The British trade union for academic staff UCU is on the second day of a two-day strike, and I am angry.
As a UCU member, I am on strike. I don’t get paid for the two days, and I can’t do any of the work that I need to clear before I turn my attention back to the monograph I am meant to be finishing.
And I won’t mince my words: I don’t agree with the strike.
I agree with many people who think that there are more pressing issues the unions could address than stagnating, even decreasing wages. I similarly feel the strategy is misguided, in terms of timing, scale, and execution.
But I’m not angry with UCU.
Neither – I want to point out straight away – am I angry with my colleagues who have decided to break the strike. This is not a blame game.
I am upset, however, by some of the attitudes I have been hearing from colleagues I really respect, who have taken the hard decision to ignore the strike, or even leave the union, which they increasingly feel, with some justification, is out of touch with their interests.
I hear people saying things like: ‘I disagree with this strike, therefore I have taken the decision not to participate.’ ‘This strike is not right for me, because of the pressures in my life.’ ‘It is a personal choice not to strike, and you should respect that.’ ‘I work with the university administration, and actually I sympathise more with them over this industrial action.’
These are all important and valid personal criticisms of the strike, but I think there is a compelling narrative about our collective responsibilities which explains why you should, nonetheless, join the strike.
- If you want protection from your exploitation from your employer (now, or ever), and you believe that other workers in your sector should have the same protection, you should join your union. Those of us who have been on the frontline of this exploitation do not have to hesitate. Of course you are in the union if you have been fighting to have your contract recognised. Of course you are in the union if your employer has tried to change your working conditions arbitrarily. And to those of us lucky enough not to have seen the sharp edge: do not underestimate how quickly an entire institution (London Met) can turn on its employees. Do not underestimate how quickly your own situation could change, as your job is ‘deleted’, or you are ‘let go’ for not bringing in enough grant money, not scoring high enough student satisfaction, or just because your subject is no longer ‘important’ enough. You will need the union then. And – more to the point – your colleagues who are already in these situations need the union now. If you aren’t a member, you are not supporting them. Our employers feel the need to respect the unions a little bit less each time their numbers slump.
- If your union calls a ballot on industrial action, you should vote. It goes without saying really, but the point of being in the union is to ensure your interests are represented. I’ve heard people compare membership to job insurance. It’s cheaper than many people pay for their home and contents insurance, and it effectively protects your income. But membership is unlike job insurance in that it not only entails paying a fee each month; it also involves democratic participation. You cannot complain about industrial action if you have not been participating in discussions within the union, because you have missed your opportunity for debate and deliberation.
- Whatever the result of the vote, you should take the appropriate action the union advises. The vote is over, the choices have been made. If you want to stand in solidarity with your colleagues who are facing the sharp end of casualisation or redundancies, you must act in unison with your union. This collective bargaining power is the only tool employees have.
I don’t believe the ‘fat cat VCs’ are out to exploit academic staff deliberately.
I actually have a more optimistic view of human nature that suggests that people are often well-intentioned, and even more often, simply wrong, or ignorant. The senior management of most British universities are struggling to negotiate an uncertain world, where government funding and performance measures change faster than the sandwich selection in the canteen. Largely out of their sight, there is an underclass of academic employee (not to mention our many colleagues in the administration and support services), who are breaking themselves and their lives out of desperation, and love for this career path.
Perhaps managers reason to themselves that some ‘winnowing out’ is necessary. Perhaps they reason to themselves that most academics nonetheless love what they do. Perhaps they believe that many vulnerable employees are actually supported by family, or have other work on the side.
Perhaps – and this I think the most likely explanation – they don’t think about it very much.
The unions are the only way to remind them about the disturbing situation in which they are complicit. The productivity and profitability of these institutions is dependent on exploiting the most powerless employees.
It might not be you. It might not even be your friends, but if you work in a university, you see these people every day.
A 5% pay increase across the board is clearly not the answer. (It might even be a step backwards: we could see fewer secure jobs, paid marginally better, and many many more insecure, even more poorly paid jobs.)
But being an active union member and supporting industrial action when it happens is the answer. Our employers will do nothing about the gender pay gap, they will do nothing about casualisation as long as they can get away with it, because, however optimistic I am about their nature, they have more pressing problems to deal with, too.
The strike is about reminding them that our problems matter. Maybe not to you personally, but to us.