Amidst the incredible student-led gun control movement in the US and the completely sickening slaughter in East Ghouta, the USS strike amongst (some) UK university workers seems rather unimportant. The surface cause of the strike—fighting for our pensions—sounds downright quaint even within the UK context, but it is within a landscape of intensive, predatory neoliberalism that has been eroding the UK university system for the last 20+ years.
This strike action has been a rapid education for me—though I’ve been teaching in universities since 2006, my lectureship so far has basically been firefighting, with developing new courses and getting used to new responsibilities while conducting top notch research (right???) and occasionally seeing that child that I’m rather fond of. I didn’t really think I’d have to learn the specifics of my pension, the timeline of escalating student fees (beginning to understand why Tony Blair is so thoroughly despised), and the subtly different rules of protest and industrial action in the UK, but here we are. We are two days into a strike action that could potentially take out 14 days of teaching from a critical time of the student year, the end of the spring term.
I’m no stranger to protest; my mother took me to an anti-nukes rally in the early 1980s, I protested the build-up to the 9/11 (forever) wars and took action in Berkeley many, many, many times, as perhaps one might expect. One of my photos of these protests made the cover of the 2010 University in Crisis issue of the Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ The Habit of Courage is published in that issue, and much of it still rings true for the UK actions:
The first act of civil disobedience doesn’t come easily to most people of good conscience. We are raised, with good reason, to be obedient; it requires a great deal of discernment to decide what matters enough to justify going against our more sociable inclinations to conform….
…the call to direct action was not limited to ‘safely’ tenured faculty – but included undergraduate and graduate students, and untenured faculty, drawn into sometimes uncomfortable confrontations with the administration by their sense of integrity and drawing strength from what I am calling “the habit of courage.”
This habit of courage and willingness to engage in ‘non-violent resistance’ has weakened in recent decades, replaced by a self-interested and protectionist academic ethos. A more politically cautious faculty have followed a neoliberal notion of decorous and quiet civility….
Meanwhile, there is a resurgence of anti-intellectualism, the infiltration of corporate business models to every aspect of academic and university life, the devaluation of the arts, humanities and the social sciences, increasingly seen either as a luxury or as intellectual enemies of the global economy. The Enlightenment idea of the university as a voluntary community of teachers, researchers, and students dedicated to the open and disinterested pursuit of knowledge and learning is being rapidly replaced by the idea of the university as a corporate enterprise whose primary functions are to provide a skilled workforce and to generate profitable and usable research for industry and global commerce.
Scheper-Hughes points out that, ironically, during these strike actions we actually do more teaching and admin than we would have done otherwise, through organized teach-outs, strategy meetings, and public outreach on the radio, print and television.
We’ve been organizing Teach-Outs (as opposed to Teach-ins, which would cross picket lines) at our local archaeology pub who immediately and fervently declared their solidarity. I was afraid that our first Teach-Out would find me and a handful of fellow lecturers having a lonely pint, but…we had standing room only. There is a hunger for action amongst students and staff that is refreshing but honestly unsurprising.
During the Teach-Out, we had questions and discussion guided by the progressive stack, a tactic used for group meetings during Occupy. Sara Perry and I had been talking about ways we could use it in the classroom, and I had written it up for review by our teaching committee. The progressive stack in the context of the Teach-Out was invigorating; POC spoke before white people, LGBTQ+ people before cishets, students before lecturers, women before men…to the best of my ability, at least. It relied on my own biases and foreknowledge, so it was (deeply) imperfect, but foregrounded voices that were critical to our discussion. We’re doing it again on Monday, and hopefully gathering momentum–getting more diversity on our speaking panel, etc.
It was and will continue to be, completely exhausting. Organizing on the fly, standing out in the bitter, bitter cold, and keeping up the emotional energy left me with very little to give my family afterwards. So…basically like academia, right?
But, again, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes states:
Nothing good happens without struggle, without solidarity, without a readiness and a willingness to court controversy, to take risks, and to expect and to sustain retaliation….
There’s a very real chance that this, my first UK industrial action, might be the last. If it fails, a toothless union isn’t worth much, except to be laughed down by ridiculously overpaid VCs sipping “pornstar” martinis in expensive hotel suites while our precarious associate lecturers and other university workers struggle to make ends meet. It’s critically important to support the strike and to take back our universities.