By Lara Holly Gibbs, MA Gender Studies
On 1 December, SOAS staff began three days of strike action. Striking staff and students gathered on campus to form picket lines and support the strike action. Students were also encouraged to support the strikes by boycotting online learning inorder to avoid crossing a virtual picket line.
Both University and College Union (UCU) and UNISON were striking. According to UCU and UNISON, staff are striking for five reasons. Firstly, to stand against the ‘slashing’ of USS pension schemes of up to 35%. While the other reasons are referred to as the ‘four fights:’ striking against pay cuts; casualisation; race, gender and disability pay gaps; and unsafe workloads.
The UCU and UNISON strikes at SOAS were characterised by a series of teach-outs, rallies, and activities. These included a reading group, a Justice For Workers open meeting, and talks on climate change.
According to UNISON Branch Secretary, Sandy Nicoll, the reasons for the strikes are issues that UNISON has been trying to get SOAS to address for nearly two decades without success. Nicoll emphasises the pressure placed on casualised academics. He describes their positions as ‘incredibly precarious’ and expresses urgent action is needed to protect people in those situations.
Nicoll explains that a lot of his members are on long-term sick leave due to being unable to cope with the stress they are under. He says he has people ‘desperately trying to hang on but are finding it incredibly difficult to provide a service.’ Nicoll goes on to describe that SOAS has lost incredibly good teachers who couldn’t remain in the profession due to ‘endless fixed casualised contracts.’
“Why are we fighting over the gender and race pay gap in the 21st century?”
Nicoll says that industrial action is ‘our only hope to get them to sit up and take notice’ and argues that SOAS should be trying to challenge the issues put forward by strikers. He argues that it is down to a small group of people in the senior management team who have the power to ‘make SOAS live up to what we teach in our classrooms and the failure to do so is the real issue.’ Nicoll asks, ‘why are we fighting over the gender and race pay gap in the 21st century?’ describing it as ‘beyond disgraceful.’ According to UNISON and UCU, there is a 9% ethnicity pay gap as well as a 14.8% gender pay gap.
Furthermore, Nicoll criticises the ‘slashing’ of pension schemes and explains that it is the difference between ‘having some degree of comfort in your retirement to actually being in a position where essentially you’re looking at a pension of poverty.’
However, Nicoll describes being uplifted by the solidarity and support from SOAS students. He explains that students still understand that working conditions affect their learning conditions.
One instance of student solidarity was from the Gender Studies cohort who wrote a collective letter of solidarity now published on the Students’ Union (SU) website. The Gender Studies student representative, Rachel Piper, expressed disappointment that SOAS is increasingly relying on insecure contracts. Piper says they are ‘forcing teaching staff into precarity that seems endless.’ Piper also went on to explain that the treatment of staff does not reflect the hard work and enthusiasm that they have shown their students.
Piper highlights that many who study at SOAS are here because they care about social justice and standing in solidarity with the strikes is a way of ‘practicing what we preach.’ They go on to call out SOAS for using its image as a progressive university ‘to pretend that everything is okay within its own walls.’ Piper calls on the university to use their influence and power to bring change.
Standing outside the Brunei Gallery on the picket was Dr Michael Reinsborough, a foundation year lecturer at SOAS. Reinsborough has described the management strategy as treating education like a business and called out the pension schemes as a ‘scam and a scandal.’ They explained that over the last 10 years, staff have experienced a 20% real-terms pay cut. Reinsborough also spoke on the effects of overworking and explained ‘we’re now seeing lots of problems with university lecturers in terms of depression.’ UNISON and UCU explain that university staff work an average of 2 unpaid days per week.
In their information booklet on the strikes, UCU, UNISON and the SU provided alternative study spaces and alternative faith spaces for students during the strikes. Another leaflet explained how both staff and students can support the strike, encouraging students to write to SOAS management calling for change.
In a statement to the SOAS Spirit, SOAS has provided the following statement: ‘SOAS has made clear to the staff community that we are disappointed that strike action has been called. This is not because we don’t sympathise with the objectives of the ballots. We do.
We are committed to the principle of fair remuneration and a decent pension for all of our staff, as we set out in our position on USS and to UUK.
The SOAS executive team does not have the power to change the outcomes of these national discussions. Changing the outcome is beyond the power of any individual executive team in HE in the UK.
In place of this industrial action, SOAS would wish to see continued national discussion and resolution to reach agreement in the interests of staff and students. We hope national discussions succeed and this action is averted or brought to an end as quickly as possible in the interests of everyone involved.
However, we do recognise the right of staff to take properly constituted action. At the same time, we seek to do all we can to support our students’ learning and progression.
We are concerned about the impact industrial action will have on our students, who have only just returned to face-to-face learning and physical campus life.
Here at SOAS, we will seek to work with UCU/Unison and with their membership, and with the Students’ Union in protecting the learning and wider student experience throughout the course of this dispute.’
Photo Caption: A UNISON banner foreshadows the picket lines stationed in front of the SOAS main building and Brunei Gallery (Credit: Lara Holly Gibbs).