“Get your arse out of your chair, get down here and speak to the people who matter,” a union leader urged university bosses, as hundreds of striking staff gathered in Leeds on Wednesday to fight for improved pay and pensions.
A large crowd of pickets spilled from the steps of Leeds University’s distinctive Grade II-listed Parkinson Building, flooding on to the pavement below with banners reading “staff working conditions are student learning conditions” and “cold and hungry staff can’t support you”.
Despite temperatures dropping, about 800 university workers turned out for the Leeds rally – part of a series of long-running national strikes at more than 150 universities. Three unions at four universities across the city were joined by sympathetic students to march the mile-long route to Leeds town hall, in one of dozens of rallies across the UK.
Hundreds of support staff at Leeds Beckett University and University of Leeds on strike action over pay in Leeds city centre. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian
Jo Westerman, chair of the Leeds University branch of Unite, said she bumped into a colleague working as a cleaner in the train station, having taken a second job to survive financially.
Westerman, who has been at the university for 40 years, said it was not just about pay but health and wellbeing too, particularly for staff who worked through the pandemic. She called on university bosses to get their “arse out of your chair” and urged them to negotiate. “Get down here and speak to the people who matter,” she said.
She added: “We’ve got tired staff, we’ve got demoralised staff. We’re not out here because it’s fun, we’re out here because we want them to come back to the table and speak to us.”
In London, University and College Union (UCU) brought the concourse at King’s Cross to a standstill in what it described as its biggest rally in history. Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, was joined by the RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, whose members are taking part in rail strikes throughout December.
At the University of St Andrews, the author Margaret Atwood declined to attend her graduation in solidarity with the striking workers. The Handmaid’s Tale writer was due to pick up an honorary degree but the ceremony has been rescheduled.
Some things hit you hard
The wonderful @MargaretAtwood will not be attending graduation at St Andrews tomorrow out of solidarity for our picket lines.
Thank you. This means so much to our members 💚#ucuRISING
— Jo Grady (@DrJoGrady) November 29, 2022
For Unison, whose members include administrators, cleaners, library, security and catering workers, it was the 23rd university strike day this year. The Leeds event saw public support, with speeches interrupted by beeping horns from passing cars and buses. Xiangruo Dai, a master’s student in economics at Leeds University, told the workers: “They lie that students do not support the strikes. That’s not true – we do.”
University support staff rejected a 3% pay rise from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) back in May, which is less than a third of the current rate of inflation.
Unions are negotiating with theUCEA and in some cases with individual universities.
Raj Jethwa, UCEA’s chief executive, has previously said UCU’s demand for a 13.6% pay increase was “unrealistic” and would cost institutions in the region of £1.5bn.
Unions argue a genuine pay rise is affordable – the UK university sector generated record income of £41.1bn last year, according to UCU, with the 150 vice-chancellors facing action collectively paid an estimated £45m.
On top of the pay battle, a large part of the dispute for UCU members is over pensions. The University Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension fund was said to be in deficit, requiring steep cuts in retirement benefits, but the latest figures released this week show the fund is back in surplus, suggesting that benefits could be restored affordably.
“I don’t have the possibility to save,” said George Dixon, an admissions officer at the University of Leeds earning £24,000. “We’ve not been using food banks like some staff but the last week of the month tends to be all on credit cards.”
Her partner, Oscar Smith, who works at the university as an energy analyst, agreed. “Lots of staff just want to be able to go out for a meal occasionally, or not have to be financially supported by a partner.”
Cleaning services worker Lynn Jones, who earns just over £10 an hour and whose partner is a self-employed joiner, said: “We couldn’t survive on my wage. We’re not buying as much food, we’re not going out. I’m walking to work sometimes instead of getting the bus.”
The University of Leeds said pay rates were negotiated at a national level, though it had offered cost of living payments to staff on lower pay grades in July and December.
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