers. The National Coal Strike in 1912 led to a direct response from the government, where the 37 day strike ended with the Minimum Wage Act. Other strikes like the 1919 Battle of George Square saw a return to work after the government guaranteed the 47 hour working week.
Common criticisms of national strikes from the British public clearly indicates a lack of education or understanding around how striking occurs in the first place. Striking is not a get-out-of-work card. It is a long process that needs to be voted for and approved by the union. It comes as a last resort, after all measures of possible negotiation have been exhausted. With the education sector generating billions of pounds in tuition every year, universities can afford to treat their staff fairly.
It is easy to condemn and bash on the sidelines, when you do not experience the hardship yourself.
Whilst the average salary of the UK Prime Minister increases to £200,000 a year, staff across all sectors face pay reductions. The UK government yet again fails to accommodate the burdensome financial crisis. Prime Ministers are getting richer whilst our staff, railway workers and healthcare workers, whom we cannot continue our daily lives without, are getting paid less and less.
It’s simple. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Yet workers are expected to remain silent. Condemning direct action to solve these inequalities is simply inhumane.
Image: Flickr/ Steve Eason