On 31st October, staff at SOAS, and at universities across the country, took part in a one-day strike in a dispute over pay.
The unions UCU, Unite and Unison, who represent academics and support staff, are asking the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) to approve a pay rise in line with inflation, rather than the 1% currently offered. The unions say that their members’ pay has been cut by 13% in real terms since 2008 due to pay freezes.
At SOAS, staff were joined on the picket line by students who expressed their support in a motion passed a week earlier at an Extraordinary General Meeting. A statement from the Students’ Union said “The policies of this government have seen a sustained attack on the higher education sector – and SOAS Students’ Union has time and time again voted to oppose and condemn the coalition attack on our universities.”
The Students’ Union shop, bar and office were closed for the day with staff given paid leave.
Students were asked by the Students’ Union not to cross the picket line in a show of solidarity with the staff’s struggle and a group of around 15 students occupied the lobby overnight ahead of the strike to demonstrate support. Many timetabled lectures and classes were cancelled, although a small number continued as normal – mostly in the Chinese and Law departments.
A programme of ‘Teach-outs’ were organised on the Steps throughout the day. Sarah Keenan, a Law lecturer, said the strike had not only been a protest over pay but had “actually created an open, free and diverse space where students and lecturers can discuss ideas, which is exactly the kind of space that we want our universities to be.”
SOAS’ UCU branch President Nadje Al-Ali said “we’re in for the long haul” as it was unlikely that the employers would meet the unions’ demands after a one-day strike.
UCU members at SOAS are now operating a “work-to-rule” policy, in which they only complete the work set out in their contract. Al-Ali conceded that working to contract was very difficult to carry out in practice in the education sector. She said it was likely more strike action will follow and if the UCEA refuses to negotiate an assessment marking boycott may take place.
It has emerged that wages docked from striking workers are not being paid into SOAS’ student hardship fund as was previously thought. Campaigns Officer Georgie Robertson said the decision was “outrageous” and Co-President Leah Edwards has launched a petition urging the School to change its position.
A SOAS spokesperson said: “the School is considering allocating a portion of the strike pay deductions into the Student Hardship fund as well as to the Alumni & Friends fund once the costs of the strike have been covered.”
The spokesperson said the School had an “absolute right” to decide where the money was used and there should be no expectation docked wages will be paid into the student hardship fund in future.
A spokesperson for the UCEA said the strike was “disappointing” and added that “following this protest, we hope that the UCU, Unite and Unison will now reconsider the offer.”