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University Staff Strike Over Pay, Pensions and Working Conditions

A group of 35 people pose for a group photo. They hold placards and banners.

A picket line on Woodland Road. Image: James Ward.

Staff at the University of Bristol (UoB) are holding three days of strikes over pensions and pay disputes. 

Yesterday (December 1) thousands of staff with the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) joined strike action and hundreds turned out on picket lines across the university. They join 54 other UK universities currently striking. 

At the heart of the strike are recent proposals by UoB to cut pensions, as well as what the UCU call the “four fights”: gender, ethinic and disability pay gaps; contract casualisation; rising workloads; and pay increase across all grades. 

Of all of these, it was the issue of casualisation that was seemingly causing the most frustration amongst yesterday’s picketers.

Kit Fotheringham, a postgraduate researcher and anti-casualisation branch officer for Bristol UCU, has worked for UoB since 2017 and until last September was on an hourly-paid contract. 

Although now on a teaching contract, Kit says he has little flexibility, no redundancy when the fixed-term contract ends and is not eligible to join the staff pension scheme. He said: ‘You would genuinely have more job security working for Tescos.’

Kit said that he is also worried about pay. Last year he had no pay rise at all, which against inflation amounts to a real-terms pay cut. With rising rent and bills and a salary of less than £16,000 a year, he is left to choose between eating and heating.

He said: ‘It’s particularly galling when university managers take away £300,000. That would pay for more than ten of me.’

academic work has become just another form of gig working

Spanish language teacher Ana Suarez has worked at UoB for ten years and is on a ten month contract, meaning that she doesn’t get paid over the summer. 

Ana said that this precarity is a barrier to other life goals, such as starting a family. Day to day, she said she can feel ‘embarrassed’ talking about her job as people assume that working at a university is a respectable job with good pay and conditions but ‘that is not the case. So it is frustrating.’

Colleagues have left over these issues, but Ana is adamant that she wants to stay and push for a better contract, saying ‘if they value us, they would be able to maybe change this [situation]. It’s not that difficult.’

Picketers outside the Wills Memorial Building early yesterday morning. Image: James Ward.

Speaking to TBA from the picket line outside Wills Memorial building, Bristol UCU vice-president Tonia Novitz said that casualisation is a barrier to new people entering the profession.

‘It’s just devastating to see the people that you’ve tried to nurture in their careers coming up behind you being exploited like this, and it’s unacceptable for universities to do that.’

She added that academic work has become ‘just another form of gig working.’

The University of Bristol has had an anti-casualisation strategy since 2019, but Tonia says they have ‘gone quiet’ and aren’t encouraging other universities to adopt similar strategies. 

Tonia’s hope for the strike this week is that ‘some of the universities that have tried to change their policies will speak up now and seek to influence the others so that we don’t have ongoing strikes and action next year.’

A striker outside the Victoria Rooms before the march. “Pathway 2” research staff are particularly affected by casualisation. Image: James Ward.

Gathering on picket lines from 8.30am, several hundred staff, mostly academic, held placards, handed out flyers, and hosted impromptu poetry slams. 

At 11am, there was a rally outside the Victoria Rooms on Whiteladies Road. Speakers included Labour metro mayor Dan Norris and co-leader of the Green Party and councillor for Clifton ward Carla Denyer. 

Both Norris and Denyer pledged their support to the strikers. Speaking about the cuts to university pensions, Norris said: ‘This isn’t a recent unfairness, this is an injustice that’s gone on for a long time and it must stop.’

The rally was followed by a march, with some 400 hundred protesters walking from the Victoria Rooms to College Green. 

Visible during the march were students who had joined in solidarity with striking staff. According to strikers, most students understood the need for the strike and were content to miss out on teaching time. 

Strikers marching towards College Green. Image: James Ward.

Responding to the strike, a UoB spokesperson said: ‘Industrial action is part of a complex national dispute. These are important issues and we respect the right of our staff to strike, which we know was not an easy decision to make.

‘As a university, we have worked collaboratively with our staff and the local UCU branch to put our collective views forward and have argued for higher employer contributions to help ensure the USS Pension scheme is sustainable in the future.’

‘As a University, we are proud of the way that we have worked with the local branch of UCU and the other trade unions to make things better for staff. We are open to continuing the conversation and being proactive in addressing their concerns.’

The strike continues today and tomorrow and a schedule of teach-outs takes place alongside the strike.

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