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London, United Kingdom
I am Professor of Environmental Engineering at UCL where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems and community engagement with infrastruture.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

On Strike

I’ve withdrawn my labour. I’m not getting paid. Here’s why:

1) My union asked me to. Academic pay and conditions in the UK are negotiated nationally. In these negotiations university staff are represented by the University and Colleges Union (UCU). I have always been a union member. I see this as a ‘fee for service’. They negotiate my pay so I don't have to. Sometimes the union negotiators make the case to members that we need to withdraw our labour in order to strengthen their position. They send out a ballot, members vote, and, depending on the outcome of the ballot, we walk out.

2) Strike action works. This isn’t the first time I’ve been on strike. It is not unusual during a pay bargaining round that the employers make a weak offer, we go on strike, they make a better offer, we get back to work. In 2018 we went on strike to stop fundamental changes to our pension. It worked. Our basic pension rights have been maintained, but since then the employers position on technical details of pension valuation and contribution has slipped, so we are on strike again. Every time we go on strike non-unionised colleagues tell me that they essentially agree with the union position, but they don’t think strike action is the best tactic. None of them have ever demonstrated a more effective alternative. Our university PR department has lately been promoting various initiatives to improve fairness on pay and conditions as evidence of the benevolence of our leadership. They are not. These are outcomes of strike action. They are evidence that it works, not reasons that it is unnecessary.

3) Because I can. I am a professor. I get paid more than most people working at the university. I have a very secure contract. I am on strike for colleagues who aren’t as well off, and, as things are, never will be. People who are on short-term or zero-hours contracts. People on lower paygrades who have suffered most from the stagnation of wages. People of colour and younger women, who are more deeply impacted by gender and race pay gaps. Colleagues lower down the academic ladder who are overwhelmed by unrealistic workloads. I’m on strike for them.

4) It is reasonable. Many colleagues, including those on the picket line, ask ‘Are we being unreasonable? Are our demands unaffordable? What if we hasten the decline of the sector already under enormous stress? What if Daily Mail readers think we are being selfish, out-of-touch?’ The details of affordability around pay, pensions and conditions are part of the negotiation. It is not unreasonable to expect pay to go up with the cost of living. It is not unreasonable to expect secure contracts for a job that by its very nature requires long term thinking and deep personal investment. It is not unreasonable to expect people to be paid fairly, whatever their gender or race. Overall university incomes have risen with fees and deregulation since 2010. Staff conditions and pay have declined in that time. This has an uneven impact across the sector, with universities like mine expanding, while others have become critically vulnerable. This is the logic of deregulation. That’s unreasonable. The fact that we even ask ourselves whether fair pay, secure conditions and a decent pension are reasonable demands within a sector that has had dramatically increased cash-flow demonstrates the dysfunction at the heart of our universities. There are many things wrong with higher education policy and management. Fair pay and conditions for staff are part of the solution, not the problem.

5) I care about education. The strike impacts directly on students. This is very painful for students and for the staff who love to teach them. The 2020 cohort suffer unfairly in the hope that things will be better for imagined future cohorts. There is no doubt about that. There are some teaching activities that absolutely require a teacher to be present. Laboratory classes and field trips are obvious safety-critical examples. Much of our teaching work is less about the time spent standing and delivering in the lecture theatre and more about structuring activities, reading lists, resources, peer-learning, assessment and feedback. This is all the work that is unseen, often unrecognised by students and managers. In a student-centred education, students have access to the resources they need to learn, even when we aren’t watching. In our absence, the students may not get the fully integrated experience we hope for, but their learning doesn’t stop. Some of the outcry about cancelled classes implies that students are passive recipients of knowledge, utterly dependent on mystical hours in the presence of a sage. Our students are smarter than that, and our teaching is more sophisticated. The strike creates its own opportunities for learning, as we’ve seen in teach-outs and very thoughtful conversations outside the curriculum boundaries. We won’t be on strike forever. We’ll be back in class as soon as we can. If university learning is to remain open and critical, we need to take this action now.    

6) Enough. Ever since I started my PhD and learned the word ‘neoliberal’ I have listened to academics deconstruct, analyse, critique and moan about the commodification of education, administrative burdens, rising student numbers, declining pay, heavy workloads, unhealthy competitiveness, on and on. We sit in our seminars and common rooms and construct very detailed commentaries about how government policy and university management are fundamentally undermining our basic purpose and eroding our value. We do our work, we complain cleverly, and we watch it all happen, as if this was some kind of distant field observation. It is not. We are agents in this system, actors in the network. I do my best every day to make the university a humane place to work, but on my own I feel little more than an annoyance to overwrought managers and a disappointment to vulnerable students, colleagues and contractors. As part of the union I have some hope of shifting the bigger forces undermining the universities we care about. 

I hope I’ll be back to my paid job soon. In the meantime, I’m working as hard as I can with my union to protect the university I love.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for putting all this so much more clearly and eloquently. I hope you won't mind me sharing this with my colleagues.

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  2. Admire your analysis and wish you all strength.

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  3. Agree with every single word! I am also a professor on strike for exactly all the reasons you explain here. Thank you.

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