I hope Tristram Hunt will respond positively to my invitation to discuss how a picket line works

It is a fundamental principle, not only of my union but of the movement in general, that you do not cross a picket line.

Today I wrote to Tristram Hunt to invite him to meet with me so I could explain why UCU members and other trade unionists are angry that a senior Labour politician crossed an official University and College Union (UCU) picket line on Monday.

UCU members were taking industrial action for the sixth time this academic year on Monday. We, along with colleagues in Unite, UNISON and the EIS, are fighting to improve a pay offer of just 1 per cent from university employers.

That represents areal-terms pay cut of 13 per cent since 2009 – something Will Hutton has described as “one of the worst suppressions of pay since the Second World War.” If ever there was a real world embodiment of the cost of living crisis that we hear so much about from Labour, this dispute is it.

What has made things even worse for our members, and hardened their resolve in this fight, is the behaviour of the universities.

While pleading poverty and keeping down staff pay, vice-chancellors have themselves continued to enjoy handsome pay rises. Some institutions have even taking the unprecedented step of deducting a full day’s pay from staff only on strike for two hours, as part of a series of two-hour walkouts.

Queen Mary University was one of those institutions. So not only did Tristram Hunt cross a picket line, he crossed one of 11 picket lines in the UK on Monday where staff were engaged in a full day’s strike to protest at their university’s punitive and unfair pay docking policy.

One would hope that the fact he works in higher education would mean that Tristram Hunt would know better than most MPs the extent to which staff pay has beenkept down in recent years. One would also hope that as a member of the Labour Party he would understand the importance of solidarity.

That is why I find it so disappointing that he appears to be using students as an excuse to cross the picket line. Particularly since the National Union of Students supports the trade union case for a decent pay rise.

It is a fundamental principle, not only of my union but of the movement in general, that you do not cross a picket line.  I am therefore hoping that Tristram Hunt may have simply made an error or that he has no prior knowledge of how picket lines work.

As unlikely or disappointing as that may sound, his actions brought to mind another of the Labour 2010 intake who called my press office during a previous strike to ask exactly how a picket line worked. After receiving an explanation the MP in question still thought it would be OK to cross one later in the day.

Fortunately the press office was able to explain why that would still not be acceptable and, to the MP’s credit, they made other arrangements.

I hope Tristram will respond positively to my invitation to meet so I can explain on behalf of UCU members the issues in the pay dispute, how a picket line works and the importance of honouring it even if it is personally inconvenient.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union

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