The mood was heavy amongst striking staff at the University of Bristol this morning, and even the bright pink woolly hats adorning the heads of the crowd failed to lighten it.
Anger continues to boil as strikes enter their third week in protest against proposed pension cuts of 35% as well as staff workloads, pay and pay equality, and the extensive use of precarious and casual contracts by the University – collectively known as the Four Fights.
A rally this morning (Monday, February 28) outside the Victoria Rooms on Queen’s Road, attended by around 150 research and teaching staff from the University and College Union (UCU).
During the rally two University staff, Alice Willatt and Malu Villela, read testimonies they had collected from colleagues to the crowd gathered outside the Victoria Rooms on Queen’s Road.
Scathing and at times deeply personally affecting, the testimonies paint a picture of life for teaching and research staff on casual contracts.
One testimonial said:
“I cannot get a mortgage and move out of the precarious rental arrangement that I live in. I can’t even get a rental contract through an estate agent as my employment contract does not guarantee enough income on three hours a week.”
“I have worked for the University for the past 15 years. During these 15 years I have faced redundancy eight or nine times. This precarity has impacted my capacity for the research I undertake because I have to keep submitting funding bids while still delivering on current research projects. It’s not productive for staff to work whilst feeling this way and it’s also not humane.”
And a third:
“Being considered and treated like junior staff so many years into my career is infantilising and insulting and all the time I feel like I should be grateful and not as stressed as after all I am among the relatively privileged ones on a good fellowship.”
As it was read out each testimonial was punctuated by repeated shouts of “shame” from the crowd, the experiences of the authors clearly shared by many others present.
All but one of the testimonies collected by Willatt and Villela came from women, which, Willatt said, demonstrated the gendered way in which precarity impacts staff whilst Villela went further and called the University a “hostile place to work” if you are a woman, a carer or a person of colour.
This is not the first time staff have taken strike action over proposed pension cuts. UCU members took action last December for the same reason although that failed to lead to any meaningful concessions from the University or the pension provider.
The sense of rising anger and frustration amongst staff at the intransigence of University management was captured by Jamie Melrose, UCU Bristol branch president.
His voice audibly weary from the weight of his words, Melrose said the anger ‘is motivated by what is increasingly a sense that that’s broken much of the social contract between university staff and university management. So much of our work goes unpaid and what do we get in return? A worsened retirement. That’s just unacceptable.’
The current strikes continue until Wednesday, March 2. Melrose said that it is hard to see how the dispute over pensions could be resolved without further escalation. The national UCU is contemplating escalation and an announcement on this is expected later today which may include rolling strikes and a boycott of exam marking.
Escalation also came from an unexpected source today as students occupied the main hall of the Wills Memorial building, the University’s central ceremonial building, in solidarity with the strikers.
Occupiers call on the University to meet the strikers’ demands, allow striking staff to split strike pay over multiple monthly pay checks and to stop punishing staff taking action short of a strike by withholding pay.
After the rally, strikers marched the short distance to the Wills Memorial building to stand outside a show support for the occupiers inside.
As the current round of strikes comes to a close, it is clear that staff sentiment against the University administration is worsening and further action seems inevitable. Strikers are resolute to continue the fight, however, repeating several times today the mantra that it is them and the students that make the university, not the management.