Strathclyde University, the communists and the student union

From the picket lines at Strathclyde University, Jay Sutherland reports on the heroic struggle of the striking staff, and the embarrassing student union undermining them.
From the picket lines at Strathclyde University, Jay Sutherland reports on the heroic struggle of the striking staff, and the embarrassing student union undermining them.
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During the wave of industrial across the UK in November last year, every university across the UK was effectively shut down, reaffirming the power of the University and Colleges Union. This, coupled with Unite’s walkout at Strathclyde University, saw the whole university completely close from 7 to 15 December. Even if scab professors and students wanted to undermine staff on strike, they couldn’t: without their cleaners, caterers, security and admin workers, (i.e., without their lowest-paid employees) the university simply cannot function.

Preceding this, a conflict was brewing between a dormant yet angry student body, and the inept student union executives. Ever since I have been at Strathclyde University, our student union has been a stalwart source of support- with presidents happily joining our occupations. In recent years however, Strathclyde University’s reputation as a hub of working-class political activity has waned. I would submit that this is down to two major reasons:

Firstly, Strathclyde’s student union was moved from its own independent building, into a new commercialised area of the campus. Now it resembles an Apple store more than a union. In lieu of multiple rooms to congregate with fellow students and organize around issues, we’re left with politically torpid cafés and burger restaurants. Consequently, this stifled the communal spirit that would drive students to take part in the occupations, picket lines etc. Now, let me be clear, I am not alleging the move of the union building was purely to remove spaces for organising. I live in the world; I understand finances dictate. That means the rational, sensible choice was to lose an iconic building with a half-century of mirthful history, in favour of a truncated shopping-centre food court. But the exchange of student space for bland commerciality, certainly makes a beneficial arrangement for a neoliberal university management, eager to limit any resistance from the student riff-raff to the widespread commodification of education.

However, this factor alone could still be circumvented by a determined student leadership. The reduction of space is a setback, sure, but nothing fatal. Alas, the second major reason for the decline of Strathclyde’s political activity: the election of a student president and executive officers on an openly anti-worker platform, dressed in the ridiculous language of identity politics and ‘defence of the student experience’.

The Strathclyde Communist Society has been quick to point out that the ‘student experience’ that president, Adam Morrow, wishes to promote is not a learning experience by any means, but a neoliberal one. One that is more focused on securing funding after your degree than having any critical discourse. It’s no coincidence that the fat cats at the top of Strathclyde decided to scrap subjects like philosophy. It is also no coincidence that almost the entire department of sociology has been reduced to a husk of its former self. The logical conclusion to the watering down of critical thought at our university was the student union execs reversing years of support for the UCU, with a pathetic statement of ‘neutrality’ on the UCU strikes.

It was clear that the new Strath Union policy on the strikes was a weak ‘both sides’ platitude, presented as one of solidarity with the striking workers. This is solidarity in name and name alone; simply giving tea and coffee to staff was not good enough when historically Strath Union has always been a constant pillar of support of strikes and occupations. It is a disgrace that Strath Union’s new undemocratic policy justified crossing the picket line during the strike.

As the communist society, we challenged to the executives for their cowardice. Our demand was simple: change your policy of neutrality on the strikes or expect resistance. As Mike Lynch, RMT general secretary said on a UCU rally: “There are no neutrals in this struggle, history will ask where were you in 2022/23, were you on the picket lines or were you trying to triangulate yourself into power?

This was exactly the question we posed to our student ‘parliament’ in the form of a motion for unconditional support for the strike, on 29 November. What followed astounded some, and confirmed the suspicions of many. We heard utterly jaw-dropping ‘excuses’ for undermining the strike: ‘international students could receive the death penalty in their home countries for appearing on picket lines’ and ‘what if there is a strike in the future that is racist or homophobic?’ to give only two examples of the melodramatic responses. Yes, these were actual arguments from our illustrious Strath Union executives- stupendous hypotheticals presented as legitimate reasons not to support staff on strike!

It is only the communists on campus who have taken action into our own hands, disrupting science conferences during the strike, while the student union execs yawn sentiments about inclusivity. However deftly identity politics describes the collage of oppression, one cannot ignore its inadequacy as an explanation for why these problems exist in the first place. For that, only Marxist-Leninism can elucidate and, crucially, set real material remedies into motion. 

Of course, as communist students we understand the grievances that unionised staff are fighting against: real terms pay cuts; the casualisation and marketisation of the academic profession. We also comprehend how the struggle of staff for fair remuneration goes hand in hand with our struggle as students- for secure housing, free education and the disassembly of the neoliberal university apparatus.

We even engaged with the farcical student parliament. I remember once upon a time, at the start of my studies at Strathclyde, the parliament actually tried to live up to the democratic pretentions in its name, and allowed all students to cast a vote. Nowadays, the ‘student experience’ Morrow is obsessed with is ostensibly better served by rescinding that right to vote from all students, and only letting student reps and executives cast a vote. Best to leave the mental health burden of democracy with our trusty clique of ‘elected officials to the union’, folx!

However dubious, we still attempted to bring a motion through the student parliament reaffirming the student union’s full, unadulterated support and solidarity for the striking workers. We did not expect to win a rigged game, and it wasn’t surprising when 53% of those privileged to vote rejected our motion. Rather, we sought to demonstrate both the flippant ignorance of the student executives in the middle of these bitter staff disputes, and the dysfunctional state of our student democracy.

Obviously, the parliament hasn’t served as a meaningful institution since… well, nearly every student was forbidden from participating in it. But our motion was the catalyst for some of the first real, invigorating discussion to be had in there for a long, long time. Of course, the lively debate was labelled as “causing trouble and disrupting a safe space”. We as the communist society at Strathclyde condemned this sniveling response, and note the apt use of inclusive language to defend a pro-management agenda. Furthermore, and I can’t believe this needs to be said: attempting to hold executives accountable at a student parliament meeting over a serious failure in their stance, is not ‘causing trouble’.

Subsequently, we highlighted in a joint-statement by the Strathclyde Student Solidarity Collective and the Strathclyde Communist Society, that the president of the student union has shirked his responsibilities. He simply cannot represent students whilst at the same time spreading misinformation behind a cynical veil of ‘mental health awareness’. This weaponisation of a deeply emotive issue against us and, by extension, the striking workers will not go unchallenged. The only way to effectively tackle the student mental health crisis is through tackling systemic issues by striking, not through individual support groups. Perhaps if the current student president cannot deal with accountability or manage with the basics of student politics on campus then he should consider his position.

On behalf of the Strathclyde Communist Society, I would also like to thank the UCU for their messages of support to us on the picket lines as students. We are also aware of some of the Strath Union exec team using their platform to promote the strikes, some of our work and be in dialogue with us. We graciously welcome this and I mention it to be clear that we are not fundamentally opposed to working with members of the exec.

We reaffirm out stance that the students union has a responsibility to support striking workers. While the vice chancellor rakes in over £450,000 a year with a state funded penthouse, the lowest paid workers face pay cuts of 25% since 2009 and their pensions scheme, paid out of their wages, is cut by 35% despite being in surplus. While multimillion pound buildings without classrooms are considered ‘sound investments’, the university has systematically underpaid its staff. We call on the student union to give unconditional support to those on strike, and end their contemptible stance of ‘neutrality’.

Solidarity with the UCU; solidarity with Unite. Students will always stand by you, and if necessary, bypass cowardly student unions.

You can read the statement from Strathclyde Communist Society here.

Jay Sutherland is a Strathclyde student and member of the Young Communist League

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