Michael Mair – Tectonic Shifts: An Update on the UK University Strike

It does not matter where you look in Europe, neo-liberalism’s inexorable crusade of destruction through financialisation and marketisation continues. The only line of defence we have left is direct action. This is once again being demonstrated by the academics and staff at 60 UK universities. We are extremely proud that among them are a number of authors at BRAVE NEW EUROPE.

Dr Michael Mair is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool and works on politics, accountability and contemporary warfare and conflict.

The UK’s University Strike has entered its second week, with three more days of action to come before university staff return to work on Thursday. Those involved are not just lecturers and researchers but academic-related support staff performing a variety of roles in the UK’s universities, and they will be joined on the picket lines in several institutions by estates, cleaning and security staff who have also balloted for industrial action in recent months. That there will be further waves of action to come from all campus unions in the months ahead is further indication, if any was needed, that workers across the UK’s university sector will no longer accept the institutionalisation of exploitation in their workplaces. More and more staff are registering with unions every day the strike continues, many of whom have never been a member of a union or picketed before. Across the UK, these workers will be supported every day by thousands of students. Staff and students together have used strike days to march in support of striking workers in other sectors as well as the 29th November climate protest. In their relentless drive to divide, dominate and demoralise their staff and student bases as well as the communities they are located within, universities are finding they have achieved precisely the reverse; an increasingly large, well organised and united front has assembled against them. The tectonic plates are shifting.

While the effects of those tectonic shifts will be clearly on display on the picket lines this week, they were already becoming visible during the 2018 strike. Indeed, the way in which those strikes built up slowly from days to weeks of action, gave university staff time to plan, organise and extend their action. A movement was taking shape on the physical as well as digital picket line, an important parallel front in the industrial disputes of the 21st century. That mobilisation was helped immeasurably by the responses of the employers first time round. Rather than concede any ground, they sought to impose their will unilaterally and to threaten and intimidate staff who went out on strike. In their arrogance, as Hegel might have noted, they were unable to see the fragility of their own situation and at a loss to understand why staff would not just do as they were told. Pursuing a strategy of direct confrontation, the employers quickly found their authority and support ebbing away, their allies abandoning them: with editorials in the right-wing press as much as the left condemning them, and statements from Conservative Ministers telling them to come back to the negotiating table.

UUK and UCEA, the two employer bodies at the centre of the current dispute, have been much more strategic this time around, avoiding direct confrontation in favour of a disinformation campaign that has targeted students rather than staff – with statements circulating, for instance, which have suggested it is illegal for students to join staff on picket lines and notifying international students that they may jeopardise their visas and face deportation due to any absences they might accrue by refusing to attend scheduled sessions. Seeking to weaponise the Conservatives’ ‘hostile environment’ within UK universities has been a major miscalculation, generating widespread anger, protests and scornful press coverage. Dismayed by tactics such as these, the strike has gained support from the Labour party at all levels, from national leadership to the local constituency parties, as well other progressive parties in the UK. The Guardian and The Financial Times, as well as a host of local and regional newspapers, have published stories and editorials castigating university management and highlighting the unsustainability of employment practice in the sector. But it is the silences as much as the statements of support which are particularly telling. The Conservatives, for instance, have issued no official condemnations of the strikes and the right-wing press has largely refrained from editorialising and stuck to descriptive overviews. Universities are also significant players in local authority areas across the UK. Major employers, landowners and now developers, they have come to play an increasingly important local economic role due to the excess public funding they have gained since 2010, a period in which cash-strapped councils have had little choice but to rely on them for growth and investment. Surveying the media, however, it appears universities have no support at the local level either. The contrast with striking staff who gain more support nationally and internationally every day could not be more pronounced.

The universities may be resource rich but the weakness of their position has been exposed anew by the collective action being taken by their workforce and their students, two groups they continually contrive to misread and under-estimate. Participating in the picket lines the past week has again been a salutary experience, although in a different way to 2018. Where last year there was initially real concern among striking staff as to whether the action would be successful, and those on the pickets viewed their action as potentially a last stand against the marketisation of higher education in the UK, the atmosphere this time is one of quiet, determined confidence. And striking staff have good reason to be confident. The lively camaraderie of the picket lines aside, campuses are quiet, the strike having its intended effect. By Friday of last week UCU’s General Secretary wrote to members to confirm that UCEA had conceded that all the union’s demands would be included in negotiations from this point – a huge retreat – with the union’s Vice President, Vicky Blake, asking members to keep up the pressure in the coming week, a call echoed by members around the country in recognition of the effectiveness of the action. As Vicky put it:

“We spent ~2.5 hours with UCEA articulating all four grounds of dispute very fully, making clear how interconnected they are, and why it is so vital we turn this increasingly toxic sector (which *should* be so different, so open and inspiring to work within) around … *Right now* UCEA are consulting university leaders on what might be offered to solve the dispute. A written response is promised early next week. Hold the line! *GROW* the line: know that physical and digital/virtual picket lines *do* collectively strengthen our hand … [Our] picket lines … [are] a physical manifestation of … [senior mangers’] disconnection from us, the workers who keep the place going. There is no university without us.”

Two lines of analyses offered by striking colleagues in the last week cast powerful light on the dynamics of this conflict. The first, by Lee Jones, offers a penetrating structural analysis of the pathological political economy of higher education in the UK over the past decade and suggests reasons as to why we have finally arrived at breaking point. Put simply, the system is internally unsustainable and crisis-prone, working to undercut its own operations. Predicated on the radical de-professionalisation of staff, it is a system which nonetheless relies heavily on their professionalism – a professionalism it refuses to acknowledge or pay for and which it tries to devalue, marginalise and deny. Staff exhibit their professionalism every day by repairing that system so they can produce research and deliver education despite the countervailing and contradictory pressures they face in doing so. Perversely, to survive in this context, staff become more committed to the unpaid, devalued work they do under such conditions, recognising their efforts are critical to keeping universities going. The strange admixture of management induced fear and anxiety combined with the commitment of staff to research, teaching and learning despite that fear and anxiety has become a structure of sentiment critical to the functioning of the contemporary university.

No more; the spell has been broken. New ways of thinking, feeling and acting, to echo Emile Durkheim, are being forged collectively on the picket lines. In a Twitter thread earlier this week, Tyler Denmead, drawing on discussions with his striking colleagues and his students, offered a pedagogic and performative analysis to complement the likes of Lee Jones’ structural one. Entitled Pedagogy of the Picket Line, the thread was presented as a guide for students new to picketing but went beyond that. As Denmead put it:

“A picket line is a physical + symbolic space, as well as a pedagogic + performative space. Physically + symbolically, it marks a threshold … [and] makes visible the withdrawal of … labour … The picket line is also performative because it summons a collective who are envisioning an alternative to the marketised university … In this sense, the picket line is an opportunity … to experience a different way of being … at the university.”

In refusing to bend any further to the demands of university managers, university staff are learning new ways of collectively organising themselves to pursue alternative possibilities. As they are joined by more people this week, those people will learn that too. A central component of contemporary British universities mode of operation – the emotional control of staff – is collapsing; senior management just haven’t realised it yet. As this action continues, however slowly, they will. Change is already here.

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