Opinion | UCU strikes: Don't be afraid of the picket lines


By Alice Proctor, Second Year History

When this year’s UCU Strikes were called, the student reaction was varied. Some students were angry or anxious about the contact hours they would be losing out on, whilst others were eager to get involved and show their solidarity for the university staff who were going on strike. Many, of course, were just relieved that they would get a few more lie-ins this week.

No matter how people have reacted to the strikes, something that seems to be a common source of confusion and dispute is the concept of picket lines, and whether we should cross them.

Some students are very strongly against this. For example, many of those who take part in the strikes, actively standing in solidarity with the university’s staff, have been telling others that we should ‘never cross a picket line’. Their support for the strikes is inspiring, and it is so exciting to see this staff-student solidarity. The two communities are coming together in a way that most of us have never seen before.

However, the message of ‘never cross a picket line’ creates a lot of peer pressure for other students and is almost guilt-mongering.

It is so exciting to see this staff-student solidarity

Some students don’t have much choice about whether they can miss a whole week of university; many staff members are not part of the union, so a good number of lectures and classes are still on.

For a lot of students, for example those in their final year, missing an entire week of contact hours could be hugely detrimental. These people should not be made to feel guilty for their decision to focus on their studies.

The idea of the picket line seems to be hugely divisive amongst students, with those who cross them being made to feel guilty by those who do not.

On the picket lines!

Posted by Bristol Student-Staff Solidarity on Monday, 25 November 2019

It is interesting, then, that according to any tutors I’ve spoken to, and even the leaflet handed to me as I walked past a picket line the other day, that the university staff themselves do not seem to mind us crossing the picket lines. In fact, one of my tutors – who is currently on strike – even encouraged us to do so. It’s almost as if the only people who are strongly opposed to students crossing picket lines, is the students themselves.

The issues at the heart of the strikes are so important. It is genuinely upsetting to hear stories from the university staff about the financial instability, anxiety and stress that the university has caused them. I even heard one say that they wished they’d never got involved with academia, despite their passion for both teaching and research.

To hear more stories and personal accounts of why staff are striking, go to the picket lines and chat to them! They are more than happy to talk to students about these issues, and it is very insightful to hear personal accounts of why different individuals are striking.

The situation that many academics face is really unpleasant; this is why it is so important that we support the strikes. However, not crossing picket lines is not the way to go about it. In some ways, not crossing the picket lines could actually be undermining the strikes, and the feelings of the university staff.

Not crossing the picket lines could actually be undermining the strikes

Something that came through from the various accounts I’ve heard from university staff is that the last thing they want is to prevent us from receiving our education, and that we should not feel guilty or uncomfortable about using university facilities, or attending classes that are still running. Members of staff may actually want us to cross the picket lines.

The strikes are a last resort, and, as I keep hearing from members of staff, their intention is not to disrupt our education. Many are resentful, and even angry, that the strikes have impacted the students in this way.

If you want to support the strikes, there are lots of ways you can.

According to a UCU flyer that is being handed out on the picket lines, the best ways to support the strikes are to visit the picket lines to express support, voice support on social media, donate to the UCU fighting fund or, perhaps most importantly, email the vice-chancellor to ask for negotiations. Another way to help, as I was told by one of my tutors, is actually to attend university as normal, and then email the deans to complain about cancelled classes or lectures.

Supporting the strikes in one of these ways means that, not only can you attend lectures guilt-free, but you will be helping the university staff more than you would by simply avoiding the picket lines.

Featured Image: Epigram / Patrick Sullivan

Do you think that it is acceptable to cross the picket lines?