U.K. University Workers Enter Week 3 of Strike Against Pension Cuts & “Marketization” of Higher Ed

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In Britain, tens of thousands of lecturers, librarians, researchers and other university workers are on strike to protest attacks on their pensions, as well as soaring school fees for students. For more, we speak with Priya Gopal, a university lecturer at the Faculty of English at Cambridge who is participating in the academic strike. She is a member of the the University and College Union.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, public school teachers in West Virginia are not the only educators on strike. In Britain, thousands of lecturers, researchers, librarians and workers at over 60 universities have been engaging in strikes and other labor actions to demand fair pensions. The actions began on February 22nd.

We now go to Cambridge, where we’re joined by Priya Gopal. She is a university lecturer at the Faculty of English at Cambridge who is participating in the academic strike. She is a member of the University and College Union.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Could you talk to us—

PRIYA GOPAL: Good morning.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk to us about the strike and how it has unfolded at the various universities around the U.K.?

PRIYA GOPAL: OK, yes. First of all, I’d like to send solidarity on behalf of the university teachers in Britain who are striking to our colleagues and co-workers in West Virginia.

We’ve been on strike, as well, since the 22nd of this month. Academics in Britain are not hugely well paid, but what we have been able to expect in recent decades is a modest guaranteed pension. In recent years, this has been subjected to erosion. But the newest proposal, which has come to us from the employers’ body Universities UK, or UUK, actually offer a very damaging scenario in which many of us stand to lose as much as half of our expected pensions. In other words, we would be facing quite serious poverty in our old age.

Just to give you a sense of the numbers, a young lecturer starting out now, who would retire, say, 35 years from now, could have expected to get about $30,000 equivalent in pensions after paying into her or his pensions for a lifetime. If the new proposals go through, they would earn as little as $14,000 to $15,000 a year, and this would be after paying into a pensions fund 35 years into service. And this is, of course, not—in many cases, would be well below a living wage.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the—you mentioned the solidarity—what we are seeing right now from Britain, how you’re keeping in touch with the striking teachers and staff in West Virginia, which we’re going to be talking more about, the staff joining the teachers, and then the word of possible strikes in places like Oklahoma.

PRIYA GOPAL: Well, as you suggested in your report, social media has been quite crucial to this. So, we were very, very heartened to see that striking teachers in West Virginia posted a picture of themselves holding up a placard sending us solidarity. And I think there is a kind of collective awareness now in Britain and, I think, in America that these struggles, which are really against the erosion of the public sector, which are really against the erosion of the idea of education as a public good, that these are in fact shared struggles, and in many ways, the enemies we face are fundamentally ideological. They are people, in this country and in that, who want to take education away from the public sector as a shared good that all people should have access to, and turn it into a privatized commodity.

I should remind you that in Britain, historically, the university sector has been a public sector, and, until quite recently, students didn’t pay fees at all. And in recent years, we’ve seen fees, at first, being imposed, and then, in one fell movement in 2010, despite protests, being tripled, and that this is practically overnight. So I think there is a real sense in Britain that this is a struggle to keep the provision of education, both in schools and in colleges, a public good that everybody should have access to. And I think that our colleagues in West Virginia recognize this, and they also recognize that university teachers and school teachers work extremely hard and deserve a very basic pay and pension as emoluments for the work that they do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, your strike includes not just the lecturers, but also researchers and other workers at—the librarians and others at the universities, but it does not have 100 percent support, right? There are many professors and others who are not striking. Could you talk about that, the divisions that exist among the workforce, and also the response of the government to the strike?

PRIYA GOPAL: Yes. I mean, look, we live in a Britain post-Thatcher. And Thatcher’s assault on unions and the fact of unionizing is a legacy that this country still grapples with. And only about half the university workforce—just over half the university workforce is unionized at all. And so, it is true that classes haven’t come to a complete halt, that there are people who are continuing to teach or do their work. But on the other hand, this is the single biggest strike in the education sector, in the higher education sector, that we have seen in its history. So, what is actually heartening is not the numbers of people who are not in the strike, but the daily increasing numbers of people who are joining the union and participating in the industrial action. And I think that given the legacy of anti-union rhetoric and anti-union politics in this country, it is quite remarkable that a typically nonconfrontational sector like the professoriate is coming out in force onto the picket lines and into withdrawing their labor until such time as Universities UK decides to come and retain the benefits that we’re entitled to.

I should also say that the proposed changes are very clearly mainly ideological. They are being proposed on the basis of a huge deficit that is a completely speculative projection. The pension scheme is actually in rude good health. And the proposed cuts are on the basis of an apocalyptic scenario where the entire sector goes under. So I think there is a recognition across the sector, amongst the student body and with many members of the public, that what we’re up against is an ideological project of attacking pensions and services, and trying to kind of privatize the risk rather than for the employers to carry it on, as has historically been the case.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to an excerpt of a video introducing the University and College Union strike of British academics and researchers and librarians and staff.

UCU STRIKER 1: The UCU has called for 14 days of action across four weeks. During this time, staff will not be teaching, answering emails, giving office hours or marking.

UCU STRIKER 2: The Universities UK’s management wants to destroy the pensions scheme. Some staff will lose as much as 40 percent of their pensions, but management refuse to budge or even bargain.

UCU STRIKER 3: This dispute is about pensions, but it’s also about marketization. Pensions are being cut, staff are being casualized, and students are paying massive fees. These issues are all linked.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go back to talk about what more is happening in West Virginia, Priya Gopal, how has the British government responded? And what are your plans? What’s the timetable for this strike?

PRIYA GOPAL: Currently, the government has simply taken the stance that talks are good. And in fact, I think one of the successes of the strike so far is that the Universities UK, from having taken a very intractable position, have now agreed to come to the table and talk. So the talks are starting today. But I think it needs to be made clear that university lecturers are not really going to settle for vague promises of talking. We have a very clear goal in mind, and that is the retention of our right to defined benefits, as was promised in our pensions packages.

So, I can’t tell you what the exact timeline for the strike is. It’s scheduled to continue well into next week. We then all break for Easter, and we come back in the Easter term at the end of April and May. And if there haven’t been substantial changes, a substantial progress made on the talks, then, as you just heard in the video, we will continue on to a marking boycott, at which point exams won’t be marked, and students won’t be able to graduate, because they won’t be marked.

I should say also that we’ve had tremendous amounts of support from students. We’ve been extremely moved by the support that our own students have given us, in the form of emails, letters, petitions to the vice chancellors and to the government, as well as literally coming and standing with us on the picket lines.

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