Get out there and strike for underpaid HE workers

Rory Weal 7 November 2013

Last Thursday, staff from across the University of Cambridge walked out on strike. Lectures were cancelled and picket lines were formed, causing widespread disruption to activities across the University. This was necessary because higher education workers have been taken for granted by their employers for far too long.

Workers in higher education only received a 1 per cent pay rise, whilst inflation ran at 2.7 per cent this year. This trend has meant that lecturers and HE staff have received a real terms pay cut of 13 per cent over the past five years. Any individual experiencing a drop in pay would rightly feel aggrieved, but the crucial role that these staff play in our education system makes it a particularly bitter pill to swallow. The University would not function without them: something they demonstrated clearly at Thursday’s protest.

I joined the picket lines that day, though I am not directly affected by the pay cut, because we will all be worse off if current trends continue. The profession will become rapidly less attractive, and our University system will only be the poorer for it. We students can only achieve our potential with the support of lecturers and University staff, and it is therefore in all our interests that employers give them the fair treatment and pay that they deserve.

Nobody enjoys going on strike; each Union member who does so loses a day’s pay. Therefore it was not a frivolous or greedy move: it was Cambridge staff finally saying ‘enough is enough’.

There was a good turnout on the pickets, especially at the Sidgwick Site. We managed to persuade some students and workers not to cross – one Royal Mail worker even refused to deliver post in solidarity – but many who crossed the line seemed unaware of its significance.

This was in large part due to lack of information; the vast majority who crossed seemed either confused or apathetic. We should therefore not aggressively dismiss these students as back-stabbers, but improve awareness of the plight of HE workers, and the rationale behind strike action.  

When there is a nationwide £2 billion surplus in the University sector, but 4,000 staff are paid below the Living Wage, it’s fair to say something needs to change. Over half of vice-chancellors continue to earn over £242,000 a year, and the proportion of staff on six-figure salaries is rising. This is not an isolated case, but part of a wider trend which sees government punishing public sector workers and ordinary people for a crisis in which these individuals played no part. For 39 out of 40 months under David Cameron, prices have risen faster than wages.

It’s time the government stopped bashing public sector workers, and started addressing the fundamental inequality in our society. I’m not holding my breath, but until then it’s important we all get out there on the picket lines and make our voices heard.