Music, Power and Love: Lessons from Strike Season

Olivia Crook, Lara, Paula Dixon, and Amber Ward paint vibrant scenes from the education pickets.

‘I didn’t know that anyone had ever written a song about a picket line!’ I laugh. Everyone I know outside of work knows every song ever written about pickets. But this morning, one of the probationer teachers at my school joined me outside the school gates, just before half seven to help me put up signs, and this is their first strike, their first picket and their first taste of Billy Bragg.

One of the reasons I love Glasgow, have chosen to live here and would never leave, is how steeped in socialist history it is. How easy it is to organise and how much solidarity you’re frequently surrounded by. However, in the area I work in, which used to be called the safest Conservative seat in Scotland, it isn’t always such a given that everyone you organise with will have the analysis of the production of value that you’d like. So to see how willing all my colleagues are to stand on freezing wet pickets chanting and waving placards and how strong the support from the community has been (the minister opening the church so we can have tea and use the toilets, parents bringing tray bakes and chocolates) has given me an experience of solidarity that is different to any I’ve had before. It’s a solidarity entirely devoid of theoretical chat, and entirely shaped by the recognition of the social value of the work that teachers, posties, railway staff, nurses and workers create.

  • Olivia Crook is a primary school teacher and EIS rep.

In January of this year, a group of high school students set up the Edinburgh High School Students Union, to give a greater voice to young people. Since joining the EHSSU, I have begun to think about society and the issues that matter to me very differently. School teaches us to stick to studying for exams, and while this is very important, it is often challenging to focus only on short term goals like these while witnessing the current state of the world. As young people, the decisions that our leaders make now will directly impact the world we have a future in, but it is often a struggle for us to be listened to and taken seriously. That is one reason why just studying during this wave of strikes is incredibly difficult. Attending strikes, rallies and marches, especially as part of a union, is something incredibly empowering as it allows us to feel like we are making a difference in a world where young people are so underrepresented.

This is my first time protesting and being a part of any movement like this. Starting to be a part of strike organising has been really moving and motivating. It is an amazing opportunity that has enlightened me about the political state of the world and the effect that I can have on it. The recent teachers’ strikes have had the most impact for me because, as someone who wants to go into the teaching field, it feels incredibly vital that teachers are fighting for something that will directly affect me in my future career. It feels wrong that I should grow up knowing that even if I gain all the qualifications I need, I still might not be paid enough to keep a roof over my head and food on the table. It is challenging to grow up seeing the impacts of the cost of living crisis affecting those who are already the worst off in society, and to have the threat of climate change always hanging over my head. However, I have been inspired by the recent increase in trade union activity and firmly believe it is time I use my voice. Many high school students have strong opinions on the issues we see, and being part of a union gives us the ability to raise our voices collectively, whether about local issues for individual schools or the bigger issues facing us all. Joining the EHSSU has shown me that anyone can take action on the issues that they care about, and I would love to see more young people begin to feel empowered because of it.

  • Lara is a fifth year Edinburgh high school student.

‘Fighting for the Future of Further Education’ is the strapline of my union’s current campaign. Members in the Further Education sector have had to take strike action, and action short of strike action, for seven out of the last eight years over pay and terms and conditions. We have won the fights, but it has been exhausting for all concerned. Covid and home working amplified this. Rallying members over a video call and keeping them strong became much more difficult, more intangible than physical union meetings and picket lines. Recently, our strapline could be adapted to fit the fights of workers all over the country. Everywhere you look, people realise they are not valued. Our campaign is for positive change, fair pay, and a sustainable and high quality sector. Surely that is not too much to ask for any sector? The country is haemorrhaging healthcare staff, educators, and people working in industries which have not seen a fair pay rise in a long time. They can no longer afford to work in the industry they chose. Why should they stay? As strikes become more prolific, and our incomes are squeezed to the max, this has become a fight for all of our futures, and a long time coming.

Looking around me as we head towards another ballot, I see something different. This time, more young people than ever are joining us. With the pay of FTSE 100 chief executives rising an average of 23 percent in 2022, the inequalities in our society are ever greater, and young people see the importance of being an active member of their union. As I stood with one new young member on the picket line he described his experience of various jobs that he had had since he was 15. ‘This is the first job I have had in my life where I have not risked my income, job security, physical health by joining and being a member of a trade union’, he said. ‘Going on strike last year’, another told me, ‘was the first time I have ever felt empowered at work’. Their optimism about winning was palpable. They need the future to change. They are rising up. It has become a fight for all of our futures, one we have to win.

  • Paula Dickson is the branch secreetary of a college branch of EIS FELA.

On the first day it felt like the whole world was on strike. Protests were happening across the UK against a draconian bill which, if passed, would revoke our right to take part in industrial action. We held a rally on North Street in St Andrews where we hit pots and pans and chanted louder than the bustling town. We heard rousing speeches from staff, students, and striking workers from Diageo in Leven, just a few miles east, who joined us in support. It simulated a general strike, gave us a quick dose of how it could feel.

On picket lines there is energy too, but it is a quieter transcendence of a different kind. Here we talk with our colleagues, the public, more students, and every day we have good conversations about why we are here. There is more support than ever before. Striking also brings out the creative parts of ourselves that chronic overwork forces into retreat. Homemade cakes, bagpipes, hand-painted placards, a trombone, daft poems and the highland fling all make their appearances and keep us warm. Our kind students do their rounds every day, heaving coffee vats and every type of biscuit to pickets across town.
Between students and staff our struggle is one and the same. We suffer together the effects of the financialisation of the university sector; of institutions which deliver care in the form of learning, development, and accommodation. Like us, our students are organised. In 2019 they formed the Campaign for Affordable Student Housing (CASH) in response to the increasing scarcity of affordable university accommodation. We are supporting each other to build a university that is inclusive and fair.

Once the pickets are done we head to the Students’ Association, which students always so kindly open for us to use. We take stock, make plans, unfreeze our red hands under hot taps. These are Baltic conditions. There is a joy to striking. It brings hope in hopeless times. But it also wears us down, emotionally and financially. We had only been hanging on by a thread before. We reflect honestly on our tactics. Universities are businesses and the means of production – or a good bit of them anyway – ­are not through there but in here: bionic, all silicon and brain. Now that so much of our work is done remotely, standing out in the cold can feel futile at times. On the other hand it feels more radical, an ever greater testament to our anger and drive. Out here we invoke a symbol of dissent which makes our action all the more powerful. We will come out every day until our demands are met, where we are visible, conversing, loud.

Throughout all of this our principal calls for reason and good faith. Sit tight, she urges, and hope that soon a resolution will come. Perhaps the odd stolen pension chunk will fall from the sky, hit the ground, crack open, and we will all call up to the heavens – thank you! Cross our fingers too and maybe a pay gap here or a zero-hours contract there will evaporate up into the clouds. But we do not ask for miracles. Our principal has powerful leverage she can use. She is the President of Universities UK, one of twenty-one vice-chancellors who sits on the board of that body with whom we are in dispute. We ask our principal to listen to students, listen to staff, and build a St Andrews for all.

  • Amber Ward is completing a PhD in twentieth-century cultural history at St Andrews University.