Priyamvada Gopal, UCU’s ‘Have a Lie-in’ Strike

‘UCU’s “Have a Lie-in” Strike’

by Priyamvada Gopal

If there is one cheerful observation to be made about the University and College Union’s (UCU) decision to call a series of two hour strikes (yes, you read that correctly) from next week, it is the quantity of water-cooler humour that it has generated in a profession not known for the art. One lecturer notes that he sometimes sits for longer on the toilet now; another academic has come up with the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Lunch Break’, which received the stirring counter cry: ‘All Power to the Sandwiches!’  A fourth wag observes that the ‘action’ will go down in history as ‘The Extended Fag Break Strike.’ A historian colleague of mine wonders how to get her students to notice that she’s on strike for the two hours she would normally spend answering emails and attending to paperwork. In the event that she does participate in the action, she’ll obviously make up the work at home in the evening or it’s her life that will become unmanageable, not that of her oblivious managers (who are probably already having a good belly laugh at the fearsome threat issued by UCU President Sally Hunt of two withdrawn hours). A research fellow in my department proposes to not think for two hours a day. If no one notices you striking, did you still strike?

And yet, of course, this is a singularly unfunny decision taken by the UCU’s leadership in the wake of a mandate given to it by the membership to escalate industrial action over fair pay and working conditions. It began last autumn with a series of one-day strikes coordinated with other unions including Unite and Unison, a heartening attempt at wider solidarity with those at the sharp end of ‘austerity’. Laughter isn’t always the best medicine—when it turns into derision from the sympathetic and sneering from the hostile, it can be actively harmful. For a union that has long been struggling for credibility and efficacy, this action isn’t going to be merely ‘pointless’, as is widely suggested, but a nail in the proverbial coffin. Far from pulling in the undecided and the disgruntled, this policy has already alienated existing activists and will undoubtedly lose it members who are still there only because they haven’t bothered to cancel their subscriptions. The action will also affect adjunct labour particularly adversely—those who are most vulnerable institutionally and least able to afford it financially will have to take the greatest risk by not turning up to teach some of the handful of hourly-paid classes they have managed to scrape together. We should think twice before piously condemning anyone who decides that this kind of gestural ‘action’ is not worth the high price they might have to pay.

Now, the idea of a two hour work stoppage is not in and of itself pointless.  Serial two hour strikes make sense on factory floors where a quarter-day’s cessation in production will make a direct dent in profits with cumulative effect, pinching where it hurts. However, labour solidarity across sectors does not mean that when it comes to industrial action one size fits all: there’s something rather embarrassing, a stylized silliness, in asking academics to pretend they are undertaking stoppages on some kind of imaginary assembly line.  When it comes to the most effective form of work stoppage in this sector, the closest thing to messing with the assembly line is also the one thing that makes university administrations and politicians sit up and worry: a refusal to mark the coursework and exams that are essential to the production of degrees. As a letter from the branch chair of the Institute of Education, University of London UCU notes, the two hour strikes, far from representing an escalation towards this drastic (and in my view, necessary) action, ‘amounts to a de-escalation of the strike’. Such a de-escalation, shamefully but not untypically argued for by National Executive Members at my own local branch at Cambridge—not an insitution renowned for challenging establishment policies— explicitly violates the mandate given to the UCU’s leadership to escalate over the year if faced with intransigence from employers. Should that not raise questions, not only about this policy’s viability, but about its legality?

There’s a notion abroad that such de-escalation is merely an honest blunder as opposed to systematic and predictable docility in keeping with what university administrations very much like. Managers in the HE sector are not, as is widely assumed, anti-union, so much as pro-weak unions. Weak and biddable unions are preferred by university managements because it enables them to keep up the pretence of participatory decision-making and legitimises the most outrageous transformations in the sector, including quiet privatisation. While we reluctantly and ritualistically participate in next week’s action—most of us with secure fulltime jobs not really missing a beat unless we happen to be teaching at those specific times—we need to start asking some very tough questions about the direction this union is headed. What should we do in the face of a union leadership that is clearly retrograde, accommodating of employers and disregarding of members, and, above all, lacking in an ethical and strategic vision? How do we stop enabling their foolishness and malign complicity in a regime that is eroding every hard-fought trade union gain determinedly and single-mindedly? We are at a turning point in the history of this union: if these questions are not asked, fought over and resolved, the conflagration will be one that overtakes us by stealth. The Extended Fag Break will turn into the cigarette which set the bed alight while we fell asleep at the headboard.

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