Members of UCU are embarking on a substantial period of strike action with some universities over proposed cuts to our pensions. Oddly enough, as a union member at a participating branch, I’m not on strike as it is our reading week, so we start next week.
As a union member and activist, I’m not actually that left wing – I hold some views that a socialist would wince at. But one thing I do hold as very important is strike action and solidarity with strike action. This is partly because there’s a long history of trade union activism in my family. So I know the number one rule is, even if you disagree with a strike, you do not cross a picket line. It’s about solidarity.
It’s also because as a lefty, I recognise that the only right we have as wage-slaves, is the right to withdraw our labour. In the history of the labour movement, all striking workers made the bargain that they will lose out less than the boss – that the loss in wages will be less than the loss of profits to the boss. This is especially effective when everyone engages in this level of disruption. The equivalent in a public service is to cause as much disruption to service provision that bosses pay attention.
One thing that especially angers me when academics go on strike is how bad we are it. I notice this particularly among academics who profess to be “radical” and then spend the strike action tweeting about how much reading and writing they’re doing.
So here goes my outline of what it means to be on strike:
Academic reading while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.
Academic writing on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.
Preparing that grant application on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.
Ploughing through your inbox to clear it while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.
Preparing slides for a talk while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.
Preparing teaching while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.
The sole point of strike action is to cause disruption, not just to leave the campus ghostly empty while you work from home. Come on, if you had the chance, you’d work from home anyway.
Now the argument against these, particularly around reading and writing, I hear is that “it will damage my career”. This really smacks of the over-individualisation of academic labour that we really should be railing against in our union activism. Let’s get this straight – YOUR career success benefits YOUR employer. If you get a Chair through writing a paper during the strike period, then that’s because you’ve met the performance targets set by your employer, which benefit it in terms of REF submission and prestige, so the VC gets paid more. If you write that successful grant application, then it brings in income to your employer, and your Pro-VC research gets a nice bonus at the end of the year.
The detriment to your career is the sacrifice you are making in solidarity with your fellow workers to the collective benefit to us all. And let’s consider what that sacrifice might look like. In a former job we had a period of rolling strikes about terms and conditions. A colleague at the time worked part time and the strikes were always on days they were supposed to be at work. They basically didn’t get paid for a month. They had a young child, a mortgage, and their partner worked part time. They really struggled. But they gritted their teeth and did not cross the picket line. They did this because their father was a miner who was on strike for a year during the miner’s strike. That’s what sacrifice for solidarity looks like.
So, please, before you even think of doing any academic labour during the strike, think of solidarity with your fellow workers. We need this dispute to be successful. The cuts to pensions are truly staggering. We need to cause as much disruption as possible. Don’t be a strike breaker. Don’t cross a picket, even working at home.