Category Archives: Industrial Action

Industrial Action: A Student Guide

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:

  1. “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.

  1. “Thanks!”

For what?

  1. “Sorry!”

No you’re not.

  1. “Maybe next time…”

Er, that’s not really how it works…

  1.  “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!

 don't be a scab




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.

Boycott the next REF

A new Facebook group for those who have had enough…

This is a group for academics who are interested in organising a multidisciplinary, cross-institutional boycott of the next Research Excellence Framework exercise, which is likely to take place in 2019 or 2020. Members of this group believe that, whatever laudable aims the REF and its predecessor the RAE were intended to serve, they have repeatedly failed to take account of the diversity of forms taken by academic research in the modern university. The effects of the system have been highly demoralizing and divisive and have distorted academic priorities to such an extent that they ought no longer to be tolerated by members of the academy. The ‘rules of the game’ in these waves of assessment have frequently been either obscure or vacuous, and new elements (such as ‘impact’), added to the assessment criteria at short notice, have only made the bankruptcy of those criteria more obvious. It is time to call a halt to the REF with the 2013 exercise.

You can join the group at