Industrial Action: a student guide
In the run-up to this coming Thursday’s WHOLE-DAY STRIKE (an odd phrase to have to use, but which the recent, barely detectable ripple of two-hour strikes has now made necessary), those headed for the picket lines will already be able to hear in their minds the echoes of the voices of the many students who swanned past them, awkward or seemingly oblivious, on the last two, three or four occasions on which the current dispute has moved UCU, Unite and Unison to industrial action. For the most part, those who crossed picket lines were not ideologically opposed to unions, did not want to sanction the 13% real-terms pay cut which staff have suffered over the last four years, and did not wish to antagonise or depress their own lecturers. Many, it seemed, simply had very little idea of what a strike actually is (which, to be fair, puts them in the same boat as the UCU leadership).
So, here is a rough guide to the strike. Let us proceed by looking at the top five comments from students crossing picket lines on the occasion of the last WHOLE-DAY strike:
“I do support the strike, but I have a lecture.”
The thing is, this is a little like saying: “I am a vegetarian, but I do eat bacon”. Or: “I’m not a racist, I just don’t like Indians”. What it means to support a strike, for employees, is not to go to work for the duration of said strike. For students, that includes not being complicit in the decision of others to break the strike (e.g. by attending lectures). If strikes cause inconvenience or disruption, it’s necessary to point out that this is not some avoidable and unacceptable side-effect of the action: it is precisely how a strike is supposed to work. This strategic infliction of inconvenience is often the best or only means that people have to protect their own and others’ interests and to re-establish some sort of control over their working environments.
Ideally, ‘supporting the strike’ means asking for lectures and seminars to be cancelled, and coming to the picket lines to show solidarity. But at the very least, it means not crossing the picket lines. If you do that, you don’t support the strike. At least admit it.
No you’re not.
“Maybe next time…”
Er, that’s not really how it works…
“But I want to get an education!”
Right. This one requires a deep breath. Aside from this cruel and unusual law of nature, which always produces this irresistible passion for learning on strike days, what exactly are you saying, when you say these words? Is the suggestion that lecturers who go on strike rather than suffer endless pay cuts don’t want their own students to get an education? Perhaps they went into academia for the money (oh no, wait…). Or could it be that they want to educate under conditions where education and educators are properly valued, and are trying to make use of the only kind of leverage they have – the strategic withdrawal of labour – where other more ‘diplomatic’ means have demonstrably failed?
This is something in which students and staff have a common interest – even if the increasing tendency for the relationship between the two to be modelled as one between service-provider and consumer tends to obscure this simple point. In the first place, it tends not to be good for students to be taught by people who are over-stretched, underpaid and generally pissed off. And more generally, it is important to remember that students and staff alike are being screwed over by the same set of policies, imposed by the same set of people. The cutting of wages, casualization and the proliferation of ‘zero hours’ contracts, the tripling of tuition fees and the cutting of funding for the arts cannot be seen as unrelated incidents. They are all part of the one-and-the-same drive – an obsession of the current Government but totally lacking in democratic mandate, whether from the people directly involved or from the population at large – towards the privatisation of Higher Education, so as to expose the sector to ‘market forces’ and open the way for investors to make massive profits.
Twin reactionary initiatives make this process hard to resist: the criminalisation and increasingly draconian punishment of student protest, on the one hand; and, on the other, a handy law introduced by Mrs Thatcher which makes it illegal for trade unions officially to take strike action over anything other than the narrow self-interest of members, i.e. pay or conditions – whereupon, of course, such action is dismissed as ‘selfish’.
We have a choice. We can either fall for this little trick, or we can recognise that staff and students actually share a deep set of interests, and support one another in the effort to oppose the forces that threaten to undermine them. As one banner from the last action has it:
Students! The people cutting your lecturers’ wages are the same as those privatising your loans. Don’t cross picket lines!