Strikes 2023: An Interview with Kate Ehrig-Page

On Monday, I sat down with Kate in reaction to the news that the Bath Student Union published the referendum result. In an unprecedented turn of events, results showed that students do not support these strikes. In a vote, 675 supported with 76 abstaining. 705 refused to support the strikes.

This text is from an interview that you can listen to in BathBomb. For reading clarity, parts have been edited. The content of the words remains the same.

Thank you for joining me, Kate. Before we get onto the strikes, can you tell me a bit about your role on campus?

I’m a research data librarian and on campus and my role is to support those doing research in helping to find ways that they prepare their data, make it more available, make sure that it’s preserved adequately, and we can advise on how to do that in terms of making sure that all research participants are their data is kept secure, and we try and make sure as many people as possible have access to high quality research data.

It’s definitely like an essential part of academic life. A lot of the focus on strikes is to do with lecturers striking and hasn’t highlighted the academic staff as much. But you’re not just a data librarian. You’re involved with Bath’s UCU branch. Can you tell me more about that?

My role in the UCU at the university is as membership secretary. I help to keep all the records up to date, help on-board new members and also act as the workplace UCU representative contact for the library. People with questions about UCU within the library can come to me.

Why did get involved in the union?

I wanted to get more involved because I worked abroad previously and I was in a workplace that didn’t have a Union. I know what it’s like to work somewhere where you don’t have the support of the Union, where there is no buffer between you and the employer, even when the employer is really well-intentioned, which they always or often are. It’s really helpful to have a union in place. I knew that when I could, I would take that privilege of being able to join. I would do so because they help collectively.

That’s a really good point. Unions aren’t just there to start strikes they are the first point of contact for issues in the workplace. Thank you for highlighting that. Talking about the strikes, of course, that’s the reason why we’re here. Why are the UCU striking?

We are striking are to try and encourage further discussions to happen. Striking is always a last resort, but we’re striking on a number of issues such as trying to improve working conditions, pay and working conditions. Since 2009, there has been roughly a 25% real term pay cut, and as you’ll know, we’re experience the cost of living crisis. That real terms pay cut, I should say, is really, really being felt.
Additionally, we’re seeing disparity in the working conditions between people of different genders, races and so we wanted to make sure there’s a level playing field for everyone so that talent is recognised. Also a number of our teaching staff are on precarious contracts, so we’re trying to make sure that we can secure better contracts and better conditions for those staff. Locally, there has been progress on that. It is great the unions and the university executive are working together.
One of the reason why we’re striking, and this is really affecting me personally, is on the issue of pensions and it varies between persons as to how long they’ve been in their in their position. The average person is going to suffer a 35% cut and that’s what I’ve seen in my own pension. On a personal level, I will be OK, but that is because I live in a 2 income household if I didn’t I could see myself needing to work beyond retirement age.

Could you tell me what the UCU is asking from the University of Bath?

From the University of Bath, at least from the executive, we’d like them to, where possible, make a public statement, we’ve appreciated them coming down to the picket lines, coming to talk to us, and it would be great to see that taken further onto more public arenas.
We realise that it’s a a national discussion when it come when it comes to various things like pay and pensions. However, we would appreciate them to support all efforts to open up those discussions where we can actually reevaluate the state of the pension. At various independent financial advisors and even the the USS’s own figures, they are suggesting that it is possible to reverse the cuts. So we would like them to support efforts towards that. We appreciate all the discussions we’ve had so far with them.
Additionally, we’d like help in addressing the workload issues. For instance academic related and professional service staff work, roughly speaking, an extra day a week on top of their regular hours. Academic staff work roughly 51 hours a week. That is is well beyond what the average working week is. Anything they can do to help address workload issues is welcome.

How are the strikes impacting you?

Me and others who’ve been striking…we don’t get paid. You could also say emotional distress in getting to this point because for all of us who strike, is a last resort. We want to be there for students. We want to deliver that quality education that they deserve.
We can’t give them the time that they without our pays. As such, that sometimes for some people, especially in one income households, it’s a struggle to get everything that is needed for the household and so we can’t give our all when we come to the job because we’re tired.

The SU referendum result showed that students do not support these strikes. It was a vote of 675 in support, 705 not supporting but also 76 voting to abstain. What is your reaction to this result? 

It is [disheartening], and yet we are so grateful for all of those who engaged in the in the in the debate, whether on both sides and this, this isn’t just a wishy washy statement. I think that engagement in voting, making sure your voice is heard is so important and so whilst we would obviously have liked to have seen the SU overall come out in favour with this referendum, I think it’s a sign that people are tired. The current cost-of-living crisis is really putting stress on to individuals and we recognise that for those who have missed [teaching sessions]…it affects them personally.
We want to give them more time. We hope that through the strikes we can get further investment in staff so that the level of education they deserve can be delivered.

I have a statements and questions from students you could answer them. The first is from a second year:
I am having my already small number of lectures cancelled. I lost a third of my lectures last week. My flatmate has had no cancellations. How is that fair?

On a personal level, I do want to acknowledge that that is very difficult and any lecturer who cancels will be quite aware of the effects that’s going to have on the individual students. The reason why some students have been affected and others haven’t is because, and I see this as membership secretary, we have different membership density. Dependent on the department and there’s no barrier to anyone to join. But I think certain subject areas are more politically engaged. For instance, Polis, you might expect that there’s a a few more people who would be engaged with the Union. And so it’s the subject differentiations, which is meaning why some students have more impact.
But what we would say is that we’d very much encourage those students to come to speak to us on the picket line. We’d very be very glad to have further conversations about it. They can e-mail the branch and we would be very willing to to talk through some of the concerns. So we want them to get in contact.

You know, the pension issue hasn’t been resolved. The working condition issue hasn’t been resolved. Do you actually believe that these strikes are going to work?

I think there is a really strong chance that they will and the reason for that, the difference this time is that it’s an aggregate ballot, whereas before different branches across the country were balloted separately. It’s now dependent on the National Union, so all as an aggregate they can vote to take strike action, which is what they’ve done. And so this time there’s a a stronger mandate for action. I think that will hopefully give us more more strength moving forward in these discussions and make sure that those discussions with students with employers, with Universities UK and USS.
We hope that further discussions happen to bring these strikes to an end because they don’t need to happen, it’s almost been forced to this point.

One of the last questions from a student and they’ve just plainly asked what is gonna happen if these strikes don’t work?

If these strikes don’t work there will be calls for further discussions. There could be a chance of a marketing and assessment boycott. Hopefully we won’t come to that. There can be action short of a strikethat we can take, but we are hoping that through gaining support with employers and with students, we can bring these discussions forward.

Do you think the UCU needs to do more to engage students in their cause?

I would agree, we would love to have more interaction with students. ..there is also student membership so they can always contact if they have questions about joining themselves. But yes, discussions need to happen. We had a town hall the other week where we invited people to come along and ask questions if they wanted to learn more, we’d be very happy to have what outreach events at the SU because you’re right, the students deserve to know.
We want to contact them. Sometimes it is an issue of workload and and trying to get in contact with as many people as possible. But yes, more engagement with the SU with students as individuals.

Finally, you do have at least 675 students that support you. How can they do this?

Join the Union if they are eligible for postgraduates. They can come along to our teach outs. For instance, this week, Wednesday 15th and Thursday 16th from 1pm to 6pm at the Bell Inn. It’s an opportunity for discussions and questions. We’d love to hear from anyone who’s interested in coming along to that and and they can come and speak to us on the picket line.
If they can, choose not to cross the picket line. We realise that’s quite difficult, especially if you live on campus. But wherever possible, that’s something you could do. So in summary, follow us on social media and come along to our teach ins.

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