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Gemma Copeland


 —  Strike!

At the start of the year, University of the Arts London (UAL) joined the ongoing University and College Union (UCU) strikes, which were centred on the “four fights”:

  • falling pay
  • the gender and ethnic pay gap
  • precarious employment practices
  • unsafe workloads

I had only just begun working as an Associate Lecturer, but went on strike out of solidarity. It was eye-opening to learn about the worsening conditions for teaching staff, both through statistics and personal stories. Why UK Art Schools Are On Strike from Frieze provides a good overview, specifically from an art school perspective.

Designers + Cultural Workers (UVW-DCW) helped out by designing The University Worker, a rank and file strike bulletin published by Notes from Below.

A photo of the CSM picket line, taken from above. There are people sitting on the ground for a teach-out, and colourful signs laid out on the ground.


We also contributed to a couple of teach-outs: a conversation recorded for Strike Radio about why designers need to unionise, and Unions for Everything at CSM, alongside some of our UVW sister branches (representing Architects and Sex Workers), London Renters Union and Cooperation Town.

Each group spoke about why they exist, what they do, and why we need unions, grassroots organising and mutual aid in all aspects of our lives. We also read through 101 Notes on the LA Tenants Union.

What’s next?

Unfortunately towards the end of the strikes, coronavirus started to dominate the headlines, and London went into lockdown shortly after. The optimism that I felt during the strikes feels very naive now.

The ongoing crisis is only going to worsen working conditions within universities and institutions, while social distancing makes it harder for workers to strike. It’s extremely concerning to watch how cultural institutions are responding to the crisis, as they begin to reopen their doors.

It is encouraging, however, to see union membership surge as a result of this crisis, as this is our best hope for protecting each other and reshaping the industry from below. I’m really proud of the statement UVW-DCW wrote back in March:

We must use this crisis as an opportunity to reframe our industry. Our sector has committed to the prevailing logic of individualisation and competitiveness, to the detriment of its workforce. The status of creative work is increasingly casualised, in the interest of distributing profits unevenly to those at the top. A moment of disruption creates a chance for our industry to be re-assembled in the interests of its workers, with solidarity, community, equality, self-education and care at the centre of all future cultural production.

Further reading