UCU Strike 2019: Frequently Asked Questions

We discovered last year that colleagues, students and members of the general public do not always understand what we mean when we talk about trade unions, strikes, and picket lines (and so on).

What is a Trade Union?

A Trade Union is a group of employees who join together to maintain and improve their conditions of employment.

What is a strike?

A strike involves workers withdrawing their labour to make a collective protest. Striking is one of the only ways to make our employers listen to us and take us seriously. When workers go on strike, they do not go into work, and they do not get paid. (Many students did not know this – so not only are students’ tuition fees still taken by the university during a strike, but the university also does not pay the staff who go on strike, staff who also do not do their teaching during the strike). UCU members lost significant amounts of their pay when they took 14 days of strike action last year and the fact that UCU members will be taking 8 days of strike action before the Christmas and New Year holiday shows how strongly they feel about the above issues.

In the past year, striking has hit the headlines, particularly in the context of the School Strikes for Climate, where millions of school children around the world have walked out of school to protest about the climate emergency, which was supported by the Extinction Rebellion climate activist group as a form of non-violent direct action. This shows how students are often at the forefront of social movements for change and can go on strike too, which happened most notably in 1968, when university students protested against war, racism, and the power of corporations and called a general strike of the workers. More recently, university students have engaged in ‘rent strikes’ to protest extortionate university accommodation rent prices. This year, UK postal workers in the Communications Workers Union voted by 97.1% in favour of taking take strike action to defend their job security and working conditions. When taken together, alongside the UCU pension strike last year, striking is being increasingly recognised as a strategy for making a difference.

What is a picket?

picket is a form of protest during a strike where a group of people congregate outside their place of work, with posters and placards, peacefully and sometimes playfully persuading people to join or support their cause, and encouraging people not to ‘cross their picket line’. Pickets help to spread the message about our cause and inform people about our demands using accessible slogans. Last year, our picket lines were fun and filled with joy, humour, laughter, music, creativity, and even – dare we say it – dancing. Staff really appreciate it when people say hello, rather than ignoring them, and especially when people stay and have a chat and hang out for a while. Remember that striking staff are human beings too! Last year, it was very cold because there was snow, and there is snow forecast again for our strikes this year. Students and supportive staff brought us hot drinks and snacks and this was very much appreciated!

What is a rally?

A rally is a demonstration where a large number of people gather together to protest and make a collective point. Activists speak about the issues they are protesting and people carry placards and banners. There might be music and the chanting of slogans such as ‘We Are The University’ (and as a hashtag #WeAreTheUniversity on Twitter too) or ‘Buildings Don’t Teach, People Do’. A rally might then become a march where a lot of people walk through the town center to make people aware of our cause. Last year, we used music, drumming and chanting to get the word out about our message. Feel free to join us in the carnivalesque atmosphere. Last year, we made strike playlists, sing-along sessions, raps, silent mass meditation protests and much much more. Watch out for what happens this year and get involved!

What is a teach-out?

A ‘teach-out’ is a form of protest involving teaching, which happens outside of university buildings. Last year, postgraduate students were especially active in organising ‘teach-outs’ at cafes, community centres and churches around Cathays to teach members of the public about the wider issues raised during the strike, especially the so-called McUniversity marketisation of higher education, how it is affecting students and staff alike, and how this can be resisted. The ‘teach-outs’ were amazing examples of what our university managers like to call ‘impact and engagement’ with the local community. At other universities in the UK, university students organised ‘teach-ins’ in university lecture theatres, to educate students about the issues. ‘Teach-ins’ also happened during occupations. Almost 20 universities were occupied by students protesting about the proposed pension cuts. An occupation is a protest tactic of taking up space in a university building to make specific demands.

In summary, a strike is a ‘teachable moment’ which means that we can all learn new things in new ways. If students value the staff who make their education possible – your lecturers, postgraduate teaching assistants and demonstrators, professional services staff – and if students appreciate the academics and researchers who conduct the scholarship and research which makes Cardiff University the ‘world-leading’ institution it claims to be, you can show how much you value and appreciate them by supporting their strike action. This is also often one of the quickest ways to escalate the strike and demand change; our employers often listen to, and value, students more than university staff and so, if students support the striking staff, university managers are more likely to take our demands seriously.

This happened during last year’s pension strike, when the brightest and most talented students at the university supported our strike, joined us on our picket lines, and offered their support to university staff who were on strike. During last year’s pension strike, 6,785 Cardiff University students signed a student-organised petition stating “we stand by our lecturers and feel their demands are justified” and demanded financial compensation for teaching hours lost and for extenuating circumstances to be awarded to students. A YouGov poll showed that 66% of students supported the strike, 2% blamed staff for the disruption, and 50% blamed universities.

UCU members massively appreciated our students’ support and many of us – staff and students alike – found the strike to be one of the best moments in our university careers. The strike is a brilliant way to show that you are not just a consumer of education, and we are not just service providers, but we are all much more than this. “We are the university!”

What is action short of strike (ASOS)?

Action short of strike (ASOS) is non-strike action including working to contract, not doing voluntary work, not covering for absent colleagues and not rescheduling classes or lectures cancelled due to the strikes. ASOS can highlight how much extra work we do for the University – on average two days unpaid overtime each week – and can help maximise the impact of strike action. ASOS may also include taking part in an assessment boycott.

I can’t afford to go on strike – will be Union help me?

The UCU nationally has a strike fund to help those most in need of assistance, and we do at local level too. At Cardiff, we’re prepared support striking members with a solidarity fund which we’re building all the time. During the last strike UCU took extra care to support precariously employed members such as PhD students and Postdocs and we aim to do so again. Accessing the strike fund is easy and straightforward. We realise that hourly paid workers may have difficulty evidencing loss of pay and will take that into account. For more information on how to access the strike fund, please see the separate Hardship Fund Guidance.

Can I claim loss of earnings for striking?

While the loss of income through striking affects everyone, it hits worse those who are already in very financially insecure situations – which postgraduates often are. During the last strike there were concerns from postgraduates that they would not be able to claim reimbursement from the strike fund because they didn’t receive time sheets and could therefore not “evidence” loss of pay. While we can’t guarantee that everyone will be reimbursed from the strike fund, UCU will not deny anyone access to it because their employment status is precarious. “Evidence” can take many forms, some as straightforward as handing in a time sheet including all the hours usually worked on strike days. In the last round of strikes some graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) were reimbursed all pay lost to striking by UCU (instead of pay from the 4th day on), and in addition to the national strike fund, there is a local strike fund too. Given that the strike is about fighting casualisation (amongst other things) UCU will do its best to make sure casualised members are taken care of! For more information on how to access the strike fund, please see the separate Hardship Fund Guidance.

I’m a researcher and don’t teach, what’s the point of me going on strike?

66% of research staff are on fixed-term contracts and a third of these are for a year or less. There are also thousands of staff on hourly-paid and even zero-hour contracts. By striking, you will be fighting to defend fair pay for researchers, now and in the future. When we went on strike earlier this year we didn’t stop working, we redirected our labour to the strike, and carried on doing what we do best – teach & research; just not in the service of the McUniversity. Striking frees up our time to campaign and work together with colleagues and students to fight for a fairer future for universities.

Everyone’s unique talents can help to support a strike, strengthen our Union’s bargaining power, and win our disputes! What are your talents? Let us know and you will be very welcome to join us on strike!

I am a non-UK-national migrant worker worried about the consequences of striking for my work visa. Is it safe for me to strike?

UCU recognises the challenges of migrant workers dealing with the Home Office, e.g., visa denial, deportation, rejection of ILR applications and that migrant workers remain concerned about their legal status being used against them in industrial disputes, despite the Home Office clarification gained by UCU in 2018 that strike is not ‘unauthorised absence’. UCU will produce an accessible, comprehensive guide for migrant members and branches, to include all possible assurances migrants will be safe to strike as well as consideration of circumstances where migration status may legitimately be at risk (e.g. if there is evidence an ILR application will be affected) and what alternative form of action they can take. UCU will write to all employers reminding them of the 2018 Home Office clarification, seeking written assurance that no migrant worker will be made more precarious by taking industrial action. UCU will prioritise migrant workers (alongside other precarious workers) for fighting fund and hardship fund applications.

Why should I strike if the union leadership is going to sell us out?

If we followed this logic we’d never take any action! The pensions dispute showed us that ‘rank-and-file’ action can push the leadership to be more responsive to members, and this has brought us to the verge of a significant victory. It also led to a growing membership working to democratise UCU and exercise more control. There is a democracy commission tasked with democratising the UCU itself. We have a new General Secretary, Dr Jo Grady, who was a grass-roots UCU member who became prominent during the pension strike and through her work co-founding the USS Briefs collective of academic pensions activists (Twitter @USSBriefs). There have never been so many different opportunities to help strengthen and unite the Union than now. There are no guarantees of success, but we won’t win anything if we cave in now.

Won’t striking hurt students?

It’s true that striking will affect students who will be missing out on teaching or will be affected by an assessment boycott. Going on strike wouldn’t make any sense if it didn’t disrupt the workings of the university. We all care about our students and do not make the decision to disrupt their education lightly. But the better working conditions we’re fighting for now will also benefit students. After all, our working conditions are students’ learning conditions! Our financial security and wellbeing in work will impact the quality of teaching we can deliver. Some students, of course, also go on to be academics or researchers or teachers or professional services staff working in universities. We’re directly fighting for their future, as well as for a system that does not depend on precarious, exploitative labour.

Our 2019 strike is particularly about fighting precarity and casualised labour which is becoming a reality for increasing numbers of students in the so-called ‘gig economy’, who may find themselves needing to take on multiple, poorly paid, zero-hours jobs to support their studies, whilst being saddled with over £50,000 in debt when they graduate.

Getting a university degree is about more than passing exams to get a job. It’s also about learning citizenship and discovering the world. Striking does not mean we don’t teach students any more. Many students and staff have found that the last round of strikes has shown that “another University is possible!”.

For some students, industrial action is a unique learning experience and some of our brightest and most talented undergraduate and postgraduate students joined picket lines and took part in ‘teach-outs’.

A strike shows that The University is more than a business, education more than a commodity, staff are more than service providers or ‘traders’, and students are more than customers or clients. We are the university!

I am a student. How can I support striking staff?

If you are a student who supports the staff strike, there is a lot you can do to help, such as:

  • If you are a postgraduate student, and you are not yet a member of the UCU, we strongly suggest you join UCU, either as a student member, or for free if you are a postgraduate research student who teaches (that is, if you are also working for the university).
  • The National Union of Students (NUS) supported last year’s pension strike and supports this strike too, saying that students stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with staff and have called for students to organise solidarity action in support of UCU members (see the NUS Twitter @NUSUK)
  • Demand that Cardiff University’s Student’s Union comes out in support of the staff strike and tell them why they should support the strike – organise a meeting with your Student’s Union representatives
  • Tell university staff you support the strike and ask them how you can help
  • Talk to your peers, flatmates, friends, and family about the strike and tell them why you support it
  • Share relevant news about the strike, locally and nationally, on social media – especially on Twitter and FaceBook
  • The best way to keep up to date about the strike is to join Twitter and follow the Cardiff University UCU Twitter account @CardiffUCU – you can re-tweet posts and post positive comments
  • If you are concerned about the rising problem of precarity, within and beyond the university – also known as the ‘gig economy’ – and want to find out how you can help support the wider anti-precarity campaign, follow Anti-Precarity Cymru on Twitter @CymruPrecarity
  • Say hello and support university staff on their picket lines, rallies, and marches
  • Consider carefully, in dialogue with lecturers and professional services staff and peers, showing solidarity with striking staff by boycotting your lectures and seminars and not crossing picket lines
  • Take out any books you need from the library before the strike, so you do not need to cross picket lines
  • Join or create your own ‘teach-out’ events that happen during the strike
  • Use the time created by the strike to register to vote in the upcoming UK General Election on Thursday 12th December – the deadline to register to vote in your home and term-time addresses (you can register for both but you can only vote at either your home or term-time constituency) is during the strike period on midnight on 26th November 2019.
  • When they have all released their manifestos, find out what the education policies of the different political parties are and which you support the most, then vote!

I am a PGR student who teaches, can I claim from the strike fund?

In order to claim back lost earnings from the UCU fighting fund during the strike you MUST ensure you’ve upgraded from “student” to “standard free” membership. It only take a minute, and is still FREE while you’re studying. You can update your membership online.

I am not a member of UCU, can I refuse to cross the picket line?

We would like everyone to respect the picket lines, but if you are a member of another trade union you should seek their guidance before refusing to cross a picket line. If you are eligible to join UCU we recommend that you join the union, on the picket line if necessary, and do not cross the picket line. We will support any member who is subject to disciplinary action for refusing to cross a UCU picket line.