Thousands of strikers braved blizzards and freezing conditions to march through central London on Wednesday to defend pensions, pay and education.
The protest took place on the first day of a 48-hour strike by several groups of further education lecturers and the final day of a three-day walkout by workers at 61 universities. They are members of the UCU union.
UCU union members at 15 colleges also held a one-day strike. They are fighting a below-inflation 1 percent pay deal – and say a three-day strike will follow if bosses don’t back down.
It was the fifth day of strikes in universities, where workers are set to join a four-day walkout from Monday. The action has pushed the bosses’ Universities UK into talks at conciliation service Acas on Monday.
So far they have refused to negotiate on a plan to impose a defined contribution pension scheme on workers. UUK wants to change the lecturers’ pension scheme from one where pensions are linked to salaries received shortly before retirement to one which would leave pensions subject to stock market fluctuations.
UCU estimates that the change will leave lecturers £10,000 a year worse off in retirement.
The employers say changes to the pension are needed because the scheme has a deficit of more than £6bn, but the union disputes the figure, saying the evaluation method used was "recklessly prudent".
Pat Harrington, general secretary of Solidarity Union, commented: "The strikes are entirely justified.There are other options to ending the final salary scheme. A new valuation needs to be done then, if need be, increased contributions and a government guarantee could be looked at, among other options. The employer should never have sought to attach preconditions to talks."
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt spoke to a rally of strikers after the march. She said UUK had asked if UCU members would consider going back to work.
“They asked again, if we go to Acas do you think your members would consider going back to work?” To shouts of, “No!” from the floor she replied, “That’s what I said.”
She added, “The sacrifices that you have undertaken so far can only be worth it if we commit together to prosecuting this dispute until the end. I hope that will be soon. But if it isn’t, we will have to commit to further days of action.
“It is the pressure from UCU members’ strike action, supported by students, which has brought them to this point and that pressure needs to be maintained if we want a good outcome.
“We hope we are making real progress, but we have to redouble our efforts not relax.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell spoke at the London rally as did TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady and NUS president Shakira Martin.
John McDonnell told lecturers: “They’ve sought to undermine the whole concept of the professional nature of your role. You’ve set an end to that and I’m so proud that you’ve done it today.”
He added that, “within the first hundred days of a Labour government, we will be scrapping the Trade Union Act”.
National Union of Students (NUS) president Shakira Martin said: “We recognise that your working conditions are our learning conditions. We reject being pitted against each other as an inter-generational battle. It’s us together.”