By Connor McElwaine
Going into this year, Dundee Labour students had just two members and meetings were stuck to the ‘AOCB’ culture of minutes and agendas. We had tried recruitment, but to be honest we had nothing to really recruit people to.
I was delighted to be given the opportunity through my trade union Community to attend the Movement for Change intensive training weekend last November. The weekend allowed me to hear from, and become friends with, activists not only from across the UK, but from the Labour Movement in Europe too. We were all organising to achieve change within our communities in different ways. To hear their personal testimony of what had motivated them to come to the training was truly a unique and profound experience in over six years of being a Labour member. The skills I learned, people I met, and my personal growth as an organiser in the making that the training allowed was essential in how I was to lead the action for pay justice at my university.
The weekend highlighted the importance in developing a personal narrative and equally the importance of understanding what made others motivated to achieve change. This seemed like the perfect way to start off our new year. Our initial meetings were therefore used to speak about what had brought us to join the Labour Party and displayed the wide range of social backgrounds and motivations that now existed within our campus society. Critically, through hearing each other’s stories, we were all convinced that the Living Wage was a cause worth advocating, agitating and organising for.
Building power through relationships
Through the use of role play scenario during the Movement for Change training, I found the importance of building relationships with a wide range of people truly striking. So we began our campaign by going round student halls and speaking with other students through societies we were involved with or taking the time while waiting on lectures to speak with people in our classes. Often it was small five minute conversations in which we expresses our own displeasure in studying at a university where 153 members of staff were paid below £7.45 per hour, and overwhelmingly students connected in some way with our vision of how the university should be run. Critically, we spoke to and built relationships with staff employed at the university who were paid below the Living Wage so that we had a joint campaign moving forward. In next to no time we had a petition with over 500 signatures and email addresses.
Something that stuck with me from the residential was the need for the continued development of the issue so as to reach and encapsulate the interest of as many people as possible. To do this I enlisted the help of local Labour elected members Jenny Marra MSP, Jim McGovern MP and Councillor Richard McCready who were asked to publicly pledge their support from which we managed to get our initial local newspaper coverage. Their political weight and recognition allowed for our actions to develop a stronger credibility and for our movement to become an issue for the whole of Dundee bursting free of any disorganised, ill-thought-out, student protest typecast. Our credibility as a movement and as force within Dundee was further enhanced by the support from our Rector who was able to secure us yet further media attention and for the issue to be firmly placed on university court members agendas.
From building a coalition of societies of all political beliefs and pressure groups including Oxfam and the feminist society – who were agitated by the highly disproportionate gender inequality amongst low paid workers – we had constructed enough support to get our traditionally conservative student union to pass a motion for its executive to be pushing university management at every opportunity to implement the Living Wage.
Developing a campaign strategy with Movement for Change
With the continued support of Kate from Movement for Change I was able to devise a campaign strategy that understood the underlying power dynamics within our university. This allowed for our agitation to be focused into constructive action which culminated in our public event on 30th April where speakers would press the case for the Living Wage and fun informal games would highlight the gross pay injustice that exists on our campus. The Principal, who had refused or ignored our previous invitations for meetings, was invited as we knew he was due to deliver training to library staff workers on that day. Unfortunately, he changed his diary and suddenly “Sorry, Mr Downes is not in Dundee on Tuesday” was the response from an increasingly flustered PA. With it being unfair for our event to go ahead without a Principal figure I decided that I would have to fill the gap, and donned the appropriate attire of a ‘fat cat’ complete with cigar and top hat. Even though people had exams and were revising, over 50 people attended our action: a wide range of students who we had built relationships throughout the year, and from numerous societies from all political backgrounds, but we all agreed on the Living Wage. Local radio stations, newspapers, and television all came down to cover the action, and you can read more about it here.
Because of the range of people present and the press coverage, The Head of Press for the university came to the action and made a commitment to discuss the issue at the next university council meeting and to release a statement afterwards. We look forward to hearing what Principal Pete Downes has to say, and the campaign continues. With the help of the UNISON branch, our representatives on University Court and with aspects of the training that I had learned now passed to the next generation of campaign leadership, we will continue to press for – and win – a Living Wage for all members of staff at the University of Dundee.
Connor McElwaine first worked with Movement for Change on our intensive training weekend. Since then, he has built a strong leadership team and led a fantastic campaign on the Living Wage at Dundee University. There are still a few places on our next intensive training weekend in June – you can apply here.