What I wanted to say on the picket line

I spent four hours this morning at the entrances to Lancaster University, picketing for my union, UCU, who are involved in an ongoing industrial dispute centred around fair pay. I was joined by colleagues from across the University: members of UCU and the other main campus unions (UNITE and UNISON) but also by students from the Lancaster University Anti-Capitalist group, who brought radical slogans and music.

Spirits are usually high at the picket line – we feel like we are doing something to bring about positive change, we are standing up for our rights and supporting each other. And today was no different: many people stopped at the picket line while driving, riding or walking past, took a leaflet and perhaps exchanged a few words with us. But others drove straight past, stern-faced and with windows (and minds) firmly closed.

There is almost never enough time to fully explain why we’re striking, which is one reason we have our leaflets. But more than once today I wished I had been able to say my piece, to express my thoughts in full to some of the people passing. I’m not talking about the strike in general, which is more than adequately explained on the UCU website (see http://fairpay.web.ucu.org.uk). I’m talking about some specific things I would have liked to say to some of the individuals who passed me.

To the student who, when I said we were striking for fair pay, answered “well I pay £9000 and I’m not getting my lectures”:

You’re right. You pay a lot for your education. I protested against the introduction of tuition fees, as did my union. I am deeply opposed to the ideologically loaded fees policy, which reduces opportunities for the least advantaged, increases inequality, and will cost much more in the long run than not charging any fees at all. But given that you will pay these fees (one day, once you earn enough), where would you like to see the money invested? In prestige projects that make the campus look pretty, but are often designed by architects who have no idea about what university teaching actually involves? In Vice-Chancellors’ salary increases (more than 5% up on average just in the past year)? Into maintaining what is arguably an excessive surplus (currently £1bn or more in the sector)? Or in the dedicated, highly qualified staff who make your education possible, and who determine its quality? I think the students who stood side-by-side with us today expressed it better than I can: “Support the staff who support you”.

To the many colleagues who passed by who are not members of a union:

I’m here for you too, not just my fellow union members. But are you happy to accept any gains we might win? Or will you turn down a salary increase that might arise from our industrial action? Do you enjoy the rights and benefits that have been brought about or enhanced through past industrial action, such as weekends, regulated working hours, holidays, pensions, appeals processes, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination rules, workplace safety rules, rights of redress… I could go on. All I can ask is that you consider joining (or re-joining) the union – for teaching or research staff (including postgraduates who teach) this can easily be done here: https://join.ucu.org.uk.

To the colleagues who are members of a union, but still crossed the picket line:

You are harming our cause. The point of industrial action is that all members of the union act together, with the only tool that we can (lawfully) use to compel our employers to listen to us: withdrawal of labour. If you come into work, work from home, or rearrange classes for another day, you may as well wear a big sign saying “feel free to walk all over me”. You may disagree with this particular action, or think that you earn enough already and so have no need to take part. But unless the union supports its weakest members, including those who are not as fortunate as you, it is not a union. The union is a representative democracy, and like many such institutions, it can never be perfect for everyone. And when you are more personally affected, how would you feel if your colleagues turned their backs on you? If you are targeted unfairly as an individual, will you ask the union for casework support? Finally, even if you are not concerned about pay, this should not stop you from taking part in the action: I’m not striking because I want more money, I’m striking because I am disgusted with the inequality in the sector, with VCs often earning more than 20 times what the lowest paid earn, and because I am deeply concerned by the ongoing marketisation and commercialisation of education.

To the lorry driver who cancelled his delivery to the university and turned around because he did not want to cross our picket line:

Thank you. The world needs more people like you.

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12 comments
  1. Veronika Koller said:

    I may have weekends, regulated working hours and holidays in theory, but my workload is such that I cannot use them the way I would like to if I want to succeed in my career. In that situation, any pay rise can feel like an increase in damages, not salary. Is the union even interested in discussing this or would they rather revel in 1980s-style strike action over pay? And what I would have liked to say to the picketers: I do not like to be shouted at through a megaphone. I cringe at your simplistic slogans. I do not think this form of industrial action is suitable for knowledge workers.

    • I think Veronika has raised some points worth answering here, so I will try to respond to them. To me, it’s not a question of discussing workload and overwork *or* industrial action. UCU has had a long-running campaign to try to address workload issues in HE. See http://www.ucu.org.uk/workload for further details. But without united action across the sector it is difficult to achieve anything. As has been shown by the union’s past successes after employers have unilaterally withdrawn from negotiations, industrial action is sometimes the only way to get the employers to listen.

      The comparison to the 1980s seems apt – except this time, instead of the manufacturing sector, the Conservative-led government has the public sector, including education at all levels, in its sights. Higher education has thus far been largely successful in resisting privatisation (compared to healthcare and other levels of education, anyway), but if we continue on the current trajectory it is only a matter of time before universities are run for the profit of the few, with little regard for the education of the many.

      But apart from this, I see little basis for comparing our friendly, convivial picket line with the sometimes violent events of the 1980s. Picketing has become rather toothless due to successive governments’ criminalisation of various forms of protest. As for megaphones and slogans, you’ll have to take this up with the Lancaster University Anti-Capitalists, a student group that come out to support us. They are perfectly capable of responding for themselves, and I wouldn’t want to put words into their mouths. But I was heartened by their presence, as a sign that not all students are apathetic or put the inconvenience of missing a class here or there ahead of the considerable threat to the quality of education we face if pay inequality is not addressed. I am delighted that people noticed the picket line, thanks in part to the student presence and their decision to speak their minds through a megaphone. Otherwise, what would be the point of protesting?

      Finally, I would add that this was a picket by all the main campus unions, including those representing our lowest-paid colleagues, not only “knowledge workers”. But I’d also be interested to know what other forms of protest are more suitable for “knowledge workers”, and whether they have brought about any success in achieving our goals…

    • Xanthe said:

      Veronika, you sound somewhat overwhelmed by your work. I admire your work ethic and tenacity, though it seems unfair that you feel obliged to work so hard to avoid failure in your career. I wonder if you think of the precedent this sets for other people? In such a competitive role it seems that the only way to regain your holidays would be for everyone in your position to refuse to be put under so much pressure and stop taking on an excessive workload.

      As a student am neither striking nor picketing on my own behalf. In fact, I think many of the picketers are there on behalf of somebody else. Many seem to be concerned over the large difference between top-level salaries and the lower-level salaries, as opposed to their own middling salaries.

      Although the strikes seem to be mainly focused on wages, I think that the dissatisfaction stems from a whole range of causes. Personally I dislike the way that universities have become so business orientated and only value what they can measure and objectify. I sympathise with academic staff who are under pressure to produce a certain amount of published research of a high enough grade every year. I don’t think this is conducive to the best research, and suspect it hinders that which is potentially the most innovative and of the greatest value. I’m also concerned about the high tuition fees that students are paying now. I believe that some of the best students will be put off going to university as it has become an institution for the rich rather than the intelligent. As a third year student who recently received a C+ in an essay that merited a fail, I have little faith in the quality of work produced by other undergrads and suspect we are all paying for a piece of paper stating that we have had an education, rather than for the education itself. Though the standard of teaching at Lancaster is high, standards expected of students are not. This devalues a degree.

      I’m sure I’ve already ranted enough about my views on universities to bore you, so I’ll say no more on that topic and will respond to your last couple of points.

      With regards to shouting through a megaphone: If this disturbed you, it worked. The point is not to brighten your day but to draw attention to ourselves and our beliefs.

      Apologies for the crudeness of some of the slogans. I agree that some of what was chanted should have been left unsaid – I don’t want to see Tories under a guillotine, for example. On the other hand, I will never apologise for things being simple. Simple is democratic. If you don’t think that our slogans are worthy to support the undeniable wisdom, intelligence and knowledge of the staff whom we support, then do feel free to suggest more suitable slogans for us. Nothing too cryptic though please – the great thing about university is that everybody’s knowledge is different. Besides, knowledge is not intelligence, so lets not get too complex or some of us undergrads might not know what you’re on about.

  2. Joe O'Neill said:

    I’d just like to add that alongside the (as always) enthusiastic support from LUAC, it is also worth noting Lancaster University Students’ Union has done an awful lot of work on the issues raised by the strike and for the first time in years is standing by colleagues across our university community. Not to be too self-congratulatory but sometimes I fear we don’t get the credit we deserve when, in standing by all of our campus unions, we arguably receive some of the fiercest and most personal criticism. I most certainly have had my fair share!

    That said, it is a good blog post, enjoyable read and details the issues very eloquently. And here’s the lorry driver who wouldn’t cross the picket!

    • LUSU may well deserve more credit that it gets, however I would like to ask where was the students union at the picket line? Where were the elected representatives? Where were the LUSU banners?

      LUSU won’t get the credit it deserves unless it is visible.

      • Joe O'Neill said:

        The Students’ Union has provided time, money and resources – indeed the first picket all of the home-made placards were made using space and resources provided by the Union (I would know being as I personally paid and rushed round B&Q last minute to get the sticks & card to make them and was in work until around 11pm the night before ensuring they were all made and ready for the next day…) and then there’s the big banner we made and had out at the second picket. There’s also the statements I wrote being shared nationally by UCU and also the local one I wrote for academics striking to send to their students explaining why they’d taken the difficult decision they had. There’s also all of the lobbying we have done on UMAG (University Management Advisory Group which is one of the highest [though admittedly theoretically with no actual power but in reality is a different story] committees in the university consisting of the Vice Chancellor, the Union President and others) on the strike action and continuing to support it. Then there’s all of the debates we’re having in our committee structures to ensure we keep making sure students are aware of all the issues and not just receiving the management line.

        In short, standing on a picket every now and again when there is a strike is brilliant and I commend anyone who does so (I only couldn’t make the third picket due to other commitments but as a Unison member I didn’t cross it and neither did any of the Full Time Officers), there is a lot more to action that we are actively contributing to. If anything, seen as I’ve had my article shared by UCU nationally, I’d say this is the most visible work the Students’ Union has been for many, many years – something colleagues in LUAC have commented on quite a few times.

    • Xanthe said:

      Though I’m sure many of us do appreciate the work that you’ve put in, we’re not here to congratulate each other / ourselves but to make a point and try to change something. If you’re expecting acknowledgments and doing it for other people then you’re a part of this for the wrong reason. We’re all in it together. Just enjoy it, be glad to be part of a change for the better, and let that be enough without asking for thanks. And ignore Jack – as if he’s been at every picket line 😛

      Though I do think that staff do themselves a disservice in thinking that the only students there are LUAC. If that’s the case then it’s because LUAC are very good at recruiting through the picket line!

  3. Anon said:

    I’d just like to say, as one of the people who drove past but stopped to chat and take a leaflet, that it’s actually possible to be on strike but also have to cross a picket line – there are essential services on campus, it’s a place of residence as well as of employment, students will have been returning to their campus flats from town, people will have been going to the GP surgery, and I personally was taking my son to nursery which is behind the picket line – though I did withdraw my labour for the day.

    So some of those crossing the line will not have been breaking the strike – students not attending classes, and staff using services on campus – and were perhaps a little unsure about how to make this plain to the pickets.

    • Xanthe said:

      I’m being a bit flippant here, but a suggestion of how to signal to those on the picket line that you’re striking too: join them. Especially if you’re on campus anyway.

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