What happens when a strike goes viral?

At the end of the second week of UCU strike action, Melanie Simms, UCU member at Glasgow University, looks at how to build on the brilliant success of the action so far.

As we come to the end of the first phase of the UCU strike action, I can honestly say I am amazed. I have been on strike a good few times about a good few issues over my 22 years in academia. But I have never experienced anything like this.

The support and solidarity is astounding. As someone who has been a union member and activist since the day I started work and who researches and teaches on the topic of trade unions and employment relations, I am delighted to be able to share my enthusiasm for and confidence in the power of collective action. The employers are deeply divided and there is real scope for movement around the core issues.

The thirst for understanding the technical details of pensions valuations, collective bargaining, industrial action laws, the role of ACAS and conciliation and many other highly specific details of this action is impressive. Fortunately, as a union, we have experts in all of these within our ranks and they have been doing an astoundingly brilliant job on social media and on picket lines around the country to raise awareness, answer questions and generally up the collective game.

There is a real enthusiasm to spend the time well. Picket lines have been extraordinarily well attended and people have used the remaining time to organise fun activities and placards for the following day, arrange art installations, bake, give blood, and very importantly, rest and spend time with their families and friends.

Support and solidarity hasn’t just come from others involved in the strike action. Students, campaign groups, other staff and international groups have undertaken huge acts of solidarity. We’ve had non-human support in the form of #DogsOnPicketLines and the dinosaur of solidarity (@of_dinosaur). Students have brought coffee, baked cakes, signed petitions, occupied buildings, and generally been the awesome people we know they are.

This strike has been a turning point in higher education. I thought it would be difficult to explain nerdy details about pensions valuations to a wider audience and build support. I was wrong. People have ‘joined the dots’ in this strike and have clearly understood how the attack on pensions is a related to the wider marketisation of education in general and higher education in particular. Just because Scotland doesn’t charge undergraduate fees to most students doesn’t mean marketisation isn’t a very real dynamic. The casualisation of staff is rampant. Punitive performance management of all staff is embedded in managerial practices. The involvement of commercial companies in the student accommodation market means a large-scale transfer of public money to the private sector. All of these issues are being discussed and debated every day and it is clear people are angry.

This leaves us with a challenge ahead. The announcement on Tuesday evening that ACAS has been asked to be involved in the talks is excellent news. ACAS has some of the best trained conciliators in the world. They are trained to help parties that find it difficult to agree on anything move towards an effective outcome. But inevitably the focus of the talks will be on the very specific details of the dispute, rather than the wider issues. The challenge will be to use the solidarity and momentum built up during this action to continue to challenge marketisation in the sector. It’s clear there is an opportunity to do that. We now need to work out how.

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