Friday, March 25, 2011

On strike – or perhaps not?

I’ve been on strike for a couple of days this week, Monday and Thursday – or at least I think I have.

It’s my first time actually on strike as a lecturer, although when working at the University of Glasgow I participated in ‘action short of a strike’ by withholding marks. This was extremely unpopular with students, because the action took place towards the end of the academic year and we had people going for job interviews and not knowing their degree result. However, it was possible to hold the line by explaining that the marks would be released once the dispute was resolved.

So I thought actual strike action would be relatively straightforward. I had a lecture to give on Monday but nothing on Thursday. I informed the students and said I would be rescheduling the class at a later date. There were no complaints. I turned up on both Monday and Thursday mornings at my usual time and spent a couple of hours picketing my workplace, which involved amicable discussions with colleagues and some students. I was the only person in my School to do any picketing whatsoever, but was supported by someone from another Department – my building has two entrances so we took one each.

I had time on both days to reflect on the new categories into which I could place my colleagues:

1. Not a union member. My School includes Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering, so is not a hotbed of radicalism. Most people I spoke to were not union members and some were not even in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – much of the reason for the strike was about changes to USS conditions. Obviously I encouraged them to join.

2. Union member but not on strike. I had more sympathy for this than you might imagine. Of course it’s possible to reschedule an ordinary lecture, but I knew of two cases in my department where cancellations would have been more complex due to the involvement of outside speakers or visitors. I’m not sure what I would have done if, for example, the strike had taken place on the day of one of my field trips. OK, I do know, I would have cancelled, but it’s a more difficult issue than people might think.

3. Union member on strike but invisible. UCU guidance said: ‘tell your students that you will not be teaching them or providing them with any form of service on the 21st and 24th March’. I interpreted that as meaning it was perfectly OK to spend some of the day working on research-related items. One of my colleagues spoke at a conference and interpreted that as being within the remit of strike action. Some may have just stayed at home and not done any work, but this would have been rare. Contrary to popular belief, academics do work quite hard, and about 50 per cent of what we do doesn’t involve teaching or student-related administration.

4. Union member on strike and on the picket line, for a few hours at least. That was, er, me.

And that was how my bubble of self-righteousness was punctured, while chatting to a member of the UCU committee on the Thursday. I mentioned that I was rescheduling my Monday lecture and was told that shouldn’t be happening, rather I should leave out the lecture altogether. That wasn’t at all clear from our local UCU written guidance.

I’d had some time over the two days to think about what going on strike means for professionals. In my case, I have an obligation to my students. I’m prepared to miss work on particular days to make a point, but I’m not prepared to omit a key part of the module on a permanent basis.

When I took part in ‘action short of a strike’, we did eventually give the students their marks. For me, not rescheduling my lecture would be like permanently withholding the marks.

So now I’m confused. Was I on strike or wasn’t I?


Rab said...

Hi Jenny,
My own position on this is a that I cancelled classes and have no intention of rescheduling. But I have to confess this causes me a degree of pain, not just because of the inconvenience it causes students (when it's really the institution I want to hurt), but because the module I teach is mine and I take a lot of pride in it. As far I'm concerned it's only loaned to the university.

I want to take industrial action that hits the employers not the students. But what would that be? Are there aspects of the university bureaucracy and administration that we could withdraw form?

Jenny Muir said...

Hi Rab,

I must say that on reflection I'm annoyed that the local UCU guidance didn't make the position clear. I don't go to union meetings and no-one in my department was talking about it beforehand (although some have since) so I am reliant on written information. If I'd known, I wouldn't have gone out on a picket line and would have quietly rescheduled my class, or as a second best I might have tried to incorporate the same material into fewer lectures.

You are right that the position is unsatisfactory. I share your views about modules - and really like the idea that they are only on loan! We do so much admin and to boycott that would affect the uni administration more than action against students. And would make life so much more pleasant.

Rab said...

When I was on the picket line we leafleted students and staff. I was surprised by how many students were unaware of the action. I think the union has to be much more pro-active about explaining the issues to those who will be affected. There needs to be a concerted effort to get out and explain to students in particular what we are doing and why. Leaflet campus. Set up a stall in the mall and talk to people.

I know this isn't straight forward. This sort of action would need people to give up a few hours to actually do the work on the ground. And I know that the union already has only a few overstretched officials and precious little active members. But I made a decision on Monday that I am determined to be less 'moribund' and a bit more involved.

I've been arguing with colleagues, some of whom are not members of the union, that they need to get in the game. Whatever their opinion of unions (and some of my colleagues, I suspect, are not exactly cut from left-wing cloths) the UCU is the organisation that represents them/us as a professional body of people. There's is no point sitting about belly-aching about how dreadful their conditions of work are, or how their institutions and government seem to continuously take decisions that challenge and undermine their best efforts to be educators, if they are not prepared to try to do something about it. And the only effective way to do that is collectively and that means through the UCU.

I get the feeling that the strike was generally a success across the water, so maybe we need to look at ourselves locally.

My school report says 'Rab must try harder'. Two picket lines this week and a demonstration today. That's a good start. I hope I don't lose momentum.

Jenny Muir said...

Rab - I think the students' union also needs to be more imaginative. We have an attendance requirement for students, and staff who are not on strike will penalise students who don't attend lectures. However not all students have lectures on strike days and of course some lecturers are actually on strike, so there is potential for collaborative picketing and other protests. However, I can't say I'm prepared to follow you and give up time to this activity.

Also I think the thing union officials were keen to involve me in was casework in my School, and becoming a School union rep. I thought they were keener on that than on the kind of activity you are talking about. I suspect they are (quite rightly) trying to built up a stronger network which can represent members given the cuts that are coming. But I'm already involved in the Labour Party and a housing association, and along with trying to keep the blog going that's quite enough on top of a very full on job. I wouldn't be at all worried about my own position if I took on being a union rep, as everyone knows my views anyway, but I don't think I'd be able to do it very well.

Rab said...

The question of time is a huge one for me also. When I was younger I seemed to have all the time in the world and I can't help but feel that I squandered most of it. These days, between work and family (and the occasional blog post) there just isn't enough hours in the day or days in the week.

I've been on the UCU committee at my institution for a while now and contributed nothing - there's always a course committee meeting or research seminar to go to. But I have this creeping feeling that my priorities have been wrong. The world of worthy research seminars will struggle on without my regular attendance. I'm going to move heaven and earth to get to the demo on April 6.

I admire your commitment to Labour in Northern Ireland. I saw the banner at the demo today and was tempted to ask for an application form. I've spent years complaining about Labour (often with good reason) but I'm not sure that I can justify not joining in days like these. I could at least arguing my case within the party. I have the satisfaction of remaining ideologically uncompromised but utterly ineffective politically. I'm going to need to think about that a bit in the next few weeks.

Jenny Muir said...

Rab - I think between us we are the perfect job-share socialist! Glad you saw the banner, I was really pleased we got it there and lots of people took photos of it. But it should be possible to do both active party and union membership, it's just our crazy job that stops it! I suppose I take the view that it's better to do something than nothing, anyway.

But please do join the LP, promise we won't come chasing after you to try to get you to do more. Well we will actually, but you can say no.