In February and March, there was a strike for pension rights organised by the University and College Union (UCU). Put very simply, extortionately high wages are being paid to small numbers of people at the very top of the university tree, while it’s being proposed that pensions (delayed salary pay) for the majority of workers be significantly cut. The UCU voted for strike action to prevent this from happening.
The pickets have been extraordinarily strong in Edinburgh, and my fellow songleader, Shereen, who works at Edinburgh University, has been a stalwart striker and organiser during this time. Her picket line has been filled with the sounds of ‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night / Alive as you and me… / Where workers still defend their rights / Joe Hill is at their side’; ‘Come all of you good people / You women and you men / Once more our backs are to the wall / We’re being attacked again / Which side are you on? / Which side are you on?’; and ‘Solidarity forever / For the union makes us strong.’
As well as singing classic songs from the union repertoire, Shereen and her colleagues at UCU Edinburgh have rewritten many songs to communicate their message. ‘Join the Union’ (1905) has a new lease of life with verses such as: ‘Fat-cat payouts for the bosses / Tutors earning poverty pay / Two hundred million pounds for buildings / Time to find another way / Join the union, join the union / Come and join the UCU (the UCU).’
To the well-known spiritual-turned-peace tune of ‘Down By The Riverside’, they’ve been singing: ‘I’m gonna turn off my PowerPoint slides / Until I get my rights… / We’re gonna fight for our pension rights.’
Shereen’s rewrite of Abba’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ has been an particular hit: ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme a pension to live on / Pensions are my right and they are part of my pay / Gimme, gimme, gimme a pension to live on / We will never let you take our pensions away / Half past eight / And we’re out on the picket line / We’re here to tell the folks at UUK: / “Don’t you mess with us / We are here together, and we’re fighting for our pensions all the way.’ / Your deficit is shit / We don’t believe in it / Oh no!”’
“Solidarity forever / For the union makes us strong”.
At Edinburgh, as at other universities, this has been a time for radical awakening of students. This strike has given many students cause to reflect on the state of their education system, starting with the financial inequalities it perpetuates and magnifies, and expanding out through the possibilities of broader social change.
In Edinburgh, the students have occupied the George Square lecture theatre, which is the biggest lecture theatre on campus. They have set up a daily general assembly to discuss pertinent issues and invited lecturers and others involved in their education system to participate in these discussions.
A whole timetable of teach-outs and teach-ins (it’s been snowing and freezing for much this strike!) have been set up. A radical library has been opened and the students have asked us all to donate books that we think they would benefit from reading. Local radical singers have performed for the students, discussion spaces are happening: from food sovereignty through exploration of opposition to the Vietnam War, Anti-Apartheid activism and beyond, stories and songs of resistance in Occupied Palestine, the future of our university….
Students involved said that they learnt more in a week than they have in the past three years studying at the university. This portion of the strike ends on the day I'm writing this column. I hope that Universities UK will go into talks with the UCU and they won’t have to strike again, but it is likely that they will have to take action again. If they do, I hope folks who are able to will pop down to their local picket in solidarity, sing a song or share a story. Solidarity matters.
Our radical choir, Protest In Harmony, went down to sing a few songs for and with the student occupation and it felt so strengthening for us to spend time with a newly-planted, energetic movement for change. Some of our singers had been involved in a previous occupation of the same lecture theatre in support of the Anti-Apartheid movement, and as we sang songs connecting with so many struggles, it has felt like a time of passing the baton for some. Hope abounds.