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Why We’re On Strike

A teacher, a civil servant, and a university worker tell Tribune why they're taking part in the biggest day of strike action in over a decade.

(Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of workers are walking out of their workplaces today. From teachers and civil servants to railway workers and university staff, people across the economy have reached breaking point with continuously low pay, unaffordable necessities, collapsing public services, and a government that refuses to listen to the voices of those who keep the country running. They’ve decided industrial action is the only way to make that change—and they’re taking it in their biggest numbers in more than a decade.

Their action comes at an important moment. The government’s latest anti-strike legislation passed its third reading in the House of Commons on Monday night; if allowed to become law, it could mean workers sacked for refusing to cross their own picket lines and the trade unions that represent them sued to oblivion.

Here, in their own words, three workers explain why they’re taking strike action today, and why that action is vital not only to protect them from low pay and the cost of living crisis, but to save the services on which we all rely—and to build a better society.

The Teacher

I’ve worked as an English teacher at a secondary school in London for the past eighteen years. The job has changed immensely in that time. The workload has increased year on year. Schools are responding to pressure from Ofsted and an accountability agenda, which, in practice, means asking educators to do bureaucratic tasks, taking them away from the classroom.

Funding is in a horrendous place at the moment. Schools can’t afford their electricity and gas bills, which in some cases are going up by 400 percent. They’re cutting corners everywhere they can. Added to that, we’re facing a real recruitment and retention problem. In London, one in three teachers quit the profession within five years. When you’ve got such a highly pressurised environment, people inevitably experience burnout. There’s no dedicated government budget for recruiting.

The reality in schools today is that non-core subjects are not being taught. In my own school, for instance, a subject like business studies is no longer offered. Subjects are taken off the curriculum because there’s not enough money to employ staff members. Students are experiencing a very narrow curriculum, and schools are more and more focused on delivering exams. The result of this is simple: our children are not getting a well-rounded education.

Class sizes are getting bigger every year. One of my reps was telling me about a collapsed class, where they’ve got two groups in one class: 45 students being taught by one teacher. That’s a 50 percent increase from a typical class of 30, all because they can’t afford an extra teacher. Teachers are being forced to come into work when they’re ill, because there’s no one to cover them.

You’re starting earlier and going home later, working weekends and way into the night. Support staff tend to be conscientious and selfless, that’s why they’re in this profession. But there’s a point where the wages are so poor that you’re thinking, why am I working 12-hour days? Wouldn’t I be better off in the private sector? The cost-of-living crisis is another reason educators are leaving the profession in droves. We’ve got support staff and teachers using foodbanks.

I’ve heard colleagues talk about having to bring in food for children. We’re the ones that are there for our students, we’re fighting for their education. But this government is in no way interested in providing the quality that kids deserve. If there was a commitment, they wouldn’t be giving us paltry pay rises in underfunded schools. You’ve even got headteachers talking about strike action now. They’re worried about how they’re going to run their schools.

We have been pushed to the brink. There’s a lot of anger among educators on behalf of the children we teach. That was reflected in our national preliminary ballot. We got 62 percent turnout with an 86 percent yes vote. Increasing numbers of teachers are seeing that they will only win better pay and conditions through strike action.

It’s vital in this dispute that people see this isn’t just about pay; it’s about the future of education. The government is not just letting teachers down; it’s robbing young people of their futures. This is about defending the education system we’re all so passionate about. We’re in complete solidarity with sister unions across education. The system is broken, and we have no choice but to fight for it.

— Venda Premkumar

The University Worker

Our pensions have been under constant attack over the last few years. A valuation of the USS pension scheme took place right at the start of the pandemic when the financial markets were crashing. Of course, it showed a deficit at that point. USS used that to justify cutting our pensions by an average of 35%. Another valuation earlier this year showed that the scheme is now in surplus but the university employer representative Universities UK (UUK) has refused to revoke the cuts. Before those cuts, I would have received £18,000 a year for retirement. Now it will be £10,000. These cuts disproportionately impact newer university staff.

Pay has been cut in real terms by 25% since 2009. I’ve worked in Higher Education since 2009 and I’m being paid £14,000 less than I should be and that’s because pay hasn’t gone up in line with inflation. Meanwhile vice chancellors are on hundreds of thousands a year. The gender, race, and disability pay gaps stand at 15%, 17%, and 9% respectively. We are calling for these to be closed.

We are demanding the end of precarious working practices. Academics and PhD students often find themselves on casual contracts and face a lot of uncertainty and this can go on for years. Effectively, they’ve got no safety net. They’re not paid during the summer months and they don’t know, come September, if they’ve got a job or not. I was just talking to somebody last week, a lecturer. I was really surprised to hear her story about how the cost of living has impacted her. She was saying that she can’t even afford to use hot water every day. I didn’t expect an academic to be living like that.

The marketisation of higher education is a big factor. Universities are being run as businesses, getting as many students enrolled as possible. That comes at the cost of staff who are asked to do more and more with less resources and support. In our university, the leading reason why staff seek help from the union is because of work-related stress. That’s gone up substantially in the last few years.

The National Union of Students is behind us. A poll done earlier this year found most students support us. This is where students and staff need to stick together. At my university, we are educating students for professions such as nursing, law, and journalism. And these are all sectors that have been engaged in disputes or are taking industrial action. These fights will be their fights in the future.

— Rita Mahli

The Civil Servant

Civil servants touch the lives of everyone in the UK. It’s really rewarding, knowing what we’re doing is making an impact. The work is often intellectually demanding, and it can be difficult to switch off when you’re not at work. There are a huge range of roles in the civil service, and the jobs are often challenging.

When we received our pay offer, I was shocked. It took a while for the ramifications of it to really sink in. My immediate thought was, how am I going to survive? How am I going to afford to live? When you consider how quickly inflation is soaring and continues to soar, a couple of percent rise will be worthless.

The cost-of-living crisis has been horrible. As we get to winter, the stress just keeps increasing. As of November, I hadn’t turned the heating on. The weeks where I would usually do it are rolling by and I would say, ‘not a chance in hell that’s happening anytime soon.’ With the way gas and electricity prices are going, I don’t know how I’m going to cope.

I sit at home with multiple jumpers and pairs of socks on. I don’t turn the lights on unless it’s absolutely necessary and all the dishes get washed using cold water. It’s very uncomfortable living like this. It’s difficult when you have to make concessions in order to be able to travel to the office just to do your job. My commute is particularly long and expensive. I tried doing the maths to see if it would be cheaper travelling into the office more often, where it’s warm, instead of turning the heating on at home. But it turns out I can’t afford either.

It’s hard. Just the other day, I went into the office and realised I’d forgotten to bring a packed lunch with me and I had to buy something. I went to the shop and stood there in the crisp aisle. I looked and thought, this is ridiculous, I can’t even afford a packet of crisps. I had to bite the bullet in the end and get a packet of own-brand ready salted crisps. That’s my treat this month. It’s heartbreaking.

My heart aches for my colleagues. A shocking number of them are having to use food-banks. They can’t afford the commute to work. I’m a strong believer in bread for all and roses too, but roses are the first thing to go when you’re scrabbling to make rent. I recently heard a colleague mention she’s not going to be able to afford any Christmas presents for her children if she also wants to have food on the table.

People are angry. Nobody wants to go on strike, nobody wants to lose that pay. It’s really a last resort to protect our rights.

— Maia Khan

About the Author

Venda Premkumar is a district and branch secretary for Redbridge NEU.

Maia Khan is a civil servant and member of PCS. She writes under a pseudonym.

Rita Mahli is a UCU member working in professional services at City, University of London.