A group of University of Manchester students have occupied buildings on campus each night this week in support of striking lecturers.
Members of the University and College Union (UCU) are currently striking over pay, pensions, workplace conditions, and casualisation, in what they are calling the ‘four fights’ dispute. The industrial action, which has lasted for 14 days, culminated in a full five-day strike last week, leaving many students without teaching.
Students aimed to use each night of the occupation to highlight a different one of the ‘four fights’, and to show that “there are a huge number of students who are supportive of strike action,” according to one of the occupiers, Frazz.
“Our main aim when beginning this occupation was to help increase the morale of the lecturers that are striking. When we had gone to join the people picketing, it seemed many members of staff we worried about students not supporting what they were doing. We wanted them to know that this isn’t true! There is a huge number of students who are supportive of strike action and we wanted to make this something that was more visible.”
Simultaneous occupations took place at other universities across the country, including Cambridge, UCL, Liverpool, Exeter, and Imperial.
“We didn’t have any contact with other unis when we were planning but we were aware of other universities staging occupations that were also in soldiers with the UCU. Since we began our first night we have however been in touch with other occupying groups and have shown solidarity with them.
“In Manchester we have tried to keep a focus on raising awareness of the 4 fights of the UCU. This is why we have taken on the tag #4nights4fights. By looking in more detail at the four fights ourselves we can be more equipped to explain the dispute between the uni and UCU with our fellow students and hopefully gain their support as well.”
On Monday night, the group occupied University Place to protest the gender and BAME pay gap, which stand at 18.4% and 31.4% respectively at UoM. Tuesday night saw the group return to University Place to highlight casualisation.
On Wednesday, protestors occupied the Samuel Alexander building, focusing on staff workload. Before the third night of the Four Nights Four Fights Occupation, a student from People and Planet told The Mancunion that the theme of that night was a protest “against the enormous workload that lecturers are facing which hampers the quality of education [students] receive and the quality of life of our lecturers.”
67% of teaching staff at the University say that they do not have enough adequately paid time to prepare their classes. 73% of teaching staff say they do not have enough time to complete their marking. #EnoughIsEnough #UCUstrike #UCUstrikesback #SolidarityForever #4nights4fights
— People & Planet UoM (@PeopleUom) March 11, 2020
Thursday night saw the group occupy both University Place and Sam Alex, with one focusing on fair pay and one highlighting the pensions dispute.
Lecturers have reached out to students from People and Planet sending messages of thanks and support, as well as a care package of eye-masks to allow protesters to sleep while occupying buildings with movement triggered lighting.
David Swanson, head of the University of Manchester (UMUCU), told The Mancunion that demonstrations of support from student groups throughout the industrial action have meant a lot to striking staff:
“What the students have been doing has been a real inspiration for us. First of all terms of joining our picket lines and demonstrations and so on, and now these occupations are phenomenal. While [the occupation was] going on last night there was also a fundraiser in Big Hands where they raised a lot of money for us with lots of students there.
“I think there’s just a real spirit of unity between lecturers, support staff and students and a common view that we need to change how the University is run.”
With UCU strike action ending Friday, March 13th, a representative from People and Planet expressed a hope that the occupation has added: “increased pressure to the University, in solidarity with the strikes, so that they can come to an agreement with the UCU.” However, students told The Mancunion they are prepared to carry on protests in the future if necessary.
A University of Manchester spokesperson said:
“The University of Manchester supports the right of any student to protest peacefully and legally. However, our responsibility as a University is to ensure that we do everything we can to minimise disruption to other students and to our staff.
“With regard to the current industrial action, the issues of pay and USS pensions are negotiated at a national level and constructive discussions are continuing at present.
“As an institution, we take our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion extremely seriously and share many of UCU’s concerns on conditions and are seeking to address these.
“For example, this is demonstrated by our *published targets to increase the percentage of women in senior academic positions to 44% and to redress the under-representation of BAME men and women in Professional Services (PS) and academic positions.
“The actions we are taking focus on ensuring we have fair recruitment, selection and promotion policies in place. These procedures are actively reviewed to ensure they are accessible and free from bias.
“We understand there is still work to do, but we take pride in the wide range of support that is available to all our staff.”